When I was campaigning to have a second child a few years back, I kept telling my husband that I wanted our son to have a built-in, lifelong friend — or at least an ally. I don’t think I was naive about it. I know kids fight, and I know that sibling relationships are complex. But I also know that my own sister is one of the great loves of my life.
So I was heartened when my younger son was born and the older one seemed immediately taken with him, proudly showing off “his” baby. It goes both ways. It’s clear that my boys love each other. But they can also be breathtakingly cruel. Like this morning, when my older son pushed his little brother off his chair and straight onto his head. Or a few days ago, when my younger kid refused to give his pleading brother a hug before bed, cackling like some weird toddler cartoon villain. Their relationship is beautiful and volatile, which makes it confusing as hell.
For more than 30 years, Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, has studied sibling conflict. She and her co-researchers are distilling much of what she’s learned into a new program called More Fun With Sisters And Brothers, which is for parents of 4- to 8-year-old children who want to help those kids build positive relationships.
“It isn’t just the sort of things people talk about, like age between siblings or same or different gender between siblings. What seems to be most important is how children learn to develop a good relationship with one another,” Kramer told HuffPost. “I think that’s good news for parents ... there are things you can do to help kids get along.”
(Families who are interested can register for the online program, which includes four lessons, for free. The program is focused on that age range because kids are developmentally capable of things like empathy, but their behaviors aren’t yet set in stone, Kramer said.)
Wondering what the evidence says about raising kids who are pals? Here are four easy-to-implement strategies from Kramer’s research to help you raise kids who actually like each other.
1. Tell them you want them to get along.
Sibling relationships are important for long-term mental health and behavioral outcomes. Research shows, for example, that having a sibling can help foster empathy, while sibling bullying can cause measurable emotional distress. And, of course, day to day it makes for a way happier household if your kids aren’t fighting all the damn time.
But parents don’t always make it clear to their kiddos that a) they recognize it’s important for them to build their own relationship, and b) they care a lot that they learn to treat each other with kindness and respect.
“Sometimes kids don’t know that their parents think it is important that they get along,” Kramer said.
Simply letting your kids know that you value the relationship they have with each other can be a good first step in setting expectations. Tell them this matters to you and point out instances when they’re having fun together that make you happy. Then do it again and again.
2. Don’t ignore their conflicts.
“If you read a lot of the older parenting manuals, they’ll tell you that parents should not intervene in sibling conflicts. That turns out to be really wrong,” Kramer said. “There’s no research to support it whatsoever.”
With younger kids in particular, parents are sometimes wary of intervening because they are worried their kids are simply trying to get their attention, but Kramer said that’s really not why siblings fight. Kids don’t come into the world knowing how to manage conflicts, particularly with siblings who are always around them. That is tricky stuff for anyone, really, adults included. It’s your job as a parent to help them develop those skills.
“If you read a lot of the older parenting manuals, they’ll tell you that parents should not intervene in sibling conflicts. That turns out to be really wrong.”
One simple strategy from the More Fun With Sisters And Brothers program? The stop-think-talk intervention. Teach your kids to practice freezing or stopping if they’re about to respond impulsively to something their sibling did that they didn’t like. Next, they should think about what they want to happen next and tell their sibling that. Practice it often, like a game.
3. Explain any differences in how you’re treating them.
Sometimes one child is going to take up more of your attention than the other. Sometimes one child might require more discipline than the other, and sometimes one child might get something that the other doesn’t. They’re not always going to be treated exactly the same way, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be a source of tension.
“Kids will tolerate a lot of differences in parenting. They’ll understand if their parent needs to spend more time with one child than another, as long as they understand the reason for it. They’re fine,” Kramer said. “But we’ve learned that these are processes that parents don’t like to talk about that much. And when they don’t talk about differences in attention or discipline, kids make up their own reasons.”
Again, simply being transparent with your kids about why you’re parenting a particular way — and about what your expectations are — can go a long way in snuffing out any tension between them. Also, if you’ve taken pains to thoughtfully explain differences in how they’re being treated and your kids are still insistent that it isn’t fair, perhaps consider the possibility that they’re right, Kramer added.
4. Give them plenty of opportunities to actually do stuff together.
Sure, all sibling relationships have highs and lows. But you can generally tell that your kids are getting along well if they’re able to really have fun together, Kramer said, and it’s important that parents help facilitate that.
“One of the things we ask parents to think about in the very first lesson is, ‘How often are you setting up opportunities for your kids to do things together?’” Kramer said.
Nowadays, when kids are so often being shuttled from one activity to the next, it’s easy for siblings to miss out on the chance to just hang out and play — even just play next to each other. Can you set up spaces in the house where they’re able to really hang out together? In addition to their individual toys, do they have shared ones? Is there at least one activity you can get them both into together, whether that’s riding bikes or swimming or working on art projects as a team?
Pay attention to how they react when you ask them to spend time playing together. Are they OK with it, or do they sigh like it’s a chore? Ultimately, what you want is for them to find times when they’re really, truly happy to connect with each other — and, in turn, to make it clear how happy that makes you.