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6/30/19blog post

six tips for sibling interactions

Sibling interactions are the first ways that many kids learn how to manage relationships. Conflicts are common. Many parents dismiss as these as normal, but they are not.

One study observed sibling interactions in 37 families when the kids were between two and four years of age, and again two years later. The researchers documented an average of six conflicts per hour when the kids were younger, and four per hour when they were older. However, while the number of arguments decreased as the children got older, the conflicts lasted longer.

These arguments involved physical aggression, name-calling, and oppositional behavior. While parents intervened around 60 percent of the time, they were typically ineffective in influencing their children’s behaviors.

I’ve never quite understood why parents don’t take these conflicts more seriously. Behaviors outside the home that would be viewed as bullying or emotional abuse are somehow tolerated and dismissed when they occur within the family. Since there is typically an age difference between siblings, the tyranny of older children over their young sibs has long-term negative consequences.

For parents who are bothered by six conflicts every hour between their kids, what can they do?

  1. Make certain the rules are clear.  You need not be a hovering parent who constantly intrudes in your children’s interactions. However, you should be clear and specific about what are the acceptable ways to resolve conflicts. Will you allow physical aggression, name-calling, blackmail, or derogatory language? You can’t communicate the rules to your kids if they are not clear to you.
  2. Get agreement with your spouse. You cannot stop conflicts between siblings unless there is consistency between you and your spouse about what is acceptable. Inconsistency in expectations between parents is the single most important factor responsible for siblings’ conflicts.
  3. Communicate expectations. Be explicit about what is allowed. Some parents use a chart with pictures to help young children remember the rules.
  4. Enforce expectations. Kids won’t learn unless you consistently enforce the rules. They will take you seriously when consequences, both positive and negative, are consistently applied.
  5. Teach problem-solving. Punishments such as time out will not work unless you also teach kids the right way to resolve issues. Young children need to learn about listening, sharing, and compromise. Don’t dismiss the ability of your kids to learn these skills. It takes time, but such skills have lifelong benefits.

You don’t have to tolerate your children arguing four to six times an hour. It’s common, but it’s neither normal or healthy. If you are concerned about your child being the victim or aggressor of bullying outside the home, set a good example by stopping that behavior at home.