If you’re the parent of more than one child, congratulations—you’re doing one of the toughest jobs there is.
We all dream of our kids getting along well, playing together, protecting each other and being best friends. But sometimes that just isn’t what happens in our day-to-day lives.
“It is common for siblings to bicker and fight, and it can be very frustrating to watch as a parent,” said Stephanie Pratola, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with Carilion Clinic’s Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “There’s no way to avoid some disagreement, so teaching your kids to work out conflicts and difficult feelings among themselves will put them way ahead of the game in terms of life skills.”
So as a parent, how do you do that? According to Dr. Pratola, one of the biggest things is to not try to intervene and resolve things or make peace, but rather let siblings work things out on their own.
Here are some tips to help:
- Remember that each of your kids is an individual. They each have their own personality and their own set of needs, and they each experience things in their own way. Explaining this to them may be a helpful way to start them thinking about how to work together. It’s also important to express that while each child is an individual, there are still going to be family expectations that apply to everyone.
- Think about their developmental stage. Even if your kids are close in age, they are likely to be at different developmental stages. Remembering that they’re each still learning how to navigate the world can help you calm down during stressful times and help them learn how to work things out.
- Find the teachable moments. It is always our responsibility as parents to help our kids understand themselves and their world; just talking to your kids about what is happening and acknowledging how they’re feeling could be enough to help them calm down.
- Help them understand each other. It can be hard for kids to think beyond what they are feeling at the moment. Help them see beyond themselves by explaining how their brother or sister might be feeling or how they could act differently to help the situation. You won’t be intervening to solve their problem, but you will be helping them learn the tools they need to solve the problem themselves.
- Encourage communication. Many arguments can be avoided if kids understand how to talk to each other and how to ask for help from an adult. Practicing how to do this at times when your kids are getting along can help them when the next argument arises.
- Reassure them. Each of your kids needs to know that you will always be there for them and love them. You need to meet the individual needs of each child and that won’t always mean treating them the same. While this might not seem “fair” to some children, you can acknowledge how they are feeling and help them understand that everyone is different and needs different things—that doesn’t mean you love them any less.
- Don’t let issues escalate. Just telling your kids to “stop it” may not work. If you’re kids are arguing, they may already be feeling very emotional and may not know how to stop the situation. Explaining exactly what needs to happen and what you expect from them could be more helpful.
- Practice what you preach. Children learn best by watching what happens around them—and they are always watching! If they see you handling stress well, treating others respectfully and dealing with your feelings in a positive way, it will show them what they need to do. Modeling the behavior you expect from them may not always be easy, but it may be the most effective thing you can do.
Once your kids have the tools to settle issues themselves, let them. You can teach them and guide them and give them expectations, but let them to the hard work of figuring out an acceptable solution.
Dr. Pratola give this example: Your kids are fighting over who gets to use an electronic device at home. Tell them that nobody gets to play with it until they can figure out a plan to share it.
Once they have a plan, let them present it to you. As they put their plan into action, monitor them to make sure they are sticking to their plan, and if they don’t, begin the process again.
For more information about helping your kids get along, go to KidsHealth.org or the Child Development Institute.