In today’s culture of ‘we two ours one’, having more than one child is often challenging, and can sometimes be downright stressful. One parent whom I met recently told me, “When I had one child, I was a parent. Now that I have two, I feel like a referee!” This set me thinking about how we often end up saying and doing things that severely damage the awesome bond that siblings naturally share. I have coined the term ’4Cs‘ as an acronym to remember the typical errors that many parents unknowingly end up committing:
- Constantly playing the ‘peacemaker’ and breaking up fights between their children (which hinders the development of conflict-resolution skills)
- Comparing siblings in the hope of getting them to perform better (which hurts their self-esteem rather than motivating them to do better)
- Coaxing the older child to ‘give in’ or give up privileges because of being ‘big’ now (which creates resentment and rivalry between the siblings)
- Compelling them to ‘share’ in the name of making them ‘generous’ (which undermines their own needs and invalidates their feelings)
Before we delve into the how to’s of encouraging bonding between siblings, let’s briefly examine the importance of sibling relationships:
Siblings share a bond like no other. Unlike their relationships with their friends, classmates, cousins, neighbours or other members of the extended family, siblings share a common family history and experiences that make their relationship unique and different from all others. Living under the same roof, they get to see the best and worst sides of each other, making their relationship authentic and free of all pretences. In addition, sibling relationships are often known to outlast all other relationships, thus creating a truly special bond that is to be treasured. At the same time, if they are not handled in a mature and respectful way by parents, siblings may end up developing a deep-seated resentment towards each other and disengage early on, leading to frayed ties in later life.
So, let’s now look at how, as parents, you can help your children get along with each other and nurture their relationship from a young age.
Tips for parents to promote harmony and respect between siblings
The important thing is to start early. However, if your children are already a little older, you can still try modifying your approach, and hope to enhance their bond.
Tip # 1: Help them learn to resolve their own conflicts: As tempting as it seems to jump in at the first hint of trouble and pronounce judgement, my humble request to all parents is to not get involved in sibling fights unless the situation threatens to turn violent or ugly. If your children bring their problems to you, make sure you hear them out, paying equal attention to both sides. Lead them through gentle questioning and encouragement towards finding their own solutions rather than taking sides or offering them a quick-fix resolution to the problem. Not only will this teach them negotiation and conflict-resolution skills, but also help them feel heard, respected and valued within the family, and thereby promote a healthy sense of self-esteem and better relationship.
Tip # 2: Avoid comparisons altogether: There is no such thing as a ‘positive comparison’. Any comparison between siblings can seriously damage their self-esteem as well as their relationship. Ensure that you convey to each child how special he or she is to you. Also, acknowledge both children's strengths and positive qualities. Try to ensure that you spend quality one-on-one time with each of your children and provide them with opportunities to explore their own talents and skills as individuals. Nurture them separately, as well as together to give them the message that you cherish each of them for who they are.
Tip # 3: Prevent sibling rivalry by being fair: Often, parents believe that the arrival of the younger sibling means an automatic conversion of the older sibling into a mature, responsible pseudo-adult. Please think again. Your older child is just that – a child! Expecting him to give up all his privileges and let go each time there is a conflict, or give in to the demands of his younger brother or sister just because he is ‘a big boy now’, is absolutely unreasonable. Alfred Adler, a renowned psychologist, termed this feeling experienced by the first-born child as ‘dethronement’. In his words, ”Dethronement occurs when a young child, initially the focus of attention, is replaced in the mother's affections by a newly arrived infant.“ This can be highly distressing, and the older child may feel abandoned, unloved and unwanted. This feeling further gets reinforced each time you insist that the older child give in. Instead, in situations where both siblings want the same toy, or have opposing needs, try to avoid proposing any solution. Refer to tip # 1 for conflict management, because at its root, improper conflict management is one of the causes of sibling rivalry.
Tip # 4: Provide opportunities to learn empathy instead of imposing forced sharing: To encourage children to take self-regulated turns with their toys and to allow each child’s needs to be met in a respectful manner, it is necessary to stop forcing children to share their possessions or await their turn. When we force children to share, they often feel that their needs are not being acknowledged or met. Rather, you can say something along the lines of, “I can see you really want that toy, but your sister wants it, too. I wonder how you are both going to work around this situation.” You will be amazed at how well your children respond to this kind of non-intrusive, non-instructive yet respectful way of handling the concept of sharing. It may not work initially, but when you follow this consistently over time, you will notice your children learning to share and becoming more sensitive to each other’s needs and feelings.
Tip # 5: You are not a referee!: Please remember, it is not your job to end their fights – that’s something they need to learn to work out on their own over time. You won’t be doing them any favours by intervening all the time. For this, you need to develop a bit of tolerance and let go off your urge to play saviour all the time. Teach your children to have healthy arguments, which involve respectfully listening to the other’s viewpoint and expressing their own opinions using “I…” based statements. If you do not know how, start reading up on assertiveness and conflict resolution, and most importantly, start practising them yourself!
In case you did not notice, the first letters of each of the tips above combine to form the word HAPPY. When you use these tips regularly and consistently, you will see a beautiful bond developing between your children, adding to the overall happiness quotient of your family. To conclude, I would like to reiterate that often, we parents need to work on leading by example, which involves modifying our own behaviour and conflict-management style to be a good role model for our children to work through difficult situations with their siblings.
Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)
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