Andrea Zanin, Kids Matter facilitator/comms pro & mum of five shares some tips on how to get brothers and sisters to be friends as well as siblings.
I love my brothers. I also like them. They’re my mates. We tease, taunt and terrorise one another, re-telling the same stories from home and childhood, laughing like lunatics and still arguing over who’s version is the best (mine obviously) whilst our partners don’t even bother to stifle heard-it-all-before yawns.
That’s not to say that we always got along like a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Growing up, there were all-out wars; fist fights, word fights, food fights – you name it we fought over it and with it. Anger and fury, tears and tantrums. But it all worked out in the end. Because no other peer relationship involves a shared upbringing, shared genes and shared secrets, acknowledged by Dr Luisa Dillner, head at BMJ Group Research and Development and author of The Complete Book of Sisters.
Yes – there is rivalry, irritation and even dislike, which will ebb and flow as the seasons change, but every parent dreams that the familiarity of home and memory (a version that no one else on the entire planet shares) will trump it all.
One of the greatest ironies of siblinghood is that it breeds the severest intolerance but simultaneously the most insane and unlikely levels of tolerance – as a mum of five I see it all the time in the way my kids interact.
How Delilah will whack her sister Aiden over the head with a dolly, for fun – you know, just to see what will happen. Aiden will cry (and shriek, depending on the location of the nearest parent). Delilah will get the ‘Elsa is not a weapon speech’ and, by now, knows to bat her baby blues and say “Sorry Aidy”, and then give her a cuddle. All is forgiven. And then two minutes later Delilah hits Aiden over the head again with the same dolly. The process repeats – baby blues, sorry, cuddle, forgiveness. And then half an hour later, the same thing. There might come a point when Aiden gets sick of being hit and will return the favour, in which case there a brawl will ensue but if history repeats itself, they’ll be friends after.
How Amelia will verbally lambaste her sister because she likes the same song as her or dared to choose the same ice-cream flavour that one time but if anyone else dares to look at Layla sideways, they will have a big sister to deal with. And Jackson, my son, sandwiched in the middle – no matter how many times the girls swear to never ever play Monopoly with him again because he criticises their strategies, moves their pieces, reads their Chance cards and cries when he loses, the girls play every time.
At the best of times, they are a little gang of five – laughing and loving all the way; offend one, and you offend them all. At the worst of times, well…
Sometimes when our children are in the thick of trench warfare – blood, guts mud and mess – it’s hard to imagine them making it out alive, never mind as friends. And the truth is that they might not be. You can probably list a good few people you know who do not get along with their brothers or sisters. As adults we know full well that the relationship between siblings is not always peaches and cream. The good news is that there are things we can do, as parents, to nurture strong sibling bonds in our children. Laura Markham, Ph.D. (also the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting) has some ideas:
- Don’t interrupt happy play. Siblings build up a reservoir of good feelings, mostly by having a good time together so when they are playing well, leave them to it (unless it’s unavoidable). Happy play is worth breaking rules over – let the children stay up a little later or postpone lunch for fifteen minutes if they’re having a good game!
- Encourage shared interests. Research on improving sibling relationships shows that children have better relationships when they share activities that they both enjoy. This could be a sport or drawing, baking, role-play games.
- Allow children to spend structured time together – just them. This is particularly helpful in a large family like mine, where age gaps are widely spaced. The children of similar ages play together naturally but the older ones often need more orchestrated time together; my older girls love reading the little ones, or taking them for a walk to the park. This allows them to connect as sisters without the chaos of the tribe as a distraction.
- Encourage working together. Promote the idea of a sibling team. Give them projects to do together; whether it’s chore related (washing the car, cleaning the bathroom, setting the table) or writing a letter together, make sure your involvement is peripheral so that the children have a chance to work out the task together.
- Resist taking sides (this increases sibling rivalry). Children will fight. This is natural and normal. Our job is to teach our children healthy conflict resolution skills – like listening and calmly expressing their feelings with words rather than fists or feet. We should also give children the chance to resolve problems on their own; this will be an empowering experience for them – giving them confidence in their problem solving abilities as individuals and as a team.
I want my children to know the joy of siblinghood – not just as an abstract concept but in a real, tangible, loving, beautiful way. As a parent, I don’t always get it right but I hope that in spite of my failings my little gang will build resilience through their interactions and find value in one another, and work at their friendships even when home and childhood are distant memories.
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