Hands down, one of my favorite things in parenting is watching my kids interact. Seeing them share with one another, laugh together, and love each other is heartwarming. But I must also admit that some of the biggest challenges in parenting can relate to the way watch our children interact! So how can we maximize those moments of peace, joy, and love and trade those times that are littered with frustration, annoyance, or anger? I’d love to share five simple strategies for strengthening the sibling relationships in your family.
For those who may not know me well, let me tell you a little about our family. We have seven children that range in age from 4 to 23. Over the last 20 years, I have watched a lot of sibling interactions! And it really is true that it is one of my favorite parts of mothering! Even so, we have had to refine some of our interactions that can be difficult or trying. We have six boys and one girl. Our older boys are 22, 17, and 15, and our younger boys are 9, 7, and 4. Our daughter is right in the middle and 13 years old.
Watching them over the years has been mostly fascinating, but sometimes frustrating! I have observed their excitement over the birth of a new sibling and the utter joy they express as they nurture and love that new little addition. The memories I have etched in my mind are precious and priceless. Even to this day, should we say, “We have a surprise!” Someone will inevitably shout, “You’re having a baby!” No. No. And No. We are all done having babies!
I have also watched as certain combinations struggle to find a middle ground or connect. That can be really difficult. Different personalities of one child can tend to clash or push buttons of another. And it can be disheartening to watch. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. With some simple strategies, you can help even those tougher combinations find ways to connect and relate.
It can be helpful to understand why sibling relationships may feel strained or stressed. Some of the common reasons we find sibling relationships to be strained include the following:
- Too close in age—perhaps being close in age causes them to be too competitive or feel threatened by the other
- Too far apart in age—possibly not close enough in age to identify with what the other does or enjoys
- A child who is bossy or overbearing—may distance siblings who get tired of being bossed around
- A child that is prone to anger or outbursts—might make other siblings not feel secure or safe in their presence as they fear the next outburst or meltdown
- Opposite personalities of children—they think, communicate, and respond so differently to the same things that it is hard to relate or understand each other
- Personalities may be too much alike—they may understand each other but not like the comparison and competition they face
- Comparisons—this can be a huge discouragement to kids who constantly feel like they are being measured against their siblings and fear falling short
- Favoritism—when this starts in a family, it can be quite destructive to sibling relationships
However, none of these have to be game breakers! At some point, we have experienced most if not all of these! And I can still say that our kids have grown some precious sibling bonds. Maybe take inventory of the above list and see if there are things that might be tripping up your kids in relating. Is there something you need to be aware of or help ease between them.
I remember some distinct instances, like when our college-bound senior found out we were having a surprise baby. He wasn’t too happy. Part of him felt sad that this new baby would never know life with him in the house. Another part of him felt a bit upset that we might not be as available to him with the addition of a new little one. We understood both aspects. (And we were experiencing our own shock and awe as we were sending one grown man out into the world and ushering in a tiny new baby! It kind of felt like playing a game of chutes and ladders and just as you are about to win the game you hit that giant chute that takes you clear back to the start!)
But I can tell you this. He grew a protective, caring and nurturing relationship with this little guy. He was the one who stayed a night in the hospital with the baby and I following this little one’s major skull surgery. Watching him rock that little guy and put him to sleep melted my heart.
I remember watching two of our strong-willed kids get under each other’s skin in various ways for a couple of years. They just kind of annoyed each other and had a short fuse for the other. Then one day they realized they just might be more alike than they had realized. Now, I hear these two discuss relationships, sharing important details with each other, and it is endearing.
I have seen my youngest give kind reminders to his older siblings about rules or responsibilities, and I’m shocked that he is actually quite effective! They forge interesting and unique connections with each other. They love each other in special ways. For some, it is shared interests, and for others, it is a comradery that crosses the bounds of age, stage, or gender.
So here are some of the things we have tried to strengthen these sibling relationships.
Utilize the buddy system.
I can’t tell you how key this has been to encourage that sense of care, nurturing, and loving each other. We may find ourselves as parents, doing all the tasks that each day holds, and perhaps it feels faster that way. But truly, allowing them to help each other is part of building these relationships.
It has worked nicely with our crew, as we had an older kid to match with each of our younger kids. But you could be inventive. Each week we would assign a “big” to a “little” and they would help do some of those odd tasks. They may help them get shoes on or teeth brushed. Perhaps they’d help load them in the car or just get them a drink. But in those moments where Mom’s hands were busy or we were trying to get out of the house, I could simply ask the “bigs” to step in for “their little” or direct a “little” to ask “their big”!
We would keep these buddies in place for a week, during which they began a system of working well together. But then around the week point, they would change and get a new buddy for the next week. And that helped keep them working well together.
Help them understand personality differences.
Early on, our family talked about personalities and how we are each unique and different. Our older kids have developed a keen sense of what personality differences might include. And our younger ones are in the process of learning. We work to point out strengths of each personality and sometimes have to talk about things that our personality might need to practice and have some help with (personality struggle).
We have developed a frame of reference for what each person might work best with and understand that what works for one might not necessarily work with another. Some siblings might appreciate the fun, others being in control, some getting things right, and others just having it simple and easy. Some work well with options while others just need a clear direction.
The You Zoo book (which I co-authored) has been a fun way to help our kids discover their personalities and also clue in the older kids! The kids enjoy reading it together and find it fun to see their differences and similarities. This simple handout can help you see the basic personality differences.
Inspire fun sibling moments (brother time, sister-brother time, etc).
Many times on weekends, we are purposeful about finding those moments that can feel special for the kids. Sometimes, even at breakfast, we discuss plans for the day. I may ask, “Is anyone needing special brother time today?” I don’t think we’ve ever had someone turn that down. Usually there is a chorus of, “ME! ME!” Then we decide who is going to take that time and what they might do. It could be that the 9 and 7 year old want some time together without the 4 year old playing with them. I help that happen.
Perhaps one of the younger boys wants time playing the NBA game on the Xbox with a big brother. We talk about that and work it out. Generally, as one set teams up, another team of brothers decides they need time too. As a result, they may decide to go jump on the trampoline together for special brother time. I try to make it a habit that whenever one of the kids asks for “special brother or sister time” that I accommodate that. I want them to forge those relationships and connections, and I know that designated and valued time can do just that!
At the start of summer, we always make our summer fun lists (things we want to make time for in the course of summer break). I always ask while making these lists, “Is there something you’d like to do with a sibling?” Inevitably, we add a few things here and there, like craft projects, nature walks, water play, playing ball, and more. In this way, we are framing sibling time as valued and special, something to look forward to.A sibling is a piece of childhood that can never be lost. --unknown Click To Tweet
Create those moments when they compliment and encourage each other.
We have what we call our Special Day Plate. Anyone in our family can decide to give it to another member of the family, although I find that mom is often the one who initiates it. We may use the plate for special occasions (birthdays, spiritual birthdays, etc), milestone events (losing first tooth, mastering a skill, etc) or something random (to cheer on a bad day, encourage after hard test at school, or just because).
Whoever receives the Special Day Plate takes the spotlight, as each person says what they love about that person. In this way, they are pausing to say things that build each other up and instill love and peace. It has become a special tradition for our family, and each person always looks forward to hearing what others have to say.
Encourage those special gifts or gestures of love.
One of the things I always love most is the kid’s gift exchange at Christmas. Usually, right after Thanksgiving, we start planning for this. They draw names, rather than buy for everyone, simply because of the cost. But we have used this as a special way of gifting a sibling with something that will be special. We try to make a special trip to shop for these gifts.
Several of the kids have used birthdays as another time to gift something to a sibling. And it doesn’t have to be something big or costly. In fact, we’ve made more trips to sibling rooms to shop for something that a sibling would enjoy than you would ever imagine. Sometimes it is that act of giving up something they truly love that communicates the depth of their love or care.
We’ve also had times where we are out and about and one child sees something that another would really like. I try hard to accommodate those (within reason of course), as this is great practice in not thinking of oneself but placing other’s interests or desires ahead of your own.
And I have to say, our oldest has been a great role model for these gestures of love. He took his little sister on a brother-sister date while he was a senior in high school. She will never forget it. He even took her to the store and got her some jewelry. How do you beat that?!
Together, together, together!
It doesn’t matter if you have two kids or ten. And truly, it doesn’t matter if your kids are close in age or far apart. In fact, it doesn’t matter how young your children are (all the better if you can start these from an early age—you’ll just have to play a more active role) All of these are simple strategies you can encourage in your family. And it doesn’t take a lot of extra effort or energy. Best of all, none of these have to be a financial burden. Sometimes, the best thing we can give someone is our time. And I think that is one of the best things we can teach our kids. Giving their time to each other is a gift. Whether they are reading a book together, building legos together, jumping on the trampoline together, making pudding together, coloring together, pretending together…it can feel like a gift to the one enjoying it with them. The key is TOGETHER!
It is all too easy with the busy schedules we live by to forget the value of family time and connecting. I want to encourage you to take some time and think about how you can set your kids up for success. How can you enrich their sibling relationship? How can you help them appreciate both their similarities and differences? How might you instill one of the above ideas to strengthen the sibling bond your children share.
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Until next time, take care!