Siblings fight. They just do. It is going to happen no matter how much they get along in general. In a family, you live under the same roof and spend a lot of time together. You see each other at your worst moments. There are bound to be times you do not all get along.
That doesn't mean siblings can't get along and even enjoy each other as children. There are things you can do as parents to encourage a friendship among your children. Here are ideas taken from both NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Bronson and Merryman and Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Faber.
Having friends over is very fun, but it is important to also have days and times when the siblings get to just play together--just them. Have time that your children play with each other without your intervention and without friends. You can even schedule this in--see Sibling Playtime and Structured Playtime With Siblings.
Teach Children Conflict Prevention
You don't want to just throw your children in a room together and say, "Play together! Have fun and good luck!" We are the teachers of our children and need to teach them life skills. This includes how to get along with people.
We aren't talking conflict resolution or conflict avoidance. We are talking conflict prevention. A lot of times, parents talk about the right way to respond to conflict with our children. NurtureShock talks about a program designed to help siblings become friends and their focus is on teaching children how to work together to prevent the conflict. "...fewer fights are the consequence of teaching the children the proactive skills of initiating play on terms they can both enjoy" (page 123).
If you have young children, this is an easier concept to work into them. You start young (read Sibling Playtime and Structured Playtime With Siblings.) You teach them to think of the other person and to show the other person love. You teach about taking turns and sharing.
If your children are older and you are wanting to change something about their dynamic, you do the same, but you have to expect some rewiring. Remember your Training in Times of Non-Conflict. You walk them through scenarios on how they can compromise and work together so they can both have fun when playing.
Let Children Work Things Out Alone
When the conflict arises, you need to allow the children to work things out on their own. If you eaves drop, do it out of their sight. Do not rush in to solve the problem. This is mentioned in NurtureShock and discussed in great detail in Siblings Without Rivalry. "Children should have the freedom to resolve their own differences" (page 142).
YES, you do need to intervene if things are getting abusive either verbally or physically. "But here's the difference: We intervene, not for the purpose of settling their argument or making a judgement, but to open the blocked channels of communication so they can get back to dealing with each other" (page 142). Basically, you help be a mediator.
Personally, at our house, if the kids can't work things out, then they need to take a break from each other. They don't wan to not play with each other, so they do put in effort to work it out.
Acknowledge Bad Feelings
Siblings Without Rivalry suggests you allow your children to express frustrations and negative feelings about the siblings. The author says, "Acknowledging bad feelings between the children led to good feelings" (page 49).
We all need to vent sometimes. I would caution a few things here. Do not join the venting. Also, there is a difference between a vent and nurturing anger. You want to encourage your child toward forgiveness, not on stroking the bitterness and allowing it to grow.
Think Twice About Books and Shows that "Teach" About Sibling Relationships
This is something I so completely agree with, in any fashion. We have to be careful with media. I love books, and I know books can be very helpful in helping our children work out worries they have, from potty training to a new baby to a big move.
But you have to be careful what you expose them to. You know the book Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus? I have never liked that. I know it is wildly popular. I have always viewed it as a book that will teach my children to hate the bus and school. It will plant the seed, and if they want to nurture it, it will grow. You can imagine my vindication when I read this in NurtureShock in discussing books that are supposed to teach children to get along. Research has found children fight more when exposed to these books and shows. Researchers said:
"From these books, the kids were learning novel ways to be mean to their younger siblings they'd never considered" (page 126). "The average book demonstrated virtually as many negative behaviors as positive ones" (page 127).
Ignore Certain Factors
We can make excuses for the sibling relationship. "They are fighting for my attention" "It is because one is a boy and one is a girl" or "It is because they are both girls" or "It is because they are both boys" or "It is because they are too close in age" or "It is because they are too far apart in age." Studies have shown that fights aren't about those things so much as about physical possessions. Teach children to love, to share, to respect property of others, to care about the feelings of others...research shows forcing children to share is not effective, but you can teach them to share. See How to Teach Respect for Personal Property.
I think this is one of the hardest things to do as a parent. I don't think we compare maliciously. We do it in awe. How can two people we created, who live in the same house with the same parents and rules, who have the same genetic heritage, be so different? How can they have such different natural talents and abilities? How can they all have such different weaknesses?
When I was due to have Kaitlyn, Jeffrey R. Holland gave a talk in which he said,
"And try not to compare your children, even if you think you are skillful at it. You may say most positively that “Susan is pretty and Sandra is bright,” but all Susan will remember is that she isn’t bright and Sandra that she isn’t pretty. Praise each child individually for what that child is, and help him or her escape our culture’s obsession with comparing, competing, and never feeling we are “enough.”"
This is hard people! Very hard. Siblings Without Rivalry agrees. There is an entire chapter on the Perils of Comparisons. "Children often experience praise of a brother or sister as a put-down of themselves. They automatically translate 'Your brother is so considerate' into 'Mom thinks I'm not.' It's a good idea to save your enthusiastic comments for the ear of the deserving child" (page 58).
This is something I have pondered a lot over the years. A whole lot. I don't think the point is to never compliment children in front of each other--or ever. I think children should learn to recognize and celebrate the good and accomplishments of others. Part of it is to not compliment everyone for the sake of complimenting. I think you can solve a lot by sticking to Praise Effort, Not Results.
There is another chapter that has similar sentiments in Siblings Without Rivalry. It is titled "Siblings in Roles."
"Let's be wary of statements like, 'He's the musician in the family'...'She is the scholar'...'He's the athlete'...'She's the artist.' No child should be allowed to corner the market on any area of human endeavor. We want to make it clear to each of our children that the joys of scholarship, dance, drama, poetry, sport are for everyone and not reserved for those who have a special aptitude" (page 98).
That sounds easy on paper, but is hard. The fact is, people have natural talents and abilities. I have a child who is far more artistic naturally than any other of my children. I have a child is who is far more naturally athletic than any of my other children. These things are there.
I love the last part of that last quote, though. Anyone can be good at something if they really want to be. Your child might not be the best artist in her class, but if she wants to be great and she puts the effort into becoming great, she can be great. You don't want to dissuade improvement upon skills and talents.
Know the Difference Between Fair and Equal
This concept is such a passion of mine. I have written on it in the past:
Trying to make things equal among your children will not result in content children. It will result in jealous children. They won't just be jealous of each other, either, but of everyone around them. They will always be comparing and declaring what isn't fair. You will find yourself constantly needing to point out what in their life is "better" than those they are jealous of. That is not a happy way for people to be! It will eat at your soul.
Siblings Without Rivalry devotes an entire chapter to this topic in "Equal is Less." Do not treat your children "equally." Treat them "fairly."
Your children can be friends and they can get along in general. Yes, they will fight. They are humans. They can be great friends with some relatively easy efforts from you.