Not only is sibling rivalry as old as time—remember the story of Cain and Abel?—it remains an inevitable source of frustration, stress, and headaches for parents.
But, although conflict between siblings may be unavoidable, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that parents can do about it, says Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern who studies sibling conflict.
“For a long time, people just assumed that how well kids get along with one another was sort of fixed,” she says. “If they weren’t getting along, they’d never get along.”
That’s simply not true, Kramer says. Her long-standing research on sibling relationships suggests that there are a number of important skills and tools parents can master to help their children resolve conflicts peacefully between one another.
“Every day you have so many opportunities to help kids develop social and emotional competencies that are really going to make a difference in how they get along,” she says.
Kramer’s research shows that mothers who had negative interactions with their own siblings were likely to raise children with comparatively positive relationships. This is because mothers who consciously raise their kids to get along know that great relationships require work, Kramer says.
Much of the wisdom Kramer has attained from 30 years of research on the topic went into developing in 2018 a program called More Fun With Sisters & Brothers. The program offers free lessons in conflict management for children, specifically on how to get along with their siblings, while helping parents control their own negative emotions that might arise when mediating issues between their children. Nearly 300 parents have registered for the program so far, says Kramer.
“What I’m really excited about is that parents can access this program from anywhere,” she says. “We have participants basically all over the world; we’ve been accepting parents as long as they have children in the 4 to 8 age range and they’re comfortable speaking and reading English.”
The 4- to 8-year-old age range is critical, says Kramer, because it’s an ideal time for children to most effectively learn the fundamental skills that could help them navigate their relationships with their siblings later in life.
“Both kids have the same abilities to play together nicely, to talk in a constructive way, to look at each problem from each other’s perspective, and to develop those fundamental competencies in empathy and understanding and conflict management,” says Kramer.
Based on years of studying the interactions between parents and their children (some as young as 3 to 5 years old), and children and their siblings, Kramer’s findings have identified a number of predictors for maintaining positive and fulfilling sibling relationships well into adulthood. Here are four of those skills:
- Communication. Kramer says that it’s important for children to effectively communicate and engage with their siblings, for example to ask them to play with them, and to understand when a sibling doesn’t feel like playing.
- Perspective-taking. Children benefit from cultivating the ability to regard the needs, interests, and desires of their siblings as being just as important as their own, Kramer says.
- Managing negative emotions. Being able to manage some of the negative emotions that kids experience when they’re dealing with a sibling who is frustrating them can be crucial, says Kramer.
- Learning how to manage conflicts. Children find ways to resolve their disagreements with their siblings.
An example of a tried-and-true strategy parents have employed to manage their children’s conflicts is collaborative problem-solving. This is where parents ask both children for their sides of the story and what they want to see happen, and then act as coaches or mediators to help their kids figure out a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem. But, as effective as this measure is, parents tend to shy away from this approach, says Kramer.
“We saw that the reason that they told us they did not do the more challenging, but effective collaborative problem-solving approach was because they really didn’t feel comfortable or confident in their ability to do it,” she says.
Here are a few other ineffective methods parents should avoid:
- Threatening. This can take the form of making declarations such as “If you don’t stop fighting, you’ll be punished.”
- Separating children or ignoring the conflict. Against the advice offered in parenting books, this is one of the least effective ways to address an issue between siblings, Kramer says.
“It turns out, when you look at the research results, as not being very good advice, particularly when children don’t have the skills that they need to be able to resolve conflicts on their own,” she says.
A better alternative, she suggests, is to let children know that you hear them fighting, encourage them to work it out, and offer help if they need it.
“Kids feel that if parents are not coming in to say something about the conflict, then they’re sort of basically giving it their blessing,” she says. “Children may then assume that parents think it’s OK to fight with your sibling.”
While Kramer acknowledges that helping kids develop these skills might pose a challenge for time-strapped and harried parents, it’s a worthwhile time investment that will pay dividends to both parents and children.
“Kids are quick learners,” she says. “They can develop these skills pretty quickly and once they have it, then all parents really need to do is to remind and guide them when it’s time to use those skills.”
A previous version of the More Fun with Sisters and Brothers Program that taught children these skills in live sessions was shown in a randomized control study to be effective in helping siblings interact more positively, says Kramer. And, she adds, anecdotal evidence suggests that children continue to use the language and skills that they develop long after they’ve completed the program.
An added bonus is that parents reported feeling better equipped to manage their own negative emotions, such as frustration, as a result of their kids being in the program.
“That’s really what we want is for kids to maintain and sustain that positive relationship over time so that when life stress happens or parents are no longer able to be there to help, they really do have each other as sources of support,” Kramer says.
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