It's the call of siblings, whether screamed over a cookie, television program or a turn on the computer.
Battles between brothers and sisters can pull a dark cloud over otherwise happy family vacations and summer activities-especially when children are spending more time with each other. The more parents try to accommodate competing interests among siblings, the more frustrated everyone seems to get and the question becomes, can it really ever be fair?
"Parents should try to make things as fair as possible with regards to snacks, computer time and so on," says Todd Cartmell, psychologist, parent and author of several books, including Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry.
"The best thing parents can do is to create an atmosphere in which close sibling relationships are most likely to occur," says Cartmell, who characterizes that atmosphere with one word: respect. "In a disrespectful environment, where there is teasing, name calling, put downs and hitting, there is no chance they will grow close. You wouldn't grow close to someone who treated you that way, and neither will your kids."
So how can you keep rivalries at bay and foster a respectful atmosphere between sibs?
When sisters and brothers go at it in your house this summer, try these techniques to keep things cool and as fair as possible.
"A family needs to make a list of disrespectful behaviors that push their relationships apart, like shouting, name calling and hitting. Then, make a list of respectful behaviors that they would like to see more of, like sharing, giving compliments and taking turns," says Cartmell.
"Identify situations where disrespectful behaviors most often happen (like taking turns on the computer) and have the children role-play that situation, using respectful words and behaviors. Through regular practice, your children's skills at handling situations in a respectful way will increase and improve their sibling relationships."
Flexibility is the key to squelching power struggles. Parents can teach their children to think flexible thoughts, such as "It's OK," "I don't always have to go first," "It's no big deal, we'll all get a turn," to help them handle disappointments. Once those become familiar, parents can encourage their children to act in flexible ways, letting other kids go ahead of them or have a turn with the favorite toy.
But Cartmell says parents also must modify their expectations when a child throws a tantrum over the injustice of a bigger cookie. "We expect our children to be able to handle this. The skill they need to learn here is to be flexible."
Instead of trying to keep kids and their feuding apart by separating them, parents can help improve sibling relationship by instituting a regular family time together. Whether it's playing board games, going on a walk in the neighborhood or cooking a meal together, family activities that depend on cooperation and are centered on fun give siblings a chance to practice healthy communication skills in a supervised setting.
While parents may be able to manage the tension between siblings, encourage peace-making and patience, they can't make their children love one another, says Cartmell. "In fact, I don't think you can make them like each other."
Whether we know it or not, we often treat the "kids" as one unit, whether they are a pack of two or six, aggravating the need some kids have to stick out from the crowd, be heard and paid attention to. All the effort to get to the front of the line puts even the most good-natured child on edge and can aggravate sibling competition.
A little undivided attention from mom or dad will give each child a chance to be heard without interruptions or objections, and summer vacation time is the perfect opportunity to enjoy each child.
Sharon Cindrich is a mother of two tech-savvy kids from Virginia Beach. Learn more at sharoncindrich.com.
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