Alice Kaltman, one of our Experts in parent coaching, gave a successful talk this last Saturday about siblings and how they interact. She agreed to give us some of the text for the blog. Her next talk is on December 5th, on “Raising Only Children”- – hear how how it is possible to raise healthy, well-adjusted only children.
by Alice Kaltman
Why is it some siblings behave like playmate-angels, sharing and cooperating without a hint of rivalry while others act like annihilator-devils, hell-bent on destroying each other at every opportunity? When everyone seems okay, why does one kid decide to pitch a fit, punch a sister, pinch a baby? In spite of my professional knowledge, sometimes a parent’s guess is as good as mine. Personality traits, constitutional temperaments, and genetics are just a few things impacting sibling relations that parents (and parenting experts) have no power to change. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
But it’s not a lost cause. Good parenting can have an impact on sibling relations. There are parenting approaches that can help foster good sibling connections without guaranteeing eternal sibling bliss and bonding. Conflicts and tensions might never go away. But if raised in families that promote connection but allow for difference, that provide each kid a sense of self w/out pigeon-holing, siblings are more likely to remain connected and on good terms. Below are a few suggestions in the key areas of connection, projection, competition and conflict.
Most kids believe there is a finite resource of love. They don’t get that love can grow exponentially as relationships with all children develop. Kids can be desperate to keep it all to themselves. Therefore, DO carve out special time for each child. Make it clear that there’s enough love around for everybody. Have special rituals of connection with each kid that are unique. Differ games, special pet names, tickle spots, secret handshakes.
Check in during private moments on how your kids feel about each other. Encourage them to say whatever they want; the good, the bad, the ugly. Remember as they talk, kids think abstractly but talk in absolutes. They aren’t subtle. Being slightly annoyed by younger sister becomes “I HATE HER! I WISH SHE WAS DEAD!”
DONT diminish or dismiss such statements with “Oh now, now. You don’t really want her dead. You love your sister.” Breathe deeply and try a more empathic stance like “Wow. She really made you angry, huh?” Let the steam blow off and don’t rush to make ‘nice’ immediately. Peacekeeping should wait until later, when everyone is well fed, rested, and in good moods.
DONT project your own sibling experiences from childhood on your kids. This is the key trap all parents fall into. Generally speaking, you can’t be a live parent without projecting at least a wee bit. So, in the arena of sibling survival, keep your projection antenna raised. At your first sign of distress over sibling struggles, ask yourself, am I feeling emotions my kids aren’t even remotely feeling? Is my daughter really ‘just’ like my evil sister, or am I projecting? Am I trying too hard to right some perceived wrong that no one else seems to notice? Am I trying too hard to rewrite my own childhood history?
DONT create family myths around each child’s behavior or skills. Too many of us grew up continuing to believe stories like, “My older brother is the smart one, my middle brother is the funny one, and I am the sensitive one” or “Danny was always great at tennis, I was only great at watching.” Why limit our perception of our children the way we may have limited ourselves? Let your kids morph like chameleons through their youth. Make your home a place where experiential diversity is strongly encouraged. Everyone should have opportunities to test their limits and personality styles.
DONT set siblings up to compete with each other directly. There are very few Serena and Venus’s in the world. If your kids are drawn to the same activities allow them to pursue these interests as they desire. Still, as often as possible, set them up with a common adversary. Be that common adversary.
DONT use comparisons as compliments to pump up one of your kid’s egos, or to bond privately (i.e. “Wow, you’re so good at math. Joey’s nowhere as good at math as you”).
DO praise and admire unique gifts for the pure and simple joy that they exist.
DONT allow hurtful behavior. Follow the “it takes two to tango” model especially in verbal quarrels. Try not to intervene in conflicts, unless there’s danger of physical injury. No one should be excused for hitting or punching even if provoked, so be within hearing distance and stay alert as tempers rise. Model the behavior you want; compromise skills, respect, and fairness for example. Try to stay impartial and focused on feelings being expressed.
And be prepared to do all the above over and over and over and over again and again and again and again. That’s what we all signed up for when we decided to be parents, right?