Several weeks ago a regular reader (I do have a few!) asked me to write a post about sibling rivalry. Once again I must emphasize that I am no expert on this subject. I just live with three kids who have the social skills of 3-4 year-olds, two of them due to age and one due to the challenges of living on the autism spectrum. I have some basic observations from this experience and a few "rules" that I follow to handle things in my own home. I thought I would share these and also open the discussion (as always) to hear others' thoughts on this important topic.
First, one key thing that I did not understand about parenting until after I had three children is that the "currency" of childhood is parental attention. The amount of time you spend worrying about, thinking about, planning for or handling your various financial issues will give you a starting point for understanding how your kids feel about your attention. Sibling rivalry is a direct extension of this kid-economy. An only child has a monopoly on parental attention. They have to compete with your vocation and your hobbies, but when the "goods" are handed out they get it all, baby. Siblings must divide the booty, and this is the beginning of the problem.
Second, attention can be distributed in many forms: gifts, praise, conversation, time playing together, and even discipline, to name a few. There are many demands on a parent's time (way to state the obvious!) and while children don't calculate out how to insist on their "time" with mom and dad, they have a real need to gain your attention. If they can't get time playing with you then getting some attention by misbehaving is an acceptable option in their book. It's important to "pay" attention in positive ways in order to prevent negative attention.
Third, there are many demands on a parents time (I said it again!) and you can't interfere with every kid squabble that comes your way. You need to work, clean, cook, sort the mail, read the mail, eat, sleep (once in a while), and a whole long list of other stuff. If you stop every five minutes to get your kids happy with each other and you, you'll not even get through the first step.
Keeping these three observations in mind, what I *_try_* to do around here is the following:
Spend time with your kids one on one. Your kids need to spend time with you individually to get their attention tank filled up. It doesn't have to be much; 5-15 minutes of one on one time with you each day can go a long way toward helping your child feel special. This time needn't be some major affair. Include them in what you are doing (see list above) or get involved in what they are doing. I've been realizing how important the 5-10 minutes I spend at school in the morning with my daughter is right now. She wants to show me little things in the classroom, but mostly she has my undivided attention, and she eats it up.
Spend time with your kids together. Your kids need to spend time with you as a group to practice sharing your attention. This is an excellent opportunity to put skills like taking turns, sharing, and thinking about others. It might not look pretty right away, but as you practice with your kids (you need the practice, too) you will develop systems and strategies that work for your family. We literally take turns and use all of the language associated with that skill when we're playing with all of the kids at the same time. "It's Sissy's turn, and next is Bubba's turn." "Good waiting, now it's your turn." "You can be next." "One more time and then it is Sissy's turn."
Talk about it. I think it is okay to tell your kids that they need to share you. Explain that you want to spend time with all of them, and that you love all of them. Ask how they want to spend their time with you, but make it clear that you belong to everyone.
Give them some words to use. During your play time with your kids you can help them learn some solid ways to avoid and resolve conflict. Skills like taking turns and sharing avoid conflicts. "Using your words" can help resolve and respond to conflicts. When there are problems while you are directly interacting with your kids you can help them resolve things in a positive way by modeling and encouraging positive verbiage. "I'm Sorry" "Can I have a turn?" "I'm not done yet, but you can be next" and "I want to play by myself right now" are all useful tools for a child to have in their conflict resolution toolbox. Hopefully they can transfer those skills to times when you are not involved.
Let them sort things out on their own... to the extent that your children are capable of doing so, and only you can judge this. When our twins were in their first couple of years we closely supervised our oldest daughter at all times with them. As the twins have gotten bigger and more able to defend themselves, our direct supervision has reduced. We are always at least indirectly supervising - keeping an ear out for growing friction. We step in when the conflict is truly beyond the kids' ability to resolve it, but not before. Some amount of conflict and bickering is normal. Interfering with every squabble is not only impossible, but will send your kids the message that they aren't capable of figuring out how to resolve their own problems. Supervise, closely if necessary, to prevent truly aggressive responses, but let the verbal fur fly.
Divide and conquer is not just a military strategy. Sometimes kids really need to play by themselves, but they may not realize it. If you find yourself intervening a lot, it may be time to enforce some separation. Have one kid play in their room and leave the other in the play room/living room/outside. It's important if you do this that neither kid seems to be gaining parent time or attention by the division. In other words try not to put one kid in the room you are in while the other is exiled to their room. The point of this is not to punish one child and reward the other, the goal really is just to give them some time to regroup. It's not a time out, just some time apart. The twins especially need this sort of separation sometimes because they spend so much time together and they seem to think that they always need to be together, but after a brief separation they play together much more nicely.
Sibling relationships are challenging, to be sure. It's important to remember that your job as a parent is not to fix everything, but to help your children learn the skills they need to get along with each other, which is the first step toward getting along with people outside of their family, too.
So what strategies do you use to help your kids learn to get along? I'd love to hear your ideas...