Ministry of Education, Guyana

Helping Siblings Get Along When You Have to Stay Home

“Someday, you two are going to realize how lucky you are to have each other!” I’ve said that to my kids more times than I can count. Hunkered down and separated from their friends due to coronavirus, they really are lucky to have each other.

But there is A LOT of togetherness happening. And while brothers and sisters can be a source of friendship and comfort, they can also be a source of conflict. If you find your kids having more big feelings and big fights than usual, that’s completely normal. The good news? Studies show that siblings who play together as children are more likely to be close as adults, and there’s a great opportunity to build special bonds while so many of us are at home.

To get some pointers on how to keep my kids from driving each other nuts and come out of this difficult time closer, I talked to some experts and parents on sibling relationships and asked what’s been working for them.

Help your children make the most of this time together

Tell your kids their relationship is important to you. Dr. Laurie Kramer, who has been studying sibling relationships for more than 30 years, says many kids she interviews don’t know their parents want them to be close. Now is a good time to point out to your kids that you not only want them to be friends in childhood, but also be able to rely on each other later in life.

For kids of different ages, level the playing field. If your kids are like mine, the youngest one often feels like he or she can’t keep up — whether it’s in a board game, on a bike trail or in a soccer game. Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting, suggests finding activities they can do in parallel at different levels, like an art project with the same materials but no set goal, a fun dance game or working together on a project with roles for each child. For example, they can make a book and the older one can write the words while the younger one draws the pictures.

Encourage shared interests. This is a great time to explore new activities and find a few things your kids like to do together. Try making a jar that has slips of paper with activities both kids like, so they can pick out one or two the next time one of them says, “He doesn’t want to do anything I like to do!” Dr. Matthew Hersh, a psychologist in Arlington, Massachusetts, says that if your kids tend not to play together, praising them when they do can help get them in the habit. I’ve found that quiet encouragement helps, too.. When my 10-year-old and 5-year-old play together, I make sure not to interrupt, even if it means they don’t do their chores or they go to bed a little late.

Make time for physical play. Laughter is important for family relationships, and Markham says that physical play is a great way to create laughter — whether it’s a pillow fight, roughhousing or tickling. This seems to be especially important for my boys right now because they can’t get energy out by playing with their friends like they usually do. I’ll admit, this is a tough one for me, though. It seems like my kids’ wrestling always ends in tears. Markham cautions that it is really important to set ground rules about what’s allowed, what isn’t and how everyone can communicate when they want the roughhousing to stop.

Create opportunities to work together. Working together as a family allows the adults to model the kind of cooperation and kindness we want to see in our kids, Hersh says. Bake, garden, make a photo album. Better yet — get everyone in on the housework. Have a family cleanup time each morning or night, cook together or assign everyone a task and see how fast the whole “team” can get the cleaning done. This is a great time to encourage your child to become a “helper” — something we too often skip over in our busy lives.

Recognize when they need alone time. We all need breaks from each other sometimes, and that’s certainly going to be true for siblings, even if they tend to get along well. It can help to have dedicated one-on-one time for each child and to rotate which family members play together at different times. Don’t forget to bring in extended family members and friends sometimes, even if they’re not close by. In our house, the kids have separate video chats with their friends every day and each child gets their own time with grandparents via video chat. They also do their schoolwork in separate rooms, coming together for lunch, art and “recess.”

Expect some conflict and help them deal with it
Despite our best efforts, brothers and sisters are still going to fight sometimes. In fact, we should expect our kids to have more conflict now than usual. “This enforced togetherness is going to get on everyone’s nerves no matter who you are or what age,” Markham said. She recommends that we model staying calm and naming feelings. For example, you can say, “I know you’re upset with your sister for writing on your drawing. I would be upset, too.”

And remember, the “let them work it out themselves” approach isn’t very effective unless we teach our kids how to work it out. “Most kids don’t automatically have those skills, especially if they’re under the age of 8,” Kramer said. In a program she developed to foster positive sibling relationships, she teaches kids a few simple steps to deal with conflict: Each person stops, explains their feelings and goals, and tries to understand the other’s perspective. Then they work to find a solution that meets both kids’ most important needs. Kramer finds that kids as young as 4 years old can learn those skills in less than an hour.

Remember that they’re stressed, too
While you’re navigating your kids’ squabbles, remember that they’re picking up on the anxiety in the air and feeling it just like we are. Your kids’ fights and freak-outs might be coming from a deeper place than it seems. When kids don’t know how to articulate their feelings, they often act out, and right now, their siblings are the closest (and safest) targets for those blow-ups. Before you react, take a deep breath and make space for feelings that might be trying to float to the surface. Check out these tips for talking to kids about COVID-19 for more on how to help your kids manage anxiety and uncertainty.

Patience and empathy are some of the most important things we can give our kids right now. And the support to develop loving relationships with their siblings is one of the most important things we can give them for the long term. So praise your kids when they are playing and working well together. Try to be understanding when they’re not. Have faith in them and their relationship, not just as it is now, but as you hope it will be in the future.


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