May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bev Carlson

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend, a father of three. He was talking about his two oldest children, both incredibly talented musicians. The son can play just about any instrument. The daughter has a voice like an angel.

“It’s just such a shame they refuse to perform together,” he said. When I asked why, he shrugged and said, “They just can’t stop fighting.”

His response surprised me. My guess? These kids will grow out of it. This was a family that exuded harmony on almost every level. Very engaged, involved parents. Bright, accomplished children. But siblings that, for now, could barely get along. Ever.

I understand sibling conflict. I really do. I have a younger brother, emphasis on “younger” because “little” stopped working when he hit six feet or so. Now, at 6’5”, he’s an officer in the U.S. Navy who carries a wide command and a powerful presence.

Well, I clearly recall back to the days when I could push him around at will. Of course, I was the ONLY one who could do so. If anyone else even looked at him like they were going to tease him or bully him, they had to get through me first—and that simply wasn’t happening. We were four years apart, and even though he could irritate me just by walking into my bedroom, he was still my little brother, and that meant I had his back.

I still do.

“Relationships that never really gelled in childhood only grow more distant with time…I hear friends talk about it a lot, and it makes me sad. I don’t want that for my children.”

It’s not that way for a lot of siblings—adult or otherwise. Relationships that never really gelled in childhood only grow more distant with time. Brothers and sisters who experience mutual trauma walk away from the conflict and each other. Siblings with oil-and-water personalities determine that it’s not worth the effort to find a balance, especially once the parental connection is gone. I hear friends talk about it a lot, and it makes me sad. I don’t want that for my children.

I really don’t know any of the secrets of creating sibling harmony, but I do claim a couple of kids who, for the most part, get along and enjoy each other. I love to hear their conversations about books or teachers or issues. Video games and YouTube videos are other common topics. They brag about each other when they think I’m not listening. They have their moments when they genuinely annoy one another, but I rarely have to intervene.

Maybe it’s helped that they’ve heard since day one that they are expected to look out for each other. “You guys run in nearly the same circles,” they’ve heard from me. “You have a better idea of whether the kids you’re hanging out with are nice or not.” They attend each other’s events and performances. They partner up on amusement rides. They are generally encouraged to help each other when they can. “Because,” as they hear from me, “you are lifetime friends.”

I may have just gotten lucky with the personality mix of my two, but I also took some advice that I got when they were very small. Now that they are young teenagers, I believe it might be paying off.

Here are some expert suggestions from Scholastic.com:

  • Avoid comparisons. Nothing causes more short- and long-term damage to the sibling dynamic than comparing academic or extracurricular achievements. Give honest, specific feedback and support each of your children toward their individual strengths and the skills each needs to strive for. Don’t ever stack them against each other.
  • Intervene when they argue, but be selective. There’s a big difference between fighting and problem solving. Rather than letting them always duke it out, teach them cooperation and conflict-resolution skills, like taking turns.
  • Introduce meaningful apologies. Rather than forcing an angry child to say he’s sorry, which will only produce an insincere apology, let him cool down first. Then talk to him about how to make amends for hurting another person’s feelings.

As it usually is, starting early and being consistent is key. And children also benefit when they see their parents model warm and loving relationships with their own siblings. But for the most part, some discontent with a brother or sister is simply part of growing up and provides a training ground for finding your voice.

Oh, and one last thing. Tell all of your children how much you love them. All the time. A child who feels well-loved has fewer reasons to lash out at their siblings.

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