As parents look to make things work at home during the shelter-in-place order, close quarters may be causing tension in sibling relationships.
In these trying times, families work to create harmony while also coordinating their household chores, tackling their job responsibilities, as well as homeschooling. Schedules and routines have been turned upside down, as children let go of their familiarity, finding their only friendly companion to be their sibling.
Naturally, this may cause children to feel less in control of their environment, indulging in more disagreements and fighting with each other and with parents.
Dr. Cecile Culp Mielenz, a mental-health counselor practicing in the Seattle area for 27 years, offers some strategies on how to help stabilize the family dynamic when it comes to sibling rivalry. Here is some of her advice, in question-and-answer form:
Seattle’s Child: How can I help my children through their disagreements, bickering and fighting?
Dr. Mielenz: Parents can play the role of “coach” rather than the role of “judge.”
It is so easy to fall into the role of judge when children are bickering. We just want it to stop, so we proclaim a resolution: Give the toy back, Go to your room, Stop bothering your sister.
To be the coach, practice making observations and asking questions: Your sister is crying. What happened? Ask questions of both children to gain their perspectives. Listen without judgment. Ask both children what needs to happen next and accept their answers. They may need an apology, want to play by themselves for a while, or request that they have a turn. If they agree on a resolution to the conflict, accept it even if it seems unreasonable or unfair.
SC: If the arguing continues or escalates, what do I do?
Dr. Mielenz: Parents may want to observe for a few days to determine when and how the arguing tends to happen. What is children’s behavior telling you? Does arguing happen when children are tired, hungry or bored? Is it when siblings have had too much time with each other? Is it when parents are busy with work or household tasks? If we can find a pattern, we have information as to what to do to resolve the issue.
In many cases siblings have too much time together, especially if parents are working from home and expect siblings to play together and entertain each other. Creating an at-home routine to replace their former daily schedule will help. Think of it in blocks of time: meals, play and work, exercise and outdoor time, chores, self-care, alone time, family time. Then sequence the blocks so that siblings are not left alone together for long periods. Having a daily time when children are in separate spaces engaged in individual activities is key to minimizing disputes.
One-on-one time with parents is another strategy that helps to diminish sibling issues. Find little ways throughout the day that this can happen. Some children may read or play quietly on the floor near a parent’s workstation, help a parent prepare meals or sort laundry, take separate baths while engaging in play and conversation with a supervising parent. Bedtime routines can also become one-on-one experiences. Remember two points:
- Comment on how much you like being with that child, perhaps mentioning something that was particularly enjoyable.
- Say that you are looking forward to the next time you have one-on-one time together.
SC: What should I do if my partner and/or I are working from home? How can I manage my children while working?
Dr. Mielenz: Be creative in setting up new scenarios for children’s play that will last for hours or days. Set up a tent and camping gear in the living room. Have a “teddy bear picnic” with blankets, picnic items, pretend food — and teddy bears! Be proactive about activities and play, rather than reactive about behavior.
One essential strategy is for each child to have alone time. If children are not used to this, be persistent in trying to implement it. It will be worth it! Find one or more activities that each child enjoys, an old favorite or an opportunity to try something new like hands-on activities, art and music. Consider mindfulness activities such as yoga, meditation, reading. If your children are resistant, start with a short amount of time, 15 minutes for example. Gradually lengthen the time until children are spending one or two hours engaged in their interests. This is great for their mental health and brain growth, regardless of the coronavirus challenges!
SC: Can all the arguing and unrest be caused by anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic we are facing?
Dr. Mielenz: Yes, anxiety can play a part. Some children already have a predisposition to anxiety, and the current situation can magnify that. Right now, children are experiencing huge transitions: school is different, they are not seeing their friends, extracurricular activities have changed, their daily routines are different or nonexistent, and they are continually around siblings and parents. Finding ways to keep some normalcy in their days will be helpful. It is important that they have a way to connect with friends. This is especially true for older children who may tire of playing with younger siblings and just want to connect with peers.
Some children may also be experiencing anxiety about Covid-19. As parents, we can convey that we are handling this situation and reassure children that our families are staying healthy: being home, washing hands, social distancing and other steps recommended by public health authorities. We can listen to our children’s perspectives and validate that these changes are hard.
Dr. Mielenz closes by reminding us that children are creating memories at this time and will be telling their grandchildren about the Pandemic of 2020.
“This is a time that we can create memories for our children that are precious in their simplicity: snuggling on the couch, telling stories of when they were babies, looking at family photos. More than ever, our children need to feel safe and loved.”
Dr. Cecile Culp Mielenz is a mental health counselor, now practicing teletherapy due to Coronavirus. If you would like to speak with her about your family’s mental health needs, please contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-318-0062.