A friend of mine recently got a tattoo with his brother. Their tattos, translated, read “I am my brother’s keeper.” That shared experience made it clear to me that they were close and loved each other. They have each other’s backs (literally and figuratively). As adults, life events may remind us of the necessity of familial relationships and the support we can get from siblings. Parents can work toward assuring their children develop positive, lasting relationships with each other.
Particularly in early childhood, children spend more time with their siblings than others. The skills they develop can be predictive of the quality of their relationships later in life. Unfortunately, sibling rivalry can threaten the development of healthy sibling relationships. In fact, how such rivalries are handled are actually more important than the conflict.
Siblings may fight because their identities and needs are evolving, their temperaments or personalities may clash, one may have special needs or an illness and may receive more attention from the parents or parents may be poor role models for handling conflict. Research has also highlighted invasions of personal and emotional space, as well as perceived inequality as major reasons for sibling conflict. Changes in parent-child relationships have also been associated with changes in sibling relationships. The family unit is like a pond; it is still and calm until something causes a ripple. The ripple spreads, affecting the rest of the family.
“If parents think it’s important for people to remain calm during an argument, to talk things out, and try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view, they should behave that way with each other and with other adults. Their kids are watching and learning from those interactions” – Laurie Kramer
If siblings are able to learn how to resolve their arguments, they will be better prepared for some of the interpersonal challenges adults have to face. They will learn how to value another person’s perspective, how to compromise and negotiate, and how to control aggressive impulses.
Encouraging positive interactions between your children is probably more important than putting out their fires. “Helping your children acquire these skills does take time and energy, but they soon become part of family life,” says researcher Laurie Kramer who works with siblings to improve their relationships.
Supporting positive change in your family includes:
- Helping your children learn to see things from their sibling’s perspective and to respect other people’s points of view.
- Teaching them to identify and manage their emotions and behaviors when they’re in challenging and frustrating situations.
- Teaching your kids not to assume the worst about their sibling’s or anyone else’s intentions.
- Showing them that conflict is a problem that can be solved and teach them how to do it.
- Trying to meet each child’s unique needs without showing favoritism.
- Teaching them to use their unique knowledge of each other to strengthen their bond rather than taking advantage of each other’s weaknesses.
- Promoting play, conversation, mutual interests, and fun.
- Praising your kids when they help, support, and cooperate with each other.
When your children begin engaging in conflict, Kramer suggests, “Make sure both siblings understand what the fight is about, have them practice telling their own viewpoint and taking the other person’s perspective, then help them to brainstorm different ways of solving the problem that have a win-win solution. If the solution doesn’t work, well, you try again.” After these skills have been learnt, stay out of their conflicts, unless of course there is danger of physical harm. Allow the children to resolve it. Remember also, do not try to figure out who was right. It takes two to fight. Initially separating the children until they calm down may be necessary and more effective as anger and frustration limits our ability to negotiate.
Fostering healthy sibling relationships in our children will take some work on our part. However, isn’t it better that they become each other’s keeper?