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Peace Begins at Home: 6 Tips for Helping Your Kids Get Along

05/01/2011 12:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The state of the world has been on the mind of so many of the families I work with. Too many wars, too much aggression, too much not caring about each other and the planet. It's created an underlying anxiety even for the youngest kids who are exposed to the news in their living rooms. One tense teen asked, "Haven't we evolved and learned war is not an answer?" In his mind, it's hard to fight someone who doesn't want to fight you back, so if everyone would decide not to fight, war could end.

Although we may not be able to do anything about what's happening across the globe, surely we can do something about what's right in front of us. Peace can begin at home -- starting with brothers and sisters.

Like 9-year-old Lars. All he wanted from his big brother was peace. He hated arguing over video games and TV, and he was hurt and angry at the older one's constant teasing.

Or 6-year-old Taylor's jealousy of her 3-year-old brother. Although she longed for a sibling, it was different once Riley was born. Taylor flip-flopped between loving hugs and dangerous squeezing.

Kids tell me they want positive interactions with their siblings. But buttons get pushed, defenses go up and friction abounds. We all play a crucial role. Cooperation, empathy, kindness, fair play and self-control don't always come naturally to children; they are skills taught through practice, just like making a bed and riding a bike.

If you want to encourage kindness and generosity, let kids see yours. To foster self-control, watch how you respond to frustration and anger. Each conflict is a learning opportunity and a child's imagination makes a great study partner. Even 10-year-old Melody, who couldn't speak up to her bossy older sister, conjured up an imaginary wizard who coached her to say "no" in a strong and clear voice.

Consider these six tips to squelch sibling squabbles and develop more loving connections:

1) Don't underestimate stress.

When pressure is high, patience for little annoying behaviors falls. Teach your children to use the 0-to-10 scale for stress check-ups (0 is no stress, and 10 is the most stress). Then, use "balloon breathing" (slow, deep breathing about two to three inches below the navel) to calm and re-center, lower reactivity and raise tolerance.

2) Find out what's under the bad feelings.

Start by accepting and validating whatever your child is feeling about his sibling. Then gently guide him to the core issue. Listen to whatever he offers for angry or hateful feelings, then advise, "Close your eyes, and be surprised at what's under your anger (e.g., jealousy, betrayal, etc.)." Taylor found sadness under her hate for her new baby brother; she was sad because she missed the attention and time with her mom that she used to have. When your child faces the emotions under his distress, you can help him make a plan to release them and make peace with his sister or brother. Taylor's mom invited her to help with the new baby, so Taylor got to spend time with mom and feel proud of helping out.

3) Use animal and wizard wisdom in a pinch.

Suggest calling in a wise, imaginary animal friend or wizard for advice for any sibling disputes. Taylor's blue bird flew in and recommended that instead of pinching her brother or pulling his hair, she pinch and pull her pillow. And Mr. Magic offered her the gift of a magic eraser to erase her bad thoughts about her brother.

4) Have feelings talk to each other.

Your child probably has a range of emotions about his siblings, some of which are as distinct as love/hate or happy/mad. Having his feelings "speak" to each other can result in a creative compromise. Once they get the hang of it, kids can practice together or role play, as the Anger of one negotiates with the Sadness of the other, helping them understand each other even more.

5) Give the marble jar a chance.

This usually works like a charm. To encourage your kids to get along, let them know you appreciate and want to acknowledge their efforts at being kind to each other. Then take a jar, and every time you "catch" them being "neutral or nice," drop a marble (or pasta piece or colored glass bead) in the jar. In the beginning, lots of reinforcement is important to encourage their positive behavior. When the jar is filled up (about a month), offer some terrific fun time. And along the way, each quarter that the jar is filled up (about a week), reward them with something simple but enticing (e.g., picking the videos you rent, special ice-cream, whatever you decide together).

6) Unique, not equal.

It's okay to treat your kids differently. They are different -- likely different ages and certainly different personalities and needs. Talk to your children about how and why you make your choices. Listen to any hurt feelings, and let them know what you can change, what you can't, and why. At the same time, try to avoid favoritism and comparison. Celebrate each child's uniqueness, and encourage cooperation, not competition.

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This post is adapted from "The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success."