Parents can do a lot to foster healthy relationships among their children, but knowing when to step back is key, too.
How parents can encourage sibling harmony
"She's got more ice cream than me!" wails one. "He just kicked me under the table!" screams the other. And so another family mealtime is ruined by bickering.
Although 'tis the season to be jolly, Christmas is a prime time for sibling rivalry. Before the turkey has even finished roasting, the children will have carefully eyed up all the presents, making sure they've been treated equally. "I wanted an iPod. How come she got one and I didn't?" asks the child with a brand new Xbox. Sometimes, it seems like it doesn't matter how hard you try as a parent, the children continue to squabble and use each other as ammunition. Although it is certainly unpleasant, your family isn't alone.
"It is quite normal for individuals who spend a lot of time together to argue from time to time," says Therese Sequeira, parent educator at kidsFIRST Medical Centre in Dubai. "Once children start asserting themselves, sibling rivalry usually commences. This can be as early as 18 months and can continue through to adulthood."
There are many things, other than festivities, that play a part in sparking conflict. "Sibling fights occur more frequently when change happens," explains Sequeira. A new baby, a disruption to routine, a house move, or a new parent figure could all trigger in-family fighting. While the bickering might be tedious and tiring, it helps if you can recognise the cause of it. Under the surface, sibling squabbles are often about power, competition, attention, jealousy, uncertainty and stress, according to Sequeira. So that tussle over the remote control might not be about the programme your teenage son is desperate to watch, but the fact that he wants to assert some power over his younger sister.
Although you might not be able to pinpoint the root of the problem every time, there is plenty you can do to help your children foster a positive relationship with each other in the first place. Indeed, teaching them to bond is one of the most important - albeit difficult - jobs of being a parent. "Parents who expect siblings to get along most of the time need to be prepared to teach their children appropriate skills so that they become friends, have shared interests and can problem-solve their disagreements," says Sequeira. Sounds tricky? Here's how to do it in five practical steps.
First, set some ground rules for acceptable behaviour. Your children need to know that you won't stand for bad language, name-calling, shouting or door-slamming. Ask them what they think the rules should be, as well as suitable consequences for breaking them. This teaches children that they're responsible for their own actions, regardless of the situation, and discourages any attempts to negotiate regarding who was "right" or "wrong". Without ground rules, children will behave as lawlessly as they're allowed to.
Secondly, try to create situations where your children will find it easy to get along.
"The strongest sibling relationships are associated with siblings who spend meaningful time together in the company of one or both parents," says Susan McHale, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park in Pennsylvania. "It may well be that parents are there to help orchestrate a positive experience and to help kids find common ground." Put simply, you just need to have fun together as a family and this can involve something as simple as a game of Snakes and Ladders or a trip to see Arthur Christmas. By creating "happy family" occasions you are establishing a peaceful way for your children to spend time together and relate to each other. Since parental attention is something many kids fight over, family activities can help reduce conflict. When everything is going well, enjoy the moment and let your children know you're enjoying it, too. "Praise children when they are interacting appropriately," says Sequeira. It will encourage them to replicate this behaviour in the future.
Thirdly, while your involvement is key to helping your children get along, there are also times when you should step back and let your children nurture each other. We tend to think of a family as a triangle, with the parents at the top, managing all the children below, says Janis Keyser, co-author of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Instead, it's more helpful to visualise a circle where all family members have something to contribute. "I call it working myself out of a job," says Keyser. "As a parent, as much as I love nurturing my kids, I try to step aside so they can nurture one another. That allows them to have a kind of give-and-take so they can develop a close relationship for life." So, when a younger sibling falls over and hurts herself, ask her big sister if she can give her a cuddle and make her feel better. It will be good for both of them.
And fourth, take a step back when your children are arguing. If someone is telling tales, explain that you do not want to listen. This will encourage your children to find their own solutions to their disagreements. If you always intervene, you risk creating other problems. The children may start expecting your help and wait for you to come to the rescue rather than learning to work out the problems on their own. Only get involved if there's a danger of physical harm.
Finally, try to remember that your children are all individuals and should be treated as such. Make the effort to give your children one-to-one attention that suits their interests and needs. For example, if one child is competitive, take up his challenge on the Wii. If another child likes to sit and read, make time for that too. When possible, ensure children have their own space and time to do their own thing. In a bid to be fair, it's often tempting to tell your children that you love them equally, but the truth is, children don't want to hear that you love them all the same. Again, it's about remembering that they are individuals.
"They want to know you love them uniquely, not equally," says Adele Faber, co-author of the book Siblings Without Rivalry.
It might not be easy, but if you can teach your children to get along as individuals, you're laying the groundwork for a good sibling relationship, both now and in the future.