One of my favorite psychologists says “family time is overrated.” I think we all have a mythical family in our head – or the one we envision through our friends’ pictures on Facebook – where everyone gets along. It’s a lovely thought, but for most of us, it’s just not reality. For every happy family picture we post, we could probably post a few of our kids bickering in the backseat or screaming over the iPad. If this is your reality, rest assured – you’re not alone! Most siblings experience conflict, whether that’s because they are around each other all the time or because they are so different they have different needs. And summer togetherness only amplifies those issues. As a child psychiatrist and mom, here’s my advice on sibling conflicts.
Recognize it is okay and healthy to separate kids if they can’t get along. You can separate kids even if you are all in the house together: put them in different rooms or have them do different activities in the same space. Often siblings love playing together – until they don’t. In this system, you earn the fun time by treating each other well.
Set clear expectations
One of the biggest parental misconceptions is that sibling conflicts will work themselves out on their own. This is not really true for young brains that tend to have big reactions and don’t know how to take breaks. You can end up with them triggering each other all day, and then remembering and doing it again the next day.
Instead, set clear expectations that being part of family activities means they treat each other well – and not doing that means they don’t get to participate in the summer fun.
Equalize the consequences
If separation doesn’t work – or they come to you with a conflict – try to give everyone equal consequences. In families there is almost always an instigator and a reactor. It is really easy to always punish the reactor and not the one who started it when you weren’t looking. Most of the time it is impossible to tell where it began – and no one wants to referee all day. If they get in trouble they are going to have the same consequence – for instance 15 minutes without electronics. This means no one wants to cause conflict, because everyone will get in trouble.
One of the hardest things to do after a day of sibling conflict is to set reasonable consequences. When our emotional tank is on empty we as parents have a tendency to say things to a 6-year-old like, “You can have your electronic back when you leave for college!” One way around making angry decisions is to have a set family list of common behaviors, along with their resulting consequences so that you know ahead of time they are reasonable and easy to accomplish. For example, whining means you lose the electronic for 15 minutes that day, whereas hitting means they are gone for the rest of the day. Families can have a family meeting that sets the list of behaviors and consequences together so they are clear to everyone.