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Sibling Civility—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My two children have never gotten along. I have seen friends’ children treat each other decently, even seeming to enjoy each other’s company! What are some ways to reduce hostilities between an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old?

Constant Referee

Dear C.R.,

Here’s a four-pronged approach.

Individual Attention
Animosity between siblings may be rooted in their being in each other’s way. Specifically, each is in the way of the other’s getting your loving attention. Find time every day for one-on-one conversation with each child. This is a time to learn about interests and concerns. Reserve at least fifteen minutes at bedtime for some heart-to-heart talk if you haven’t had a chance earlier in the day. You say so much about your unconditional positive regard for a child just by earnestly listening.

When you wish to shower one child with admiration, do so privately. The same goes for criticism and guidance. Overhearing a parent’s positive or negative judgement about one’s sibling can lead to retaliation (to bring her down a notch) or teasing about her shortcomings (after the parent has left the room).

Separate Spaces
Siblings don’t have a choice about sharing living quarters. Too much togetherness can be stifling. Define individual spaces in your home into which one child can retreat such as a bedroom or a book nook. If one child is occupying a “common” space, such as the couch, establish a policy of asking permission before sharing that space. Private property should likewise be kept in well-defined individually claimed spaces, such as a dresser drawer or an under-the-bed container. By the same token, locate “family” toys, books, homework and craft supplies, etc. in accessible places to indicate that they are meant to be shared.

Model Your Manners
The adults in the house set a tone for courtesy and fairness among family members and people in general. Beyond the essential Please’s and Thank You’s, show consideration for other family members, even when they aren’t home. For example, save a portion of the snack you just whipped up with one sibling for the sibling who isn’t home yet. Remind one child to wait until the other is home before starting a movie the sibling had wanted to watch.
Instead of harping on how the world has mistreated you, model appreciation for the thoughtfulness of others. Point out kindnesses you have received (from outside the family) so your children understand the many ways that one person can make another’s day brighter. Furthermore, tell your children how an act of thoughtfulness that you happened to perform in the course of your day delighted its recipient. Being nice is actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it. And it feels good, too.

Coaching Through and Preventing Conflict
You encourage a standard of universal respect when you spend time helping your children learn to resolve the inevitable conflicts between them. Help them put the conflict into words (and hear each other’s words), consider compromises and compensations, and follow through with agreements. If one child accuses the other of hogging the bathroom, and the one in the tub complains about an invasion of privacy, help them establish a rule about offering quick use of the bathroom to one’s sibling before taking a long, uninterrupted soak.
Have a family meeting to determine where a rule or schedule might help with issues that threaten sibling civility. Some agreements may need to be posted for easy reference. A schedule for turn-taking works best if posted where the activity takes place – for example, whose turn is it to use the computer right after dinner? The children could alternate days or set a daily or weekly schedule with blocks of time that fit around their regular after school activities.
Once you have good rules and schedules to follow you will no longer be trying to negotiate a settlement amidst heated accusations of wrongdoing.

You should see improvements in your children’s sibling relationship with positive attention to each child, individual spaces for retreat and property, plentiful models of how kindness works, and timely guidance for resolving immediate and recurring conflicts.

Dr. Debbie

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.


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