Parents share some ways to minimize conflict and promote harmony.
You are having the fifth tear-your-hair-out moment of your day; from the second they woke up, they have been at each other’s throats, squabbling, yanking toys away, provoking tears, and demanding you weigh in.
This is typical when multiple children reach a certain age, but it can be very distressing for the entire family, and if parents don’t set up an atmosphere where sibling disputes are resolved, it can affect kids into adulthood1. Thankfully, there are some tested methods of cutting rivalry off at the pass, so to speak, and here we share some of these ideas from parents who have to contend with multiple children and strong wills.
It’s important to note too, that part of childhood is growing into identity and our family is the first place where we see our best and our worst qualities reflected back at us. This is why decades later, holiday meals with the relatives can become tense; our family will always be the first crucible that made us into who we are. The overarching theme in these parental pieces of advice is communication, the willingness to face the sticky and uncomfortable parts of loving other people. It takes practice and humility, and no one gets it perfect.
Start encouraging a positive relationship before birth. A new baby is an anxious experience for older siblings, particularly if they are still young. They give up being the center of attention (in China where one child per family is mandated, only children are often referred to as “little emperors”2) and they have a sense their whole world is going to change. To counteract this, prep them for the bond they will experience with their new brother or sister.
Have regular talks with your child or children about the baby arriving, revisit their own baby pictures, and let them talk to the baby in the tummy. There are plenty of kids’ books with this new baby theme, like Julius, the Baby of the World. All this illustrates that it’s normal to be worried, but it is actually an opportunity and a cause for celebration.
Illustrate the role of the older sibling and point out the positives. Kids respond to roles, and helping gives them a sense of worth, so make sure that they know they will be mommy’s helper and that they will be looking out for their younger sibling as they get older. Make quality time before and after baby’s arrival so the older kids don’t feel left out. Some jobs you can give them include assistant, comforter, teacher, and entertainer.
Give the older sib some private space. A crawl space or closet makes a perfect fort or clubhouse that belongs just to that kid. It’s a place where they can play on their own, or go to calm down when they are upset. This idea of personal space is one that translates to older kids too, and the sense that you are defending their right to keep some things for themselves is very valuable.
Set limits. In a culture where “helicopter parenting” is rampant, it is important to let our kids sort their dynamics without intervention, to a point. If there is a struggle over a toy or activity, it’s ok to say, “If you haven’t figured out a way to share or take turns in three minutes, the toy goes in the garage,” and walk away. As parents, we sometimes subconsciously avoid conflict at all times. We bribe, we redirect, and we give into unreasonable demands. But letting them negotiate is part of development and unless things escalate, at which point a break becomes necessary, give kids the chance to resolve their conflict themselves.
Always listen to everyone’s side. When arguments or issues come up, have a sit down, and take the dispute seriously. Nothing creates antagonism better than the feeling of injustice, that a parent is automatically siding with the youngest kid. Listening is one of the more powerful tools you have as a parent, and it requires patience. Children want to resolve conflict, and during these discussions, point out that everyone wants to feel better. Play fairly; don’t play favorites.
The key here is to stay loving and positive with the knowledge that it is a process. It is way more difficult for some kids, and some really take on their new roles without difficulty. The best thing parents can do is employ fairness and keep an open conversation going. This way, as adults, your children will continue to work out their conflicts in a conciliatory way.