Recently there was another article in The New York Times about fostering good relationships among siblings while they are young. As many of us grownups know, the dynamics we learn as kids growing up in the same household often predict the strength of our relationships as adults. Once we become parents we become all too aware of how easy it can be to mess up parenting.
As a Family Mediator working exclusively with Parents and Teens and older Siblings/Seniors, I see the creation of family dynamics through my work with parents and their adolescent children and the results in the adult children I work with who are often arguing over the care of their parents or estates and bringing that learned behavior into the room thirty or more years later. They are older now with the same dynamics ruling their relationships.
Something the parenting specialists talk about is recalling what our parents ‘did wrong’ and avoiding those mistakes or resisting replicating that behavior. We can give our children the good experiences that can bond them when they are young but it takes more than that. How do we set examples and how do we teach them to deal with conflict?
No parent wants to be preached to but here are some suggestions gleaned from my professional observations, my childhood and my years of parenting.
Saying ‘I’m sorry’ and meaning it can be very powerful. Not a trivial and passing apology that is obviously insincere but one that shows thoughtful recognition of the behavior or words that precipitated the hurt and/or anger. The ‘Me Too Movement’ has generated a lot of talk about genuine apologies. It’s worth reading some of these articles to understand how to apologize with meaning. A generalized ‘I’m sorry I hurt you’ is not as effective or meaningful as an apology for a specific action. This skill is important for both parents and children. Parents should be modeling the art of apologies for their youth and showing them the benefits of righting and overcoming wrongs while acknowledging the other’s feelings. This will serve them well over a lifetime and can quell conflicts later on. It’s surprising how many adults had parents who never apologized to them while expecting apologies from their children.
Promoting Sibling Unity
Siblings should be peers and see themselves as such. Not that they cannot be assigned the role of babysitter or responsible older child, but they should not be seen in an elevated role that can provoke resentment or allowed to abuse that role. A good rule to help with that is ‘no ratting’. No child wants to feel like his/her sibling is with the KGB. The rule might be no ‘telling’ on your brother or sister unless the consequences are life threatening or potentially harmful or serious. Any telling on a sibling should be able to demonstrate good judgment so a parent can explain the cause for worry and can justify why the sister/brother was not ‘telling on him’ but trying to help. The resentment of ‘ratting’ lingers into adulthood.
Feel free to put children into other shoes. If a child is being noisy and waking up others, ask them how they would feel if it happened to them. Or explain that when they want some consideration they may not get it because they didn’t extend it to others. And show appreciation when children are considerate as reinforcement.
Let Them Resolve Arguments
When children come to you yelling about an argument they are having (and hoping you will take sides) you might want to point out that it is their disagreement, not yours and they have to resolve it. Do not take sides. With the exception of the rare ‘Solomon decisions’, the rule could be that the two should sit at a table, across from one another, and talk it out. A parent might want to serve as a mediator to keep the conversation on track and civil, but instead of dictating a decision, help them resolve it themselves. You can sit and listen and offer suggestions rather than being judge and jury.
It’s amazing how kids are born with personalities. I can still see some consistency in my children now that they are grown. Having different traits is not the same as ‘labeling’. You might see that one of your children is more responsible than the others or one is more independent. Labeling kids as ‘difficult’ or ‘bossy’ is different and stays with them. If there is behavior that needs correction, work on that with them but don’t brand them. Whether the ‘brands’ are negative or positive (the pretty one, the gifted one), those distinctions are not helpful. Don’t let personal traits that may be attributable to age appropriate behavior (particularly teenage behavior) define them as they grow and mature.
Families that can celebrate holidays and good times together over a lifetime are the lucky ones. It doesn’t have to mean that everyone is best friends, but those who have lingering resentments are most likely to alienate themselves from the larger family life, depriving themselves, their children, their adult siblings and the family as a whole the benefits of important relationships that enhance our emotional growth and instill a sense of belonging and security.