Navigating Sibling Relationships, and some tips for surviving while they sort it out…
By Libby Steele, LPCC
As the world continues to navigate a “for now” normal, there have been many adjustments to be made in the family dynamic. The schedule is off, or constantly evolving. Any alone time is long gone and the adults are wearing way too many hats all at the same time. It’s a perfect storm for some emotional and highly charged sibling interactions, usually the final straw in parental patience.
In my work as a child and family therapist I often hear comments such as:
They’re so competitive. They act like they hate each other. They have nothing in common.
Highly polarized statements, all. My work with families is always to help them maintain their emotional connection and that extends to siblings. The goal is always: We are on the same team. (And by the way, parent(s), you’re team captain. Always. Full stop.)
Here are some tips for building a strong family team:
- Celebrate Each other
- The Expectation: We root for each other. Whether it’s sports, a great grade, a cool art project, learning to read, ride a bike, tie our shoes or simply finish a chore, we are the fan club and we’ll help if we are needed.
- The payoff: Older children learn to be leaders, they all learn to get their needs met in the family, and we all learn to invest in each other.
- No Competing
- The Expectation: Same team. We aren’t racing to get ready for bedtime or competing for better grades or a taller Lego tower. Resist the urge as parents to speed the evening, or any process, along by the classic “First one to….” Instead, try, “Work together to make it happen. I want to see you all here and ready together.”
- The Payoff: Everyone has a chance to shine and can be appreciated for their own strengths. Siblings trust that their brother or sister has their best interest at hear, and view each other as their strongest ally, not their first frenemy.
- Stay Out of It
- The Expectation: As much as you possibly can, let them navigate their relationships on their own. Ignore (yes really) the everyday sibling bickering and intervene when safety or family rules are at risk. When you intervene, do so by drawing their attention to the other’s feelings, and helping them make it right. They can write a note, fetch an ice pack, replace a broken or lost item. This is so much more impactful to the emotional connection than a muttered and mandated apology to a still fuming sibling.
- The Payoff: They’re learning important conflict resolutions skills, boundaries and integrity. Even more important? They’re learning their parent(s) TRUST them to sort it out. They’ll rise to the occasion.
- The Expectation: We are navigating life together. Shared chores, occasional shared plates of food (think a serving tray with lots of snacks or small things), and shared toys all communicate one important thing: the family is a system of shared resources. “It’s not fair” is a common refrain but don’t fall for it. You’re team captain, remember? Steer the ship and stay neutral as neutral as possible. Fair isn’t everyone getting the same amount of toys, treats, hugs, pencils, or time. It’s everyone getting what they need. As parents, we can communicate the importance of this by attending to the need and not the complaint. If siblings are squabbling over who has more cereal – stay out of it—and remind them that you’ll gladly give them more if they’re still hungry when it’s gone.
- The Payoff: The children are getting the message loud and clear from the parents that their needs will be met within the system of the family. They’ll learn, through shared hard work and shared resources that they are a crucial and respected component of the family system and it works best together.
This all takes time and may feel like a big departure from how you’re currently operating or how you were raised. If you feel you’ve lost control of the situation, it’s never too late to course correct. Sit down and talk openly with your kids about what’s working and what’s not. Talk to them about what being a team looks like and find a team name that you can use often to recall their attention to the expectation.
Better yet, have the kids come up with a team name- it can be one of their first shared projects.
They’ve got this.