Toddlers can do long division. They may not be able to divide 1573 by four and accurately determine the remainder, but they do know this: the arrival of a new sibling means they are now only half of your universe. And the rivalry begins.
Much has been written about siblings, parsing out the influence of birth order, gender, spacing, temperament and family structure. But no matter the myriad combinations of traits and timing, the essence boils down to how they see one another—as friends or foes? A strong sibling relationship is grounded in the belief that their lives are better because of one another.
Building bonds between siblings
Parenting is often propaganda. So how do we help our kids see that the arrival of a rival for our time, energy and attention brings more to their lives? Here’s a list of six practical ways to do just that.
With the arrival of a newborn, add, don't subtract. Holding your little bundle of joy, sentences for your older child often start with “No” and end with “because of the baby”. Re-framing how you say things in the early months changes what your child hears and how he sees his sibling. Even if the answer is no, start it with yes. “Yes, I’ll read to you in 10 minutes” feels very different from “No, I can’t read right now, I’m feeding the baby”. One step better? “Yes, I’ll read to you in 10 minutes! And why don’t you pick an extra book that you love? Since there are now two of you, let’s read twice as much!”
- Toddlers do well when they play alone, together. For parents with young children, the time between the end of the afternoon and before dinner can be the hardest part of the day. How to reduce the rivalry? Have kids play alone, together. For one family with two littles, we constructed bins for each day of the week filled with their favourite activities. Monday was play dough, Tuesday colouring, Wednesdays cars—all the way through the week, each child had an identical set of supplies. Every afternoon they knew they could play with their own toys near each other, without competing for resources. Happy kids, relaxed parents.
- For preschoolers, stop when the going is good. Sibling cooperation often has a shelf life. Kids will play fairly well together for a predicable amount of time, and then it falls apart. It is tempting to seek out every moment of peace you can get, and allow it to go on as long as possible. Yet in order for them to want to play together again, you need the end to go smoothly. So check your watch. If you know they are great together for 20-25 minutes, interrupt, distract and transition them at 17. For a pair of brothers we used an old-fashioned egg timer. The boys knew once it rang it was time to try something new, something apart. And they knew after a while they could come right back to what they had been doing. Breathing space helps the good last longer.
- I love you because is a favourite game for elementary schoolers. In the car, at the table, tucking them in at night, right after a fight, any time is a great time for I love you because. “Why do you love your brother?” makes a sister think past her frustration to see the good in him. Saying it out loud allows the little guy to know he is loved, especially when there is conflict. More love, less rivalry.
- With tweens? Break them up and bring them back together. When working with the mother of tweenaged girls, we looked first for the stress, then we looked for the best. The mornings before school were always filled with fighting. So we broke them up. One daughter would eat breakfast, make her lunch, pack her bags, then shower while her sister did the routine in reverse order. We removed the scarcity over spaces—the bathroom, the kitchen, the front hall, and the arguments ended. And the best? Both girls are falling in love with cooking, though as burgeoning chefs they weren’t allowed to be alone in the kitchen. But as a team? They could bake to their hearts’ content. So every Saturday morning the family has set aside time for the sisters to spend creating in the kitchen together.
- Teenagers want to be seen. See the small stuff. Teens are very aware of how the people around them perceive them. The brain. The jock. The clown. And they are especially aware of how they stack up in comparison to their sibling. “It cracks me up how clumsy you are when your sister is such an athlete!” “Your brother clearly got the math brains in the family!” Kids hear comments like these from classmates, teachers and friends. It’s important for them not to hear it from family. Instead, observe their little quirks. Their tiny joys. Their quiet values. Name those out loud. Talk about the small stuff you see–who they are, not what they do—that makes each child unique.
These tips may be organised by age, but in the end, each can be used for any stage in the sibling relationship. Which teen doesn’t want to hear you say “let’s stay late and watch two movies instead of one since there are two of you!”? Which tween wouldn’t want you to give them their own container of art supplies? Which preschooler wouldn’t love hearing all the sweet little things that you see inside of them?
You are the hidden key
As you read that last paragraph, you might have noticed, as much as siblings are mentioned, so, too, are you. Because, the hidden key to a strong sibling relationship is the strength of relationship each child has with you. The closer, more grounded, more connected each child feels to their parent, the less threatened they feel by a brother or sister.
How much one-on-one time do you spend each day with each child? It doesn’t have to be hours, it just needs to be enough. Enough for your daughter or son to know you see them, just as they are. That you love them, without compare.
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