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How to Foster Strong Sibling Bonds

How to Foster Strong Sibling Bonds

Do your kids compete over everything as if they were rival sports teams? Here's how to stop the sibling rivalry, build better sibling relationships, and foster a strong sibling bond.

Parenting coach Dr. Laura Markham’s new book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life (Perigree), shows us the reasons behind sibling rivalry and teaches us that regulating our own emotions is the key to modeling conflict resolution that will serve our children through adulthood and foster a long-lasting, supportive bond between siblings.

Are some kids more prone to sibling rivalry than others?

I think we’ve all seen that kids of similar ages tend to fight more. But these types of siblings are also much closer. The key for parents is to help their children work out any problems that they have—show them how to communicate their needs, listen to each other, and follow family rules. These are all basic conflict resolution skills that the kids can use for the rest of their lives. If you can teach your children these skills they will be closer and fight far less. The second major factor is gender: Boys will fight more than girls. Younger boys (ages 3-5) do tend to be more physically aggressive, but girls (ages 6-8) can be relationally aggressive. Thirdly, temperament is a factor. Kids who are more needy and more active will have a harder time getting on with other humans, or with a new baby. Parents need to stay connected with that child.


You say that sibling rivalry “stems from your child’s fear that he is losing your love to his sibling.” What are the basic steps a parent can take to counteract that feeling?

They need you when they need you. If you’re giving one of your children a hug and your other child wants a hug too, then hug everyone! “Of course you can have a hug too! I’m not leaving you behind!” Always find a way to make it work.

Parents need to spend time with each child alone. Look at it from the child’s perspective: Siblings have to share a parent 24/7! Set aside some one-on-one time with each child where they don’t have to share you, where you are not involved in any other activity (emptying the dishwasher, using your phone, etc.) and that is not part of the daily routine—so this can’t be while he is doing his homework, for example. You need to be emotionally available, and you need to let him be the leader of the activity.

Get down onto his level. If you’re playing with a train set, remember that you are his assistant. Ask him how to proceed—should this train go fast or slow? Who’s going under the bridge first? When you let him take the lead, this makes him feel seen and appreciated for who he is.


How should parents react when siblings start to fight?

When intervening during a conflict, we are frequently the ones making the decisions (“Give it back! You’ve had it long enough!”). But when you do that, you are symbolically taking your love and giving it to the other child. And they both feel it. They start to think, “I’ll get back at him...” Instead, touch each child when the other is talking to maintain the connection. Tell them, “Let’s flip a coin.” Even when you know who is wrong or right, you need to teach them to talk to each other. Otherwise you’re going to have this problem for quite a few more years!


You write that kids who grow up in a household where “blame is a way of life” are more defensive and more inclined to attack than to take responsibility. What are some ways that parents and kids can avoid the ‘blame game?’

When people feel blamed, it’s hard to step up and feel responsible. Blame is not a helpful approach. But it’s universal—all of us go straight to “It’s so-and-so’s fault!” However, it’s important for parents to resist this urge, and to model positive thought out loud. Instead of yelling that you’re all going to be late, take three deep breaths and calm down. Explain, “I’m anxious now that we’re not going to get there on time. I wish things had been different. Perhaps next week I will fill up the gas tank first!” You have to show your kids that you can let yourself off the hook, that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that problem-solving is the way to step up. If you do this, you will find yourself being more emotionally generous. This is how families who focus on solutions instead of blame have better sibling relationships.


Can you explain why parents should model empathy for their children?

Kids need to see emotions from their own point of view. If your 3-year-old has her blankie taken away by a friend, she might lash out. Your commitment to empathize with your child is an important determinant of her ability to offer understanding to her sibling. You are teaching her to feel safe with emotions, teaching her to self-soothe. This is the most fundamental emotional intelligence skill.


Are we perhaps fooling our kids, or lying to them when we tell them we feel their pain about having chicken for dinner again?

As with any other relationship, it is all about seeing the other person’s perspective. It’s not about winning, or trickery. If a relationship is about conflict and winning, there will always be less love. When you respond to this type of comment with: “You used to like it, but I guess we have had it a lot. What kind of meals would you like? Let’s make a list!” you will end up having a great discussion about dinnertime options, with a new plan and meal choices your kids won’t reject. The response let’s your child know: I’m acknowledging you, let’s find a solution.


Is it healthy for parents to repress their own anger when a child misbehaves?

Naturally you will feel hurt when your child willfully ignores a request (or complains about his dinner, or leaves his coat on the floor again…), but when your response is anger, you’re acting out of your own hurt or fear. Anger is a way to defend ourselves when someone hurts us—it’s a secondary emotion. Don’t have a tantrum—that just models how to bully. Instead, try “C’mon buddy, let’s get this coat off the floor. I know you were excited to watch television, but it’s important to put our things away so that we can find them in the morning.” Here, we’re not repressing anything, and we’re not being walked on.


You are not a fan of putting kids in ‘time out.’ Can you explain why you feel this particular form of discipline is not effective?

Time-outs are effective in stopping the behavior in the moment, but not necessarily in the future. They actually make the behavior worse. Studies show that with more compliant kids, time-outs do work—by scaring them. But it is a symbolic exclusion, a disconnection from you. You’ve introduced a level of anxiety about your love. Challenging kids won’t go in a time-out. They will become defiant, and you end up eroding the relationship. But when we provide safety and compassion, that’s when the strong-willed kid can cry, instead of backing off and starting to build safety in other ways.

Instead of sending your child to his room, interrupt the behavior, and immediately shift empathy. Hold or touch the child, and articulate the issue by explaining (“We don’t throw food”). Since all behavior comes from emotional needs not being addressed, make eye contact and tell your child, “Let’s find out what’s upsetting you.” This is parent as leader. When you’re compassionate enough, the anger should subside, and the child is no longer fighting back, nor afraid of his emotions.


Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (Perigree, May 2015) and the founder of She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Columbia University. Her clinical practice is devoted to coaching parents from New York to Australia. Dr. Markham has been featured or quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Parents, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and hundreds of other print and online publications. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her family.


Also see:

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