Setting siblings up for success and facilitating their relationship
When I was pregnant with my youngest, I was so terrified that my boys wouldn’t get along. I’d been an early interventionist for 10 years, I’d been in all kinds of homes during that 10 years and I’d seen both great and awful sibling relationships but the awful were much greater in number, unfortunately.
Combine that with just my personal lived experience of my relationship with my own brother, my second-hand experience with my friends and their siblings…I was pretty panicked.
At this point I was already coaching, so I did what I do best I went down a rabbit hole of reading. I interviewed veteran parents I knew. I talked to some therapists I knew. And I came up with some principles that I decided I was going to strive towards when it came to facilitating my kids’ relationships with each other. I have to say- so far- so good. My kids were stuck at home with me for 18 months last year, they’ve been stuck at home with me for a month now again, and somehow have come out more bonded than ever. On the second day of school, my younger son’s kinder teacher messaged me to say she’s never seen two siblings quite so bonded which may have been my peak personal achievement of 2021. Siblings have been coming up a lot lately in ParentAbility.
We were not immune to the Covid baby boom so a lot of my clients either had pandemic babies, are currently pregnant, or had kids right before the pandemic hit.
I would like to discuss the 3 things that will make the biggest impact on facilitating a positive relationship between my kids.
Boundaries have been a theme I’ve been obsessed with for a long time but especially once I had my kids. When I looked at all the negative sibling experiences I’ve had and witnessed throughout my life one golden thread connected almost all of them and that was a lack of mutually understood and expressed boundaries.
This started from the moment my youngest was born. I very actively taught my oldest personal space boundaries; you cannot get in the baby’s face or grab things out of his hands. I taught them how to actively stop, and the concept of “anything but an enthusiastic yes is a no.”
If the baby was whining, that’s not an enthusiastic yes, that’s a no, backup. The baby was crying? That’s a stop.
I taught my oldest to actively stop so if he’s told to stop he puts his hands in the air and takes two steps back. As my younger one got mobile we started practicing it with him too obviously, I had to facilitate it heavily at first, and he was not particularly happy about it but he did catch on quickly.
I have a really cute picture of him doing what looks like a super-man plank in our living room- but what had happened before I took the photo was my oldest yelled “STOP!! Leave me alone!” and the baby “put his hands in the air”…he couldn’t stand up, and he was crawling, so he did the best he could. It was hilarious. I started teaching turn-taking right away. Not timed turn-taking, long turn-taking.
There is a previous blog post about helping your child with the transition of a new baby.
I had to facilitate it very actively for a very long time I really was able to start backing off once Owen turned 3. So it was no small-time investment but if I had to say one thing that I think has made the biggest difference it would be the very firm and consistent boundaries I set between them right from the start.
I’m also a big fan of routine, you know, I love my visual routines. They’ve always had their visual routines laid out for them, they’ve taken different formats over the years- but that has really helped make it concrete when the focus is on them and when it isn’t very consistent and clear guidance around what they could do when the focus wasn’t on them. Logan had a social story all about what he could and could not do while I was putting Owen down for a nap. Once they moved into the same room he had clear boundaries around what he could do while Owen was napping. I’ve taught them to consent as they’ve gotten more interactive and played more physical games together- we reinforce those rules to this day, constantly.
Boundaries are a huge thing, and teaching my boys to express their boundaries and respect the boundaries of others has really paid off in my opinion.
2. Conflict Resolution Skills
Since the little one was born before he could even participate on his own. I’ve been teaching them to solve their own problems. A book that came out while I was pregnant with my oldest was Heather Shumaker’s It’s OK Not to Share- and chapter 3 in that book is “Kids Need Conflict.” Highly recommended it’s an easy read. In that chapter she walks you through a very simple conflict resolution framework:
First, get the kids involved in conflict to stop and observe what’s going on around them.
Ask open-ended questions and state what you’re observing to help them build awareness of what’s going on.
Second, bring the kids together.
Kids can’t solve a problem from across the room.
Third, identify how everyone is feeling.
This is where boundaries are important. I don’t let my kids talk over each other, they’ll each get a turn. There’s no evaluating or qualifying other’s feelings. Everyone has the right to their feelings.
Fourth, tell eachother directly how you feel.
I’m mad, you hurt me. I don’t need to know, I’m not the one you’re having a problem with. Tell him directly.
This starts with us reinforcing what the other kid is saying- because kids aren’t used to listening to other kids. They listen to adults. So there’s a lot of “He said you hurt him when you hit him with the sword.” and “He says he asked you to move and you refused.” It’s just like being an echo.
Sixth, define the problem.
Once you’ve heard both of their descriptions of the issue, help them define the problem in a way they can both understand and agree on. So like “So it sounds like the problem is that Owen wanted to play in the sand pit, but the rule is you can only swing the sword at the ground in the sand pit- and Owen didn’t want to move. Right?”
Help them think of ways to solve the problem.
Eigth, get a commitment
Once you’ve brainstormed and come up with some viable solutions, summarize them and get everyone to agree.
Finally, go do it!
At the very least role-play it.
Yes, at first this is SUPER cumbersome and time consuming but after you do it over and over and over, the kids learn how to do it, so they start taking over some of the steps themselves. You don’t have to facilitate as much anymore because they aren’t interrupting, they’re listening, they’re brainstorming on their own. And then one day you realize you haven’t facilitated a conflict in months.
My kids can work through those 9 steps in 2 minutes now, by themselves. They really listen to each other and their teachers have said that their listening skills, as in the ability to hear what someone else is saying and ask questions to clarify their meaning, is awesome. Both of them have gotten a comment on that this year. This isn’t just something that will make their relationship with each other better. It’s important for all their friendships.
Ownership Over Each other
I put them on the same team, and I encourage them to take care of eachother. I give them lots of opportunities to help eachother out.
From birth, Logan was bringing me Owen’s diapers and bottles. Owen was asked to pass Logan things at the table. If one was hurt, the other was brought in to help comfort them. I ask them to look out for each other not just the big one for the little one. I get them to teach eachother things.
When Logan was toilet training, Owen was an infant but he was in the carrier on my back and I was “helping” Owen cheer Logan on. Logan pretty much toilet trained Owen.
They bring eachother stuffies when upset, they help eachother tuck their shirts in. We had to practice putting on our own snowpants when school started because I realized neither had pulled their snow pants over their own butt in over a year because they were always together so one would help the other, which is awesome but doesn’t work so well in school.
We really focus on we all take care of eachother. If your brother needs help, help him.
Those are the main things I see that have made a big difference in my boys feeling safe and connected with eachother and are really just good friendship skills.
One other thing which I personally think has helped to reduce conflict overall is that since I don’t expect my children to share, I buy pretty much two of everything.
That doesn’t mean everything but unless it’s a Christmas or birthday gift, if one is getting something, I expect the other will want it too so I just get a second one.
My kids also colour-coded themselves at some point. Logan is red and Owen is orange. Whenever possible, if I can get things in their designated colour that helps to make it clear whose is whoses, like their tablets.
They both have Kindle Fire tablets we bought at the beginning of the pandemic and one has a red case and one has an orange case. So there’s no question whose is whose. Their bluetooth headphones, same thing. I look at everything through the lens of reducing stress, these little tiny things actually support a lot of weight in their relationship because it reduces the energy they need to expend figuring out what belong to who and negotiating resources.
What do you think?
Is there anything there you hadn’t thought about or haven’t been doing and think would make a big difference?
Obviously these aren’t the only things we should focus on, but they cover most of the ground when I think about how I’ve taught my kids to be together.
Any questions about how any of this could work with your kids and family circumstances?
Come join us in the Parenting Possee and let’s talk about it. There’s almost 10 thousand parents in there waiting to help you brainstorm and figure it out.