The only thing harder than parenting a child is parenting more than one at the same time. But raising siblings gets easier if we avoid a few common mistakes that most parents make.
1. We think that we’re supposed to fix the problem. Most parents feel pressure to figure out who is right and who is wrong, so we can fix the problem. But our job isn’t to solve the problem; it’s to coach our kids so THEY can solve their problem. That’s how they learn the skills to work things out with each other, and with other people. Isn’t that liberating?
Effective sibling coaching means stating the problem without blaming either child, helping the kids with their feelings by empathizing and listening to each child, and coaching kids to voice their needs without attacking each other. Once you’ve done this, your children will feel better and will be able, with your support, to compromise on a solution that works for both of them.
2. We take sides. When you side with one child against the other – even when you’re 100% certain that child is in the right – you create more sibling rivalry. That’s because even if they can’t articulate it, both children interpret your action as you symbolically taking your love from one child and giving it to the other.
Instead, describe the problem you see, without blame or judgment:
“I hear loud voices … sounds like maybe you two have a problem?”
“Is everyone having fun with this game? I see Kevin crying.”
3. We forget that we’re the role model. Naturally you get upset when your children are fighting. But when we yell, we’re training our children to yell. So before you intervene with your kids, take a breath to calm yourself first. It also helps to say a little mantra to shift your perspective, like “It’s not an emergency.”
4. We don’t allow feelings. When your son says “I hate her! Why did you ever have to get a baby?!” it can feel scary. But if you shut down his expression of those emotions, he doesn’t stop feeling them. He just stops expressing them. He might even stop admitting he has them, even to himself, which means he shuts the feelings out of his conscious awareness. But the emotions are still there, beyond conscious control, causing him to tease or pinch the baby, or to be obstinate with us. It’s far better to empathize: “It’s hard sometimes, having a baby in the house. I guess it makes you very angry sometimes to have to share me, and to have to be quiet so she can sleep, and to have to wait your turn. … It can be very hard, can’t it? You can always tell me when it’s hard, and I will always understand, and help you.”
5. We don’t set limits on behavior. Acknowledging our children’s feelings doesn’t mean that we allow all behavior. Every family needs rules about treating each other with kindness. It’s the parent’s job to step in physically when children are fighting, and to intervene to stop teasing or mean words, which can cause emotional damage: “Jasmine, the rule is no name calling. You can tell your brother you’re mad without hurtful language.”
6. We force siblings to apologize to each other before they’re ready. Research shows that apologies given before the apologizer has gotten past his anger don’t help the relationship, because they aren’t perceived as sincere by the receiver and they’re resented by the giver. Instead, set an expectation that in your house, when something hurtful has been said or done, the participants “repair” the damage they’ve done to that relationship, once they’ve both calmed down and feel better. This might mean an apology, a hug, drawing a picture, helping rebuild the train track that was wrecked, or running to get a cold washcloth for a sibling’s owie. Kids won’t resist this if you help them work through their angry feelings before they’re expected to “make up” with their sibling.
7. We punish instead of empowering kids to repair. Punishing a child who has wronged her sibling won’t make her want to act better next time; it will just harden her heart and make her more resentful. Instead, help the child with the emotions that drove the bad behavior, and insist that he find a way to “repair” the relationship.
8. We expect children to know how to work things out with each other – without our teaching them! Children aren’t born knowing how to express their needs without attacking the other person, or find a win/win solution that works for both people. So if we want them to stop fighting and use their words constructively, we have to teach them.
Most parents make these mistakes, just because they’ve never thought about how children actually learn. But if you can retrain yourself, you’ll see your kids fighting less and enjoying each other more. You’ll be on the way to raising children who will be friends for life.
Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. You can find her online at ahaparenting.com.