Siblings Who Don't Get Along - Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Do you have any suggestions to help my younger two children get along better?

They are 3 and 5 years old. I may be misremembering, but it seems my older two, 14 and 12 ½ years-old, not only get along fine now, but I don’t remember this much friction when they were younger. In fact they are so calm I worry they don’t get enough exercise. I have signed everyone up for sports hoping it will make the younger ones more settled when they are at home. Hoping it helps them sleep better, too! By the way, I have no siblings myself, no frame of reference for how siblings should get along in the first place, which may be compounding my difficulties.

Frazzled Mom

Don't miss last week's column What to Expect When Parents Separate — Good Parenting

Dear Frazzled Mom,

It’s nice when siblings get along, but there’s always a chance that they won’t. The chemistry between the first pair seems to work well. Your younger two – whether they were related or not - might not choose each other as friends. It happens.

Also, your first two may simply have calmer temperaments than your younger two, considering your observation that they prefer passive activities. And consider that family life for preschoolers in a household of four children is a tad more stressful than for preschoolers in a family with just two children. On top of this, stress makes sleep more challenging, and inadequate sleep makes it harder to deal with stress.

Civility
Your first time around with two young children may indeed have been less fraught with friction. Maybe you didn’t struggle, as many parents of preschoolers do, with helping them to share space, objects, and your attention. Maybe each provided just the right support for the other’s play at this age that you were rarely called in to intervene.

With your second pair, you may need to spend time showing them how to behave civilly with one another. Since you didn’t have any siblings, think of a long standing friendship that taught you how to behave if you wanted the friendship to continue. A big part of this is conflict resolution. Have routine solutions for your little ones for common conflicts, such as, “You need to ask before you can take something someone else is using.” Children at this age are still ego-centric, so they wouldn’t think of solutions that benefit anyone but themselves. So suggest they: divide materials in half, set a timer for two-minute turns back and forth, get something that the sibling would like better so it can be traded for the coveted object, etc. Then stick close by to assure the strategy proves successful. When children see that the adult expects them to settle their conflicts, and can provide strategies for them to do so, they get the idea that getting along is a viable option.

Individuality
Then, too, your older children’s natural dispositions – calm and contented - may have had them happy to play separately, staying out of each other’s way. Your younger two may be more similar in their interests. They may disagree because they have opposing ideas about how to proceed when they are together. They may both be “leader” types, eager to draw the other into their wonderful plan.
No matter how much they are alike or dissimilar, try to nurture the individuality of your younger two. Each should have interests, activities, and friendships to call their own. A child who loves to dress up and act out roles can direct this dramatic flare into children’s theater. A child who has so much physical energy that conflicts give rise to physical clashes may shine in hard-playing athletics. Individuality can be expressed through: visual arts, adventures in nature, adventures in cooking, or belting out show tunes. If you coordinate with other parents for playdates and transportation, you won’t find yourself trying to support and shuttle children in different directions all the time. Think about activities that can be done by one child, perhaps with a friend, in one area of the house or yard, undisturbed by any siblings.
Individual attention from Mom is also important for minimizing the antagonism between siblings. Carve out regular time or a regular chore for you and each child so as to uncover who this unique person is.

Physicality
Between a calm temperament (which your older two may have) and a “feisty” temperament (which your younger two may have), you can’t go wrong with physical exercise. The serene child may never have reason to get off the couch. The spirited child may need help to channel energy in a positive direction. Exercise gets the blood pumping to bring oxygen to the brain and the whole body. The immune system is boosted. Exercise supports bone growth.
Not too long ago, movement was built into childhood through daily outdoor play and the exertion needed for chores. More children walked to and from school and most places they needed to go. Over time, sports and exercise programs have become popular for children of all ages – even exercise classes for babies! By all means, if your children are not getting adequate exercise, a regular commitment to a class or team may be in order. If this only adds stress, consider less formal options such as kicking a ball around the yard, taking walks in the neighborhood or nearby nature trail, or pushing back furniture for some family dancing. Make moving as important as brushing your teeth and reading every day.
A benefit of exercise particularly for your younger children will be the release of hormones to help make them calmer (and more agreeable). Exercise also helps to bring on restorative sleep.

And who isn’t more agreeable after a good night’s sleep?

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Debbie Wood is offering a series of parenting seminars, July 11, 17,18, and 19, 6:30-8:30 pm at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis. Register at www.theccm.org or call 410-990-1993.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.