Difficulties between siblings can be really stressful and challenging, for everyone involved. Everyone knows siblings often struggle to get along, but sometimes I think we are still rather taken aback by it. It helps me to keep in mind that it is inevitable. No matter how much teaching you do, no matter how loved they feel, no matter how much they love each other… they’re going to have conflict. And it’s probably not gonna be pretty, either.
Living in close quarters with other humans can be difficult at any age and under any circumstances, but even more so when your “upstairs brain” has a lot of development left; you have minimal, if any, relationship skills; very little life experience; and you feel threatened by the other person’s very existence on an instinctive level. (I mean really… it makes sense. Parents having split attention does lessen their chances of survival.) Accepting this as a normal (though difficult) part of life can help reduce some of the stress around it. But we still need to do something about it, right?
First, here are some more perspective shifts that may be helpful:
- Instead of viewing siblings struggles primarily as bad thing, we can view sibling clashes primarily as an opportunity to teach important relationship skills, emotional regulation, and how to repair a relationship.
- We can let go of the goal of having our children be best friends, or even really friends at all. Forced friendships simply… don’t work. And some personality combinations will simply not be conducive to close relationships, no matter how hard you try. If they do end up being best friends, or even good friends–that’s wonderful, too. But it isn’t my aim as I navigate having two children. It’s too much pressure on all of us! I try to remember to only have goals that *I* have control over.
So, to recap:
1. Expect sibling clashes
2. View them as an opportunity to teach relationship skills
3. Don’t try to force a friendship
Now… let’s get practical. What does this look like day to day?
(Just so you know where I’m coming from, my sons are 3.5 and 1.5, so my experience with this as a mother is limited. I do also have 7 younger siblings, and I have experience in this department (both in causing problems and helping solve them lol) from that.)
First, while it is to be expected and even (almost) welcomed, there are some things you can do to lessen the occurrences, and I think that is wise for everyone.
Some ideas for this are:
- Having one on one time with them whenever possible and making sure to affirm your special love for each child just because of them being them. I often say things like, “You’re my favorite Mr. 3.5, and you’re my favorite Mr. 1.5!” and, “I have lots and lots of love for you, AND lots and lots of love for your brother. I have plenty of love for everyone!” Keep comparisons–positive or negative–to a minimum. (try not to do it at all)
- Having a daily rhythm so they know what to expect and stay busy. Usually the worst struggles happen during long periods of free time. It is especially helpful if you can manage to get some time during the day where they are all separated (maybe reading, listening to an audio drama/book, writing, making art, etc).
- Keeping an eye out for patterns–fighting more when tired or hungry, for instance–and do your best to either be close for rough times, or meet the needs sooner if possible.
- With little ones, constantly staying close to physically stop them from hurting each other is ideal. (though terribly impractical, I know. I don’t always manage it either, but I do spend a great deal of the day near both of them, and try to take one with me when I leave their room. I do most of the housework when they’re asleep or my husband is there. And he helps out with housework as well.)
Now, what to do when it does happen (and we know it will)?
First, prevent or stop any physical harm. If possible/needed, separate the children involved. (with two littles, I often separate them by hugging one on either side of me. For older children, some time in their rooms to calm down might help, as long as you are able to do it in a calm, loving way.)
Attend to the hurt child first. Especially if your children are very young, like in the case of a baby and toddler, it can be very difficult to restrain your impulse to “fight” the one who hurt your baby. Except that it’s your other child, and that will only make things worse–because they will feel even more threatened and will be more likely to act out. The best thing to do is direct your attention to the child who is hurt, since you will be feeling protective of them. That will give you a little time to hopefully be able to calm a bit before you address the other child. (Really hard sometimes, I know, and I definitely am NOT perfect with this.)
Then, calm yourself so you can help them calm. I sometimes talk through it aloud, as calmly as I can and without shaming. “Wow, I didn’t like that. I’m feeling pretty upset. I’m going to take some deep breaths to calm down.” You can invite them to join you if you think they might be receptive. Once everyone is calm, then and only then will they be ready to learn.
Now it’s time to do some correction and teaching. How exactly you go about this will vary depending on ages and circumstances. I try to focus on:
- The consequence of their action–the other person is hurt. They may not want to play anymore. Etc. (now some children will say they don’t care. Don’t argue. Just nod and say something like, “yeah, sometimes when you’re upset, it feels like you don’t care. I still need to keep everyone safe.”) If you can tell that they are just not going to be able to be gentle at that point, for whatever reason, it is wise to take them with you when you leave the room or have them go in their room for quiet time, or whatever else you need to do to prevent repeated blow ups. This isn’t a punishment; it’s to keep everyone safe. And that’s how you can explain it. “Hey, it seems like you’re having a hard time being gentle right now, so I’m gonna take you with me.” (with a smile and a friendly/playful squeeze if they’re receptive)
- How can we make this right? I try to ask them what they can do to help the other one feel better. If they’re stumped, I will give some suggestions. “Maybe they need a drink. Or the cold turtle (our little ice pack for bumps). Maybe they need a hug or a gentle pat. Maybe they need to hear that you’re sorry and will try not to do it again. Maybe you can get their special animal.” I also will sometimes coach them to ask, “how can I help?” If they aren’t ready to repair, I’ll say, “looks like you need some time. Come sit with me a minute while you finish calming down.” Then we deal with it. Or, honestly, sometimes… it’s just not worth it, and I leave it. I’m learning that you don’t have to respond ideally 100% of the time in order for them to learn. It’s really okay. We’re all imperfect here. Not apologizing a handful of times when they were two isn’t going to turn them into a monster. 😛
- How can we do better next time? Sometimes this question is wholly on me. Sometimes *I* was the problem–I left two very young, overtired, hungry children together in a small space with toys they often fight over. Um…. yeah. Oops. Better be more careful next time. Often I include them, though. Sometimes I wait until another time to talk about it–while the younger one naps I sometimes will use play or just chatting while we snuggle to work through how we can handle things next time. We also talk about it in the moment. “It’s not okay to hurt your brother. What can you do next time?” If he’s stumped I’ll offer some ideas. “You could take some deep breaths. You could stop your hands by clapping them together. You could call, “mommy help!!” You could ask him for it and hold your hand out.” Then we will practice if the mood is right.
If no one is hurt, but there is a dispute brewing, here are some things that I try.
- Let’s try that again. If it’s a mild dispute and no one is hurt, I’ll sometimes just say, “hey, let’s try that again. Give it back to him and this time please ask first.”
- How can we solve this problem? I also will sometimes just describe the struggle and invite them to problem solve. “Wow, you both really want that toy! I wonder how we can solve this problem?” I also like to say, “We can solve this problem without hurting anyone.” And, “It’s okay to be upset. It’s not okay to hurt people.”
- Playful Parenting. This will depend on your personality and your style, as well as your children. But anytime you can bring a spirit of playfulness in, go for it.
With older children/teens, I think it’s good to not get involved unless it is really escalating. Try to give them space to practice, even if it’s rough. If they drag you into it, try saying something like, “I’m here if you get stuck. I think you guys can figure this out.” (I tried this once with my teen brothers and they figured out a screen use conflict in like fifteen seconds with a coin toss, lol. I wouldn’t have thought of that!)
Phew. That’s a lot huh? I just want to say that I don’t do all of this every time. I don’t think it’s possible, really. Sometimes we’re just plain tired. Sometimes there’s just too much going on. So, in those cases, I try to just stick with the basics. Stop the harm. Connect with both children the best I’m able. Briefly state the boundary. “It’s okay to be upset. It’s not okay to hurt people. I’m here to help you.” Also, the more you do this, the more natural and quick it becomes. Practice makes progress. 🙂
Here are some further resources on this subject. The first two are books I’ve found helpful, and the third is a link to all the articles on Connected Families about siblings. I really love their biblically based, gentle wisdom.