It’s been one of “those” weeks at our house – a week where you want to pull your hair out at the reality of it all - sibling rivalry, fighting, teenage melt-downs and hormones. Do you have weeks like that?
I’m still raising my kids. Some days, it’s exhausting.
Raising kids isn’t easy, especially when there are siblings. The years between ten and twenty are battle zones in houses when siblings get irritated, frustrated and angry with each other. It’s tempting to ignore conversations when siblings hurt each other. But you can’t.
Dealing with sibling conflict is important because how siblings treat each other is crucial to a family’s health and also to a child’s individual development. How many adults have childhood hurt from a sibling’s hateful words or punches that their parents never knew about? Sibling relationships are also microcosms for other relationships in life.
There are a lot of “how-to” articles on parenting. I’ve written some of them. Even as a professional counselor and writer, there are times I sit on my children’s beds hearing their hurts and wonder “How do I respond?”
There’s not an easy answer to sibling conflict. Understanding components of adolescence and family life can help. Recognizing certain truths can help how you respond during sibling struggles. Some of these truths include:
- Children have unique differences.
- Kids go through various stages of development.
- Sibling conflict is natural.
- Developmental stages affect a child’s reaction and understanding of others.
- Kids are individuals and have their own perspective on things.
- Birth order contributes to dynamics between children.
- Kids need to work some conflict out on their own.
- Teen years are naturally tumultuous and hormonal.
- Children need to be heard and validated.
- Kids need to feel safe in their homes.
- Having a variety of differences in a home will naturally result in imperfect relationships.
So how do you help kids navigate through sibling relationships, especially when you have more than one ten-to-twenty year old in your home?
- Don’t ignore or downplay a child’s feelings. Even though a child’s feelings might seem trivial or exaggerated, they are real to them in the moment and for their development. Validating their feelings lets them know you understand and opens a door for them to consider solutions or ideas you may want them to hear.
- Acknowledge that siblings in perpetual conflict may really not like each other during their present stages of development. Forcing them to be “best friends” can cause more bitterness and resentment. Helping kids develop the skill of “getting along with people you don’t like” is a relationship tool not only for school and the workplace but can also be utilized in families when siblings can’t see the best in each other at the moment.
- Commit to empathy, compassion, and kindness in your family. It grieves me when my kids are at odds with each other. While I can’t force them to see the best in each other, I can set the standard of “if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all” and hold each of them accountable to it.
- Consider giving space to the fighting siblings to be apart if needed. Don’t force them to be together if they are constantly fighting when together. If they share a room, consider switching rooms with other siblings or at least giving them a choice to sleep in a different location if changing rooms isn’t an option. Giving teens choices in dealing with their anger or frustration helps them work through it as long it is healthy and not harmful to the overall relationship.
- Ask the kids themselves what they think would be helpful in improving their relationship. Kids can give you a lot of insight when asked. It also gives both offending parties an opportunity to be heard. Consider their ideas and ask them what they can agree on for appropriate boundaries in their relationship.
- Praise and encourage both kids and their progress in the relationship during non-conflict times.
- Practice forgiveness and grace between siblings but not at the expense of another child. Forgiveness should not be forced, but siblings should be given appropriate time and expectations to release grudges.
- Have the siblings’ lifetime relationship in mind when parenting in the moment. Will a decision or behavior in the moment have harmful or helpful consequences for the long-term relationship for the siblings?
- Keep your own motives, feelings, and behavior in check. Do you exhibit unintended favoritism? Do you respond more gently to one child than another? If one child brings out the worst in you, don’t ignore it, but deal with it for the benefit of your child.
- Establish healthy boundaries between each child and what their developmental needs are at the time. Teens need privacy, alone time, and time with friends. Teaching younger and older siblings to respect the developmental needs of teens is important.
Helping kids be involved in each other’s lives – celebrating successes and showing empathy in failures – also helps the relationship process. This list is non-exhaustive but has helped the relationships in our home of four children. What are things you’ve learned help sibling relationships? What would have been helpful in your own sibling relationships as a child?