It is not about stopping their fights.
I bet that your happiest moments as a parent are when you see your kids being affectionate with each other. Your heart sings, and you feel proud. Usually, it does not last long because before you know it, they start fighting again.
The sibling bond is a complicated one. But it is worth nurturing. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, having a close relationship with at least one sibling in childhood predicted which people were less likely to become depressed by age 50.
After a lot of research, trial, and error, I am sharing my top five tips for helping your kids build a healthy relationship with each other.
1. Make sure their cup is full.
Kids usually will not fight because they have an issue with each other. They will fight over limited resources they have to share. And the most critical resource in their life when they are young is you. The more loving attention they get, the less likely they are to fight. Try to find some time to spend one-to-one with each child.
I know there is a lot of pressure on the parents and especially mums during the kids’ early years. It is important to remember that your job is to make sure your child’s cup is full. You do not have to fill it all by yourself. Ask for help from your partner, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends, nannies, and teachers. It takes a village.
2. Model loving behavior.
Kids will imitate what you do. What you practice will influence them more than anything you say. If you behave aggressively to them or your partner, they will do the same with each other.
A lot of parents avoid expressing affection to their baby in front of their older child. They think that they protect the eldest’s feelings this way. It does not work. Kids can smell disingenuousness. Express your affection honestly to both children, but remember to include the other one as well.
You can say: “I adore you and your sister” or “You are amazing, and so is your sister.” Soon, they will start repeating loving phrases to each other.
3. Establish some ground rules.
Boundaries are essential for the well-being of humans and especially kids. In our household, we have two rules. The first one is no hitting. The second one is no snatching. You need to wait your turn to play with a toy.
There is no rule about loving each other. We do not put pressure on the kids to play together or be affectionate. It is their right to love whomever they want. They know that seeing them getting along gives us joy, but it is not our expectation and less so a rule.
4. Resist punishment or scolding.
My kids are young, so the above rules do get broken. We do not believe in punishment as it often makes things worse.
When one of our kids hits the other, I will resist my urge to scold the perpetrator. I will focus on the victim instead. Hug them and console them. A lot of times, children misbehave to get attention. Even negative attention is preferable to them than no attention at all.
By focusing on the victim, the child who misbehaved will soon realize that hitting gets them the opposite of what they want. It gets more attention to their sibling and not them. The hitting will decrease.
We also need to reflect on the message that the child who misbehaves tries to communicate. What do they need from us?
5. Use sportscasting and translating.
It took me a while to understand how sportscasting works in kids’ fights. But, once I did, I found the technique revolutionary. This is how it works. Let’s say your kids fight over a toy. You do not take sides. You describe what you see like a sportscaster would describe a game. The first time I did that, my kids found it so entertaining that they forgot all about their fight. They asked me to carry on describing what they were doing.
I added another element to the technique, and it worked even better. The translation. I translate for each sibling what the other is trying to say. This is especially important as my youngest does not speak well yet.
Let me share an example of how this goes:
Chris: Cries and reaches for a toy Sofia has.
Me: “Dear sister, I would really like to play with your toy. I feel very sad that I cannot play with it. Can you please give it to me?”
Sofia: “I had it first.”
Me: “Chris, Sofia says that she had it first.”
Chris: Continues to whine and reach out for the toy.
Me: “Dear sister, I know that you had it first, but I am sooo sad that I cannot play with it.”
Sofia: More often than not, she will give the toy to Chris.
The above tips are meant to protect and support the sibling bond, not to eliminate fighting. As uncomfortable as it makes us, sibling battles are not only inevitable; they are useful. Through fighting, kids learn conflict resolution, negotiation, empathy and dealing with intense emotions like anger or sadness.
We work hard to provide the conditions for our kids’ love to flourish. We want to teach them how to manage conflict productively. Filling their cup, modeling loving behavior, clear boundaries, and expert conflict mediation will go a long way.
What are your top tips to support sibling love?