“Will he be okay?” I look from my son to my daughter. Worry lines her forehead and tears threatened to fall from her big brown eyes. “How can I make him feel better?” Just days before a bad landing from a fall shattered his elbow. Surgery repaired the break, but the medicine left him groggy and the pain made him cranky. He wasn’t himself, and his sister was worried.
The following morning he perked up a little. In an instant, big sister became the nurse/helper. She fetched his water, helped him get up and down and fixed his sling more than it actually needed fixing. Huddled together on the floor, she fluffed his pillows to elevate his arm while helping him cut and color to complete the homemade version of “Life” he decided to make.
At seven and nine, my kids are the best of friends. They spend most mornings lost in play and during the school year they don’t seek out a ton of play dates. They would rather catch up and play together after school. They have each other, and that melts my heart.
Sadly, I see a lot of kids in my office who tell a much different story about sibling relationships. They talk about fighting, competition, teasing and bullying. They are overwhelmed with frustration, sadness and sometimes anxiety, and unsupportive sibling relationships play a role in those big feelings.
It’s natural for siblings to have ups and downs and even when siblings are the best of friends, they still have their moments. When parents worry about sibling squabbles, I generally provide reassurance that sibling conflict helps kids learn to work through arguments tap into empathy. When siblings are completely at odds, on the other hand, it can negatively impact the whole family.
There are steps that I recommend to parents that can help siblings develop positive relationships. Try a few of these to get started:
It’s natural for siblings to feel jealous and competitive at times. Little kids figure out the world around them by observation, and often those observations begin in the home. This is why younger siblings copy older siblings incessantly and follow them around as much as humanly possible. Many kids take their cues from their siblings.
The problem is that siblings can annoy one another and jealousy over parental attention can become an issue at times. Prioritizing empathy in your home helps kids think twice before lashing out about little things.
I use a simple phrase in my house to help us put empathy first. When we say, “think twice” that’s our cue to stop what we’re doing, look the other person in the eyes, assess for feelings and think of an alternate ending. More often than not, kids get caught up in reactive emotions and forget that other people have feelings, too.
When we teach kids to verbalize their own feelings and assess for other feelings in the room, they remember to stop and think twice before reacting in the moment.
All kids are different and all kids have their own strengths and interests. All kids are individuals. Yet the kids who sit on my couch talk about the expectations placed upon them that feel unfair.
An eight-year-old boy cried his eyes out because he didn’t want to play soccer. A ten-year-old girl experienced anxiety every time she sat down at the piano because the music made no sense to her. What those two kids had in common was “successful” siblings before them. You might have one soccer star and one scientist. You might have one dancer and one math lover. Better yet, you might very well have kids who shift interests frequently, as kids do. What you can’t do is draw comparisons between your kids.
Celebrate their differences. Empower them to lift each other up and cheer for one another. Successful siblings relationships come from supportive and loving environments. When kids feel like they have to measure up, they become frustrated, anxious or resentful. When kids feel like they have their siblings in their corner, they feel confident and loved.
Make time for play.
Free play between siblings has become a bit of a lost art. When I speak to parent groups at schools and other community organizations, I hear the same refrain: My kids would rather be with other kids. It’s good to keep them busy. They’re so social! They love organized sports!
Once upon a time, kids didn’t play organized sports until fourth grade. These days families are running from here to there and back again with little time left for, well, family beginning in preschool. I feel a little ridiculous when I answer the question, “How did you do it? Why do they get along so well?” The truth is that the best thing I do to enhance their relationship is give them tons of time to play.
Play is how kids form connections, strengthen bonds and work through difficult emotions. While modern parenting points to organized activities as a great outlet for kids, the best thing you can do for your kids is burn the busy schedule and make room for play.
I always say that a sibling is a child’s first best friend. Nurture those bonds by leading with empathy and creating plenty of time to put family first. Your kids will thank you for it.
Photo: Getty/Blend Images/Mike Kemp