Summertime Siblings: What’ll It Take to Stop the Bickering?

by Lela Nargi

You’ve spent the better part of the school year taking deep, cleansing breaths as your kids nagged and picked at each other. You sipped (or guzzled) wine in a search for calm as they battled for supremacy over who would get the coveted first shower after soccer practice. You intervened gently—and sometimes not so gently—as they attempted to strangle each other on the living room floor. And now summer is almost upon you: two months in which you hope against hope for peace and quiet and tolerance. Can it be done? Do you dare to dream? And what’s it going to take to get there?

The answer might very well be signing your kids up for separate camp activities—even if it means extra time and effort on your part to shuttle them around. “In an ideal world,” says Kimberly Lemke, a Chicago-based licensed clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents and author of I Just Don’t Get My Parents’ Rules, “you’ll put them onto a summer sports team together and they’ll become the best of friends. In reality, that’s not how it goes. First and foremost, you need to ask yourself what each child needs.”

Siblings fight for all kinds of reasons, a big one of which is to assert their individuality. For example, says Lemke, “You might have one child who has self-esteem issues, who compares herself to her sibling and says, ‘She’s always better, I’m going to fail.’” This, she maintains, is a perfect example of when siblings might benefit from time spent apart. “It limits comparisons,” she says, and as a result, conflict. Which in turn leads to less stress for you.

Separating kids in the summertime can lead to enhanced self-esteem in more ways than one. Lemke, who is mother to 4-1/2 year old twins who are always together in school and afterschool classes—and actually like it that way—concedes that sometimes, it’s better to push kids to do things away from each other. “It can be uncomfortable for them to be separated, but a little anxiety is good,” she says. “It lets them practice social skills rather than parenting each other.” But she also warns that separating kids who really want to be together can lead to a power struggle, between them and you.

In this instance, it’s important to let children know the situation is temporary—one month spent apart doing separate activities they’re each good at or have expressed interest in, one month together. “This is a more manageable strategy than just forcing them to do things without each other,” says Lemke. “Tell them, ‘I think it’s wonderful for you to want to share your time with your brother. And I also think this art class looks really cool. Let’s give it a shot, then we can go back to doing something together.’”

Got kids who squabble but don’t have the time or energy to split them up? It’s not always necessary. Some scuffling siblings know inherently what they like and are good at and fight, not for validation, but to get your attention, for example. Remove you from the equation and the squabbling becomes a non-issue, which means kids like these can benefit from being signed up for the same activity—and you score a carefree, one drop-off suits all scenario. Says Lemke, “Individual players know how to engage on their own, and how to enjoy activities on their own. So when you sign them up together,” they’re perfectly comfortable going off to their separate corners to read or talk to other kids. When group activities force them together, without you around they can learn to problem-solve their own conflicts, and this “actually helps to build their relationship,” says Lemke.

Don’t expect the miracle of temporary sibling detente to seep into the pre- and post-camp hours, though; as soon as you and your partner are back in the picture, conflicts are likely to rear up all over again. To counteract this, Los Angeles mom Abbie Schiller, founder of the parenting site The Mother Company, which produces The Siblings Show, recommends attempting to minimize power struggles before they even get off the ground. And to figure out what role you might be unconsciously playing that keeps them going. “One of the things our generation was told was that our parents loved us the same,” Schiller says. “That’s a mixed message. Children are inherently different and when you tell them you love them the same, you set them up to constantly try to catch their parent in an inequity: ‘You gave him two hugs!’ But if you set it up that you love them differently, they stop looking for a-tit-for-a-tat; you eliminate competition.”

Lemke says you can downplay siblings’ inherent competitiveness by getting them to work together to reach a common objective. Each time you see them engage appropriately in a shared activity, reward them with something like a marble. After they’ve accumulated 20 marbles, the whole family gets to go out for a special dinner, or a trip to a water park. “Having a goal helps you direct their behavior, rather than just crossing your fingers they’ll act appropriately,” says Lemke. “But I tell parents, for this to be successful, they’re going to have to be very creative and catch the small behaviors. If your kids are walking through the door screaming at each other but one holds the door for the other, and the other one walks through calmly, ignore for a moment the bickering and say, ‘That was really kind of you to hold the door for your brother like that, and great job walking through the door without shoving.’ Once you start rewarding them both, they realize they can get attention that way, and they have a common mission.”

Much as you might all desire it, working parents don’t always have the luxury of taking time off in the summer months. But this doesn’t mean quality family time is out of the question. Says Schiller, after a day of work and camp, “You can combat the attention needs of your kids by giving them special time as often as possible.” Adds Lemke, five minutes of concerted, present time without you checking your phone for messages, is preferable to 20 minutes of distracted time. Let your child decide how to use your minutes together—snuggling, reading a book, doing a puzzle; then do the same for your other children. Says Schiller, “This makes them feel secure and lets them know you have enough love in your heart to go around.”

Lemke asserts, those concentrated minutes of together time will really add up: to a summer in which each child is reinforced, and reassured, and successful—positive feelings that will hopefully see you well past Labor Day, into autumn and beyond.

Photograph via Creative Commons