Helping Siblings Become Lifelong Friends

Sibling conflict can be a challenging and consuming aspect of family life. Parents who hope their children will have a close relationship as adults may worry that these fights will chip away at that reality, but new research says that the ratio of playing together versus fighting together is key. The more good times than bad times, the more likely it is they will have close adult relationships. Siblings who don’t fight, but also don’t play together, generally don’t end up having a warm relationship.

Dr. Laurie Kramer, who studies sibling relationships at the University of Missouri, says that helping siblings create opportunities to enjoy one another’s company should be a parents focus. Outings to a favorite location, or a share activity, on a regular basis, will help kids reinforce positive time together. Dr. Kramer also emphasizes that siblings should learn to initiate play and decline play in amicable ways among siblings with comments such as “It makes me happy to see you sharing with each other”.

Dr. Kramer also warns against using popular books and videos to teach sibling harmony. Of the 261 that she surveyed, the first portion of the story focused on the conflict while the remainder of the story focused on the resolution. When Dr. Kramer used these books and videos in her research, sibling behavior deteriorated so quickly that the study had to be stopped. Instead of focusing on the resolution, children were focusing on new and ingenious ways to taunt, belittle and blame each other, which were highlighted in the first half of the stories.

Dr. Kramer’s work also questions the popular belief that sibling conflict is rooted in the struggle to compete for parental resources, particularly parental affection. This belief was first promoted by Freud and is perpetuated in virtually all parenting manuals today. Dr. Kramer’s empirical research is based off of polls taken about what kids say they fight about and fighting for parental attention ranks dead last on their list. This may explain why even when siblings get lots of parental attention they may still fight.

Although Dr. Kramer believes that helping siblings bond over good times versus bad times is more effective in predicting close adult relationships, she does believe helping children resolve conflicts is important. The ability to resolve conflict can be personally rewarding, promote self-esteem and a useful lifelong skill. Helping children narrate each side of the argument and asking children to help formulate “a plan” of action can go a long way. For example, if children are fighting over a toy, a simple narration could be “you both really want that toy” and the plan of action could be “each of you has it for 15 minutes”.

Additional ways to support your children’s relationship:

– Help children see things from other’s perspective.
– Teach them how to move through conflict and to view conflict as solvable.
– Teach them to respect their siblings for who they are.
– Teach them to identify and manage their own emotions and behaviors.
– Praise them for problem solving, showing patience, sharing, being flexible, using nice words, and any other positive behaviors.
– See your parental role as that of a coach not a referee.

Regardless of what approach parents use, they should feel secure in the knowledge that fighting is a normal part of sibling relationships. In fact, young siblings argue 3.5 times per hour, but again as research indicates, a parent’s focus should be on promoting good times between siblings if the goal is encouraging a close relationship as adults.

More Facts:

– Siblings make 700% more negative and controlling statements about one another than compared to their interaction with friends, per observational studies.
– Siblings that can manage conflict, engage in fantasy play and have elaborate play episodes develop the most positive sibling relationships.
– Although parents vocalize the importance of helping their children learn to resolve conflict, many do not help their children accomplish that. In a study, parents stated that when their children fight they help their children learn conflict resolution, when microphones were put into the homes, researchers noted that typically parents did nothing to help their children.

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