When you welcome a younger sibling into your family, you have visions of your kids growing up together, leaning on each other, and being each other’s best friends. What you don’t envision is mediating constant battles, contending with sibling rivalry, and the kids’ outright disdain for each other.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, says it starts with the environment parents create at home. “If you do the hard work to regulate your emotions, your children will, too,” she says. “If you create a sweet, deep relationship with each child, they won’t be threatened by their sibling. If you take the time to teach them to express their needs without attacking the other person and to find win/win solutions, they will have the skills to work things out with each other and to create rewarding relationships for the rest of their lives.”
So how does a parent teach them those skills? Read on for Dr. Markham’s five tips for fostering happy siblings.
1. There is no reason to yell at your kids.
When frustration levels reach their peak, yelling often feels like the only way parents can be heard. But Dr. Markham says yelling doesn’t work — it only demonstrates bad behavior that children will follow. Rather than raise your voice, she offers three pieces of advice.
When you get upset, remind yourself that you’re the role model and return yourself to calm.
Use a version of the golden rule or “be kind” as your number one family rule. Set limits on teasing and mean words as well as physical violence.
Allow all emotions; limit behavior. Kids are allowed to be angry and to express that to each other, but they aren’t allowed to attack each other physically or verbally.
2. Teach kids empathy.
Dr. Markham emphasizes the importance of teaching kids empathy as the starting point for creating a peaceful home. “Children develop empathy by having the experience of feeling understood themselves,” she says. So how do you do that?
“You soothe them when they’re upset,” Dr. Markham explains. “All humans have mirror neurons so we pick up other people’s emotions. But sometimes we find another person’s emotions too upsetting, particularly if we are uncomfortable with our own emotions. So when parents soothe an upset child, the child learns that emotions aren’t dangerous, and becomes more comfortable with his own emotions — and more able to tolerate and empathize with the emotions of others.”
But that’s not all; consistency is key. She says it’s imperative to talk about emotions as part of your daily conversation — what you see other people doing and what your own child is experiencing:
“I see how disappointed you are.”
“Sage hurt her knee, ouch! Let’s give her a hug to help her feel better.”
“I wonder what the baby is feeling when he looks like that?”
“That little boy in the shopping cart is crying; I wonder what is going on?”
“I’m feeling frustrated . . . I can’t get this to work right. I’m going to take three deep breaths to calm myself down.”
3. It’s never too late to help your children form a relationship.
Just because you’re beyond the toddler years doesn’t mean you’ve missed the window of opportunity to create a peaceful relationship between your kids. “It’s true that you may have to undo some bad habits,” Dr. Markham says. “But since your children are now more verbal, they’re more able to express themselves in words. The only thing to remember is that if your child has built up resentment toward a sibling, you’ll have to empathize with his feelings to help him express them to you, so that he can move beyond them and open his heart to his sibling.”
4. Don’t make your kids apologize — right away.
One of the most jarring tips to come out of Dr. Markham’s book is her belief that we should discourage apologies. Rather, she says parents should encourage children to repair the situation instead. “Research indicates that apologies right after a fight, while the apologizer is still angry, don’t repair the relationship,” she says. “In fact, they create resentment. So I encourage parents to help children work through their upset at the sibling, and calm down. Then, once the child is no longer upset, the parent can observe that some repair work is needed, and support the child in coming up with something to reconnect and make things better with the sibling. That may well include an apology, but it might also include repairing a broken toy, giving a hug, helping rebuild the tower that was knocked down, making a card, or a promise to handle things differently in the future.”
5. To create a peaceful home, parents must remain calm.
We’ve all been there. You leave the room for one second and the next thing you know, your kids are tearing each other’s hair out. They’re blaming each other for starting the incident, and you just can’t take it anymore. Frustration levels are high, and you’re about to explode. But you know that won’t solve anything. Dr. Markham says remaining calm is the key to teaching your kids what they did wrong and how they can make it better. But how do you remain calm when you’ve reached your boiling point? She offers five tips.
- Stop. Drop (whatever you’re doing). Breathe.
- Remind yourself that it isn’t an emergency. No one is dying. Use whatever mantra works to calm yourself.
- Decrease your own anxiety by reminding yourself that you don’t have to fix this. You don’t have to decide who is right (which is always a mistake because it fosters resentment in the child who “loses”). You just have to prevent any violence (by getting between the kids) and restore a sense of safety with your calm presence.
- Connect physically with both children, listen to both so they feel heard, and acknowledge the views of both children.
- Then, help the kids sort out a solution: “Wow! No wonder you’re upset. Sofia wants to play the game this way . . . Victoria wants to play the game that way . . . This is a tough problem . . . How will you work this out?”