Encouraging Healthy Sibling Relationships

As triplets, my kids have a unique sibling connection, one that is fascinating, enlightening, and challenging to me as a parent. There is a temptation to lump them all together as though there were a single unit—the triplets—rather than three individuals. I grapple with this as a mother, wanting to preserve and protect my kids’ individuality so their identities are not subsumed by their inclusion in this collective. On the other hand, being triplets is part of what informs their individuality; their experience of being a sibling is uniquely tied to who they are in and of themselves. They are triplets and they are individuals. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. I want my kids to love each other, be close with one another, to share intimate bonds. But if I allow my hopes for them to overwhelm their need to navigate these relationships in their own way, I may hinder the very thing I want most.

When it comes to sibling relationships, rivalries are at the top of every parent’s concerns. How do I keep my kids from fighting? How do I know the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict? How do I help my kids learn to value and appreciate each other? And perhaps most urgently, what should I do when my kids fight? The following guidelines can help us encourage healthy relationships between our kids that will last a lifetime.

Individual Needs Before Relational Needs
Healthy relationships originate from healthy individuals. We cannot expect our kids to handle conflict well if their individual needs are not being met. Dr. Kathy Koch, Phd, identifies five core human needs: Security, Identity, Belonging, Purpose, and Competence. Other needs are even more basic, such as sleep and nutritious food. When any one of these needs goes unmet or is met in an unhealthy way, our ability to function in relationship with others is compromised. If your kids fight a lot, ask yourself if their basic needs are being met. Are they tired or hungry? Are they over-stressed by school or a hectic schedule? Do they need more quiet in their lives, or more intimate connection with a loving caregiver? When our kids are healthy in body, spirit, and mind, they are better prepared to interact with each other in healthy ways.

Model Healthy Relationships
Kids mimic what they see and hear. This doesn’t mean all our kids’ bad behavior stems from us—kids have minds of their own and parents are not the only influence. But if you see a pattern of conflict and rivalry between your children, take note of your own interactions with others. How do you treat people when they disappoint you, hurt you, or annoy you? How do you talk about them or to them? Our kids will often pick up on our ways and adopt them as their own.

Allow Kids to Own their Own Relationships
We often are called on to be intermediaries for our kids. A fight erupts, words are exchanged, then mom or dad gets called on to fix the conflict. One encouraging thing to remember is that kids usually do attempt to resolve conflict on their own, seeking outside help only as a last resort. Don’t assume they aren’t trying to resolve things—sometimes they just don’t know how. Use the opportunity to teach them. Listen to each child’s grievance, empathize with their state of mind, and encourage them to find creative solutions. This is different than simply saying “I don’t want to hear it—figure it out on your own.” Sometimes our kids don’t have the skills to navigate conflict appropriately and they need to know we will give them the tools and then step back and let them practice.

Avoid Favoritism at All Costs
Loving our kids well doesn’t mean we treat them all equally, but it does mean we value them all equally. As a mother of multiples I am acutely aware that children tend to want identical treatment in the name of fairness. If one gets a cookie, they all want a cookie; if one gets one-on-one snuggles, they all want their turn right then and there. But our call as parents isn’t to treat all our kids the same, but to nourish them according to their needs. Don’t feel guilty for parenting each of your kids differently—they are different. Favoritism, on the other hand, is treating our kids differently not based on need but on our own personal preference or bias. It has no place in a healthy household, and is fodder for sharp division and conflict between siblings. A child should never have to compete with a sibling for their parents’ affection or attention.

It can be discouraging to hear our kids squabble and fight. Their bickering can try our patience and tempt us to step in to impose order. But cultivating healthy relationships is a learned skill, just like eating from a spoon, tying shoes, and solving algebraic equations. Give them space to learn, a helping hand when they get stuck, and wisdom when they reflect on experience. With loving guidance, we can help our kids build intimate sibling relationships to last a lifetime.