In all this time writing the blog, I somehow have never written a full post about siblings. I did make this infographic here from the book Siblings without Rivalry – my go to source for approaching disputes between siblings, raising siblings without rivalry, and keeping your sanity.
So with the holidays here in the Northern Hemisphere just around the corner and more time together as a family, I thought it apt to give you some tools to deal with the potential battles that might present themselves.
Even if you have one child, these principles also apply to playing with friends and the extended family.
Surviving the holidays with siblings – a Montessori teacher’s top 10 tips
1. Viewing sibling conflict as an opportunity for learning
The most important thing to shift in our minds is to recognise that conflict is not bad and to be avoided. When we disagree with others, we are learning about how others feel about the world.
So it’s ok for siblings to disagree. They may simply need some guidance from us to do this in a non-hurtful or non-physical way.
When we can reframe conflict, we see it not as something to wind us up but as an opportunity for teaching and learning.
2. Stepping in – the 3 levels
Whilst it’s never completely black and white, there are basically three levels to disagreements and different ways we, as adults, can respond:
1. Low-level bickering/fighting
I’d let them see me so they know an adult is keeping an eye on it, but leave them to solve it themselves. This is letting them learn conflict resolution.
2. Fighting is escalating
This requires some adult guidance, for example, reminding them of a house rule, or helping them see each other’s perspective.
3. Fighting is getting too physical
Children need rough play – getting physical with each other, often beyond the adult’s comfort zone. In our house, we agreed that if someone had enough, they’d say “Stop!” Then it was clear they weren’t having fun anymore.
When fighting otherwise gets physical, the adult can step in to physically separate them – “I’m not going to let you hurt each other. You sit on this side and you sit on the other side of me/the room until you are ready to talk with each other.”
3. Being neutral
When there is a dispute, rather than rushing in to decide who is right and wrong OR that the older child should take responsibility because they should know better OR that the naughty one is at it again, we can be the neutral and calm mediator.
If we take sides, it has an effect on how our children see us. They see us taking their side or that we don’t take their side. Instead of learning how they can work it out for themselves, with us as their guide.
So stay neutral.
4. Understanding each other’s perspective
Hard as it is to see sometimes, our children are not fighting with their sibling for no reason. Each child believes they are in the right, just as we do when we disagree with someone’s views.
In these volatile situations, we can be the neutral guide helping them to first to feel understood and then to see the other’s perspective. I like to say we are their translator.
First, we can guess how they may be feeling until it’s clear, “Did you really want a turn with the blocks?” “Were you upset that your tower got knocked down?” “Are you frustrated they didn’t want to dress up and be the fireman?”
You may want to do this separately with each child.
Then come together and you can help them see each other’s perspective, (to child A) “It sounds like you were really angry that your brother took the toy” and (to child B) “It sounds like you really wanted a turn too. Hmmm. That is difficult. I wonder what you’ll come up with to work it out?”
5. Learning how we can all have our needs met
Conflict is an expression of each child not having their needs met. For example, one child wants some space and the other wants some company.
As adults we can guide our children to be creative to come up with ways so everyone can have their needs met. Often the children themselves (even toddlers) come up with ideas we may not even have thought of.
6. Setting up physical spaces
As a Montessori teacher, I like to see how I can use the environment to help siblings.
- creating spaces where a child can go to play by themselves
- creating a space where children can play together
- having activities with small parts on a higher shelf and in more difficult to open containers out of reach of a younger sibling
- creating simplified versions of an activity when a younger child wants to participate
- give children access and invitations to be involved in activities of daily life, eg, working together to set the table
7. Bringing it back to the child, not their sibling
“It’s not fair” is a common war-cry in the holidays with siblings. Instead of trying to justify how things are fair, we can turn our attention to what our child is asking for.
For example, if they are wanting more cheese because their sibling got more, we can remove the focus on the sibling and ask, “Did you want more cheese? There’s none left now but we’ll put it on our shopping list.”
I really appreciate the idea of “equal is not equal” which I first read about in Siblings Without Rivalry. You can also hear Julie King discuss this beautifully on the Tilt Parenting podcast about treating each child in terms of their individual needs here.
8. Avoiding questions like “what happened here?” or “why did you hit your brother?”
Not many people want to get into trouble. When we ask questions like “what happened here?” or “why did you hit your brother?”, the child – to avoid getting into trouble – may blame their sibling or even lie to us.
Instead, we can describe what we see. “You both look furious with each other. I’m sorry to see that. How can I help?” Then go back to translating for them (as above).
9. Saying sorry/making amends
Rather controversially, I prefer not to force children to say sorry. I rather wait until they are calm and then I can guide them (if needed) to see how they can make amends with each other. This is restorative justice, rather than punishment.
Making it up may be tidying up toys that may have been thrown, getting a tissue or cold cloth for a sibling who has been hurt, or repairing something that was broken.
Be clear about how our children are expected to use the toys in the home. In our house when there were disagreements, they would share by taking turns. If sharing is difficult in your house, this article has some ideas to help.
Bonus: provide opportunities for them to see that they have built a caring relationship with their sibling
In the story we tell about our families, we can remind each other that we are families that help each other, of times when we had fun together, and that we have built a kind family culture together. Research shows that building this warm culture in the family, has a higher chance of leading to siblings that are closer with one another.
And, in closing, whilst we would love for our children to be best friends, all we can hope for is that they get along in a respectful way. We cannot force a friendship, but we can build kindness in the home.
Here’s to a fun and mostly peaceful summer in your home!
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