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Annie Keeling: Positive time and space for siblings

Siblings will always be in one another’s space. There will be hurt feelings, yelling, hitting, broken toys and broken rules. There will also be hugging, playing, learning and deep love.

How can parents increase the positive interactions and help siblings learn from one another more often than they hurt one another?

There is No Fair

Fair doesn’t exist in the land of siblings. Ever. What does exist is looking at each child as an individual with different developmental needs. It is important for children to learn that what works for one child does not necessarily work for another. Each child requires different limits, focus and special time just for them.

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We do a disservice to our children if we try to balance out everything, struggling for exacting fairness and equality for each child. This actually develops a mindset of comparison and fuels sibling rivalry. Focusing on individual needs lets our children know we are there to support and provide for them as the needs arise, not just because their sibling has a need.

What if the son, five, has outgrown his shoes? The family stops at the shoe store to get him some. Older sister wants something new, too. This is a prime opportunity to help sister learn the importance of parents meeting needs when there is one. She will have a chance to get some new shoes when she outgrows hers. At first, this might be very upsetting, especially if the parents have been struggling to divide everything in two equally. Empathize, mirror back her emotions, and do not try to “fix” her feelings. This chance to teach about individual needs is a golden one.

This approach can help diminish comparisons and competition. It’s also an opportunity to help children move beyond jealousies and accept differences — essential life sills.

Decide as a Family

Hold a family meeting and talk about behavior expectations among siblings. What are the Do’s and Don’ts? What will happen when these rules are broken? Everyone gets some input as these important guidelines are decided and written down where everyone can see. Whiteboards are great for this, conveying the fluidity of family dynamics and allowing for growth and change more easily than rules that “are written in stone.” Involving the kids allows for clarity and ownership of outcome.

(Find out more: StartSmallParenting.com, blog post “Family Meetings: Do You?”)

Make Space for Toys with a Special Shelf

Create a shelf or have a cabinet for each child to hold a few special toys. The child can take a toy from their special shelf, play with it, and put it back. If the child leaves it in the common area, anyone can play with it. If it is the child’s own personal toy, then it lives on the shelf as long as they want it to. It only becomes a communal toy if the child leaves it out by accident.

But what if it is a communal toy to begin with? Decide how many toys can be picked from the communal pile that day or that week. Maybe you determine a limit of three for the day go onto the shelf. The next day, the special toys go back in the communal pile and new ones can be chosen. This keeps a rotation of all toys for them to share. They also know that if a favorite toy is on the sibling’s shelf, it will be made available to them the next day.

Make Space for Bodies with Bubble Space

Teach the concept of Bubble Space, which is how far we can reach with all our body parts before we touch someone or something.

Children push, bite, entangle, wrestle, hug. To help them learn limits around siblings and body space, set aside Bubble Space Time to practice. You can make it a game to see if they can keep their bubble from popping (not running into anything or anyone) for a set amount of time like three to five minutes.

You can take this idea further by creating a separate space for each child where they can go if they don’t want to have their bubble popped. This could be a masking tape circle on the ground, a cardboard cut-out circle, or even a Hoola hoop.

You can use this space to separate the kids if necessary — maybe because they are fighting or using their bodies disrespectfully. Let them know this outcome ahead of time. Hold a family meeting and come to an agreement together that this will be utilized when fighting occurs. The kids will go to their Bubble Space for a calm down. Together as a family, you can decide how long that should be.

Make Rules for Wrestling

Play wrestling, common among siblings, can easily get out of hand, escalating into real fighting where it doesn’t seem safe. Contributing factors are boredom, pressures from school, a need to be more physical, seeking attention from the parents, or the desire to experiment with conflict.

Common parent responses are to redirect — “Let’s do something else” — or stop the behavior all together. Here are a few other strategies to try:

Encourage boredom – Encourage kids to have space from each other so they can figure out what to do with downtime without using “wrestling” as a crutch for the uncomfortable space of doing nothing.

Connection and attention — Provide special time with one parent/one child, daily if possible, to offset their using wrestling or fighting to gain parent’s attention.

Solving conflict – How does your family do it; what are your values; what are some ideas the kids have besides fighting?

Since touch and connection with siblings is a natural behavior, we can support our children in learning how to do it respectfully. At a family meeting, brainstorm the wrestling rules with the kids and adults. Here are a few suggestions for discussion points.

What is the difference between play fighting and real fighting?

What body parts are off-limits? For example, no touching the face.

What actions are off-limits? For example, no biting, scratching or hair pulling.

What happens if someone goes too far? What if someone wants to stop?

Does there need to be a no-wrestling-unless-a-referee-is-present rule?

Post the wrestling rules, either a written list or visual pictures.

Time a short wrestling match. See if there can be no fighting, just wrestling, for three minutes.

These are some of the ways we can positively encourage our children’s relationships and help them problem-solve within the family and throughout life.

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. Contact Annie for more information: akeeling@nevco.org or 530-268-5086.


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