By Dr. Laura Markham
“In many sibling relationships the rate of conflict can be high, but the fun times in the backyard and the basement more than balance it out. This net-positive is what predicts a good relationship later in life. In contrast, siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cold and distant long term.” – Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
If your children are having a hard time with each other, it’s natural that you focus on helping them learn to resolve differences peacefully. But it’s important to remember that their incentive to work things out happily with each other depends on how much of a positive balance they’ve built up in their “relationship bank account”.
How do siblings build up a reservoir of good feelings to draw on? Mostly, by having a good time together. Dr. John Gottman of the Seattle Love Lab has found that couples need five to seven positive interactions to counter-balance one negative interaction. This ratio has been repeated in multiple studies, from couples to workplaces. As far as I know, there hasn’t been parallel research done with siblings. But that’s not a bad ratio to aim for.
This might make you feel despairing – after all, if they fight six times a day, how can you help them create 36 positive interactions? Remember that a smile counts as a positive; these don’t all have to be major interactions to have a beneficial effect. Why not simply adopt the goal of helping your children have as many positive interactions as you can?
- Notice and promote the activities that get your children playing together. Research on improving sibling relationships shows that children have better relationships when they share activities they both enjoy. It can be tough to identify those activities, especially if there’s an age or interest gap. But if you pay attention, you can usually suggest something that will interest both children. For instance, if she wants to play store and he wants to play astronaut, why not have a store on the moon? Or maybe both enjoy the play kitchen, or doing art together, or making forts. Try to encourage at least one shared activity every day.
- Don’t interrupt happy play. You probably remember the old adage “Never wake a sleeping baby.” My corollary is “Don’t interrupt a happily playing child.” So when siblings are playing together well, don’t take it for granted. Support them in whatever they need to keep playing, and don’t interrupt unless it’s unavoidable.
- Use oxytocin to get your children bonding. Laughing. Being outdoors. Dancing. Singing. Roughhousing. Include as many oxytocin-inducing activities as you can in your daily routine.
- Start “Special Time” between your children. Designate a daily ten minute block of time for two children to spend together. This is especially helpful if your children are widely spaced in age, or one is less interested in playing together than the other one, because it structures time together into the regular routine and maintains the connection.
- When they’re having a bad day, pull out an activity they’ll both love, like making cookies, or dancing to shift the mood.
- Include in your bedtime routine a chance for your children to always say goodnight and I love you to each other. Some families also have the older child read to the younger one before bed, which is a lovely opportunity for bonding.
See next page for six more useful tips!