“In many sibling relationships the rate of conflict can be high, but the fun times in the backyard and the basement more than balance it out. This net-positive is what predicts a good relationship later in life. In contrast, siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cold and distant long term.” —Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
If your children are having a hard time with each other, it’s natural that you focus on helping them learn to resolve their differences peacefully. But it’s important to remember that their incentive to work things out happily with each other depends on how much of a positive balance they’ve built up in their “relationship bank account.”
How do siblings build up a reservoir of good feelings to draw on? Mostly by having a good time together. John Gottman of the Seattle Love Lab has found that couples need five to seven positive interactions to counterbalance one negative interaction. This ratio has been repeated in multiple studies, from couples to workplaces. As far as I know, there hasn’t been parallel research done with siblings. But that’s not a bad ratio to aim for.
This might make you feel despairing—after all, if they fight six times a day, how can you help them create 36 positive interactions? Remember that a smile counts as a positive; these don’t all have to be major interactions to have a beneficial effect. Why not simply adopt the goal of helping your children have as many positive interactions as you can?
1. Notice and promote the activities that get your children playing together. Research on improving sibling relationships shows that children have better relationships when they share activities that they both enjoy. It can be tough to identify those activities, especially if there’s an age or interest gap. But if you pay attention, you can usually suggest something that will interest both children. For instance, if she wants to play store, and he wants to play astronaut, why not have a store on the moon? Or maybe both enjoy the play kitchen, or doing art together, or making forts. Try to encourage at least one shared activity every day.
2. Don’t interrupt happy play. You probably remember the old adage: "Never wake a sleeping baby." My corollary is, "Don’t interrupt a happily playing child.” So when siblings are playing together well, don’t take it for granted. Support them in whatever they need to keep playing, and don’t interrupt unless it’s unavoidable.
4. Start “special time” between your children. Designate a daily 10-minute block of time for two children to spend together. This is especially helpful if your children are widely spaced in age, or one is less interested in playing together than the other one, because it structures time together into the regular routine and maintains the connection.
5. When they’re having a bad day, pull out an activity they’ll both love, like making cookies or dancing, to shift the mood.
6. Include in your bedtime routine a chance for your children to always say "goodnight" and "I love you" to each other. Some families also have the older child read to the younger one before bed, which is a lovely opportunity for bonding.
7. Support siblings to nurture each other. When one child gets hurt, make it a practice for everyone in the family to stop playing and tend to the child who’s hurt. Hold back a moment to see if the siblings step in to nurture each other. Send a child for the ice pack or bandaids, or even let them be your medical assistant and tend to their sibling. Have all the children take part in this, including any child who was involved in the other getting hurt, so they can begin to feel like a helper instead of a hurter.
8. Instead of pitting your children against each other, find ongoing ways to unite them in the same mission. “Can you work together so you’re both ready to leave the house at 8 A.M.? That will give us time to go the long way to school, so we can see the bulldozers at the construction site again. Yes? What a team!”
9. Promote the idea of the sibling team by creating family activities in which your children work together. For instance, give them a huge sheet of paper to draw on together. Ask them to write a letter to grandma together. Design a scavenger hunt where the kids help each other, rather than compete against each other. When you roughhouse, always team children against grownups.
10. Put your kids in charge of a project together. For instance, maybe they’ll wash the car together to earn the money you would have spent at the car wash. Or maybe they’re in charge of the decorations for Father’s Day, or planning a fun family outing. Let the children work together to do the planning, with you only peripherally involved to insure safety and maximum fun.
11. Start a family kindness journal. Tie sheets of paper together with a ribbon, or just add sheets of paper to a binder. Label it “Our Family Kindness Journal,” and let the kids decorate it. You might begin with a quote about kindness, such as the Dalai Lama’s: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Then, notice acts of kindness between your children, and write them in the journal, with the date.
“Brody helped Katelyn with her fort when it kept falling down.”
“Carlos shared the cookie he brought home from school with Michael.”
“Natalya helped Yuri reach the light switch. Yuri was so pleased.”
“At the grocery store today, Evie suggested that we buy oranges for Damian.”
As you talk about the incident, celebrate that kindness has a way of warming the hearts of both people—the giver and the receiver. Soon, your children will be noticing the small kindnesses between them and asking you to record them. Before you know it, they’ll be inspired to more acts of kindness toward each other.
12. Help kids work out problems without making anyone wrong. Conflict is part of every human relationship, and children are still learning how to manage their strong emotions. So you can expect your children to fight with each other. Our job as parents is to resist taking sides, which increases sibling rivalry. Instead, teach kids healthy conflict-resolution skills, like listening, expressing their own needs without attacking the other person, and looking for win-win solutions. (Want more ideas on how to teach kids these skills? That's the heart of my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends For Life.)
And, of course, the most important factor in helping your children get along is for you to forge a strong relationship with each child. When each child knows in his bones that no matter what his sibling gets, there is more than enough for him, sibling love has a chance to bloom. There is always more love.