Adults have to share their lives and living space with other people: family, friends, spouses or spouse equivalents, children, roommates. Unfortunately, even people you love can be a pain, (especially when you share a bathroom). So where do kids learn to deal with people they love but who drive them crazy? You need look no further than their annoying, beloved brother or sister. Sibling relationships provide your child with their first lessons about how to handle the more difficult aspects of long-term, intimate relationships. Here are some ideas about how to help your kid get the most out of a few of the more important things siblings learn about sharing your life with someone.
Love and support: "Oh My God. You are the BEST!"
Siblings teach each other about love and being loved, how to encourage and be encouraged. Help this along by requiring your kids to offer each other compliments and support. Have verbal and physical expressions of love and affection be a natural (and required) part of family interactions.
Cooperation and team work: "Oh My God. If mom and dad find out we are DEAD!"
Kids don't get to choose their siblings (kind of like you don't get to choose your coworkers) but they still have to work together. You can help your kids practice team work by assigning them tasks to complete together (even though it would be less trouble to just keep them in separate rooms). If they argue or complain just add more tasks. You might be able to get the whole house cleaned in one weekend AND teach them an important skill!
Tolerance: "Oh My God! You are such a LOSER!"
Kids always think their brother or sister is weird. But unlike the kids at school, they can't just avoid this weird person when they live in the same house. Siblings have to learn to deal. Expect your kids to practice tolerance and acceptance of each other's unique qualities, habits or interests. Make a comment when you notice them being tolerant with their sibling. "I was really glad you let your brother talk on and on about that silly show. That's the kind of big sister I hoped you'd be."
Frustration: "Oh My God! SHUT UP!"
Siblings are uniquely situated to annoy each other. By the time they reach adulthood, siblings will have had lots of practice managing their internal emotional reactions as well as responding appropriately to frustration. You can help your kids develop greater frustration tolerance by requiring them to deal appropriately with their frustrating sibling. Do-overs are good for this. "Wait, wait, wait. Back up and do that all over again the right way." (Although, sometimes, it is important to just separate them.)
Conflict resolution: "Oh My God! I'm going to KILL you!"
More than anything else, sibling relationships require kids to learn how to settle an argument. However, it is usually not a good idea to leave them to their own devices. Sitting them down and teach them the steps of effective problem solving. Then make them use what they learned. There will be no shortage of opportunities to practice; and they'll need it.
Leadership and Followership: "Oh My God! Just get out of the way and let me do it."
Playing together requires brothers and sisters to learn about leadership as well as how to follow another's lead. Consider taking some time to actually require each sibling to be the boss of a task. Help them learn the difference between leading and bossing. They will also need help learning to be a good follower (which doesn't mean just going along with someone).
Dealing with jerks: "Oh My God! I HATE you!"
Kids need to learn to deal with the jerks in this world. Fortunately, they will have lots of practice with their sibling. Teach your kids how to respond to and work with jerks by requiring them to deal appropriately with each other. (And, afterwards, be sure the jerk is punished for being a jerk.)
Assertiveness: "Oh My God! Get out now!"
Siblings teach each other how to be assertive (because at least one of them is bossy and overbearing). Encourage your kid to speak up for themselves (though you may have to stand right behind them for moral support). Role play assertive responses. (And, quietly threaten your over bearing kid if they don't respect their siblings attempts at being assertive.)
Negotiation skills: "Oh My God! That is awesome. Can I borrow it?"
Kids always end up wanting something that belongs to their sibling. To be successful, they either have to be naturally generous or they have to learn how to negotiate. Most kids think negotiating is either being demanding ("Let me use it. I let you borrow my iPod last week!") or begging ("Oh, come ON. Please! Don't be so stingy."). They can benefit from direct instruction about how to negotiation effectively (and how to be a gracious negotiation participant).
Learning how to relate to others in loving, supportive and healthy ways takes practice; lots of practice. Happily, sibling relationships provide the perfect practice field. With a little coaching, siblings can end up learning a lot about relationships while also forming a lifelong friendship.
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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families. He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting that includes a chapter on resolving sibling conflict along with strategies for addressing 78 other typical teenage issues. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn or sign up for his monthly newsletter on parenting teens by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.