Today we’re talking all about how to encourage sibling relationships, reduce those sister squabbles, and find more joy in family relationships. This post was originally published back in January 2018.
I’ve had a few questions and done A LOT of thinking about how to encourage sibling relationships over the last few months and get my kids to play together.
With two toddlers at home, I’m either breaking up an argument or melting over joint giggles coming from the other room.
Watching Lincoln and Adelaide turn into the best little friends is, hands DOWN, my favorite part of motherhood.
First smiles were great, first “mama” was enchanting, but watching these two love each other is ten times better.
I sought out SO much advice on the first stage of their relationship, introducing Lincoln to his new sister in the hospital and the transition to two children. I had a harder time getting advice and was initially less intentional on having them grow into being friends.
Also, I am not the expert. I have two kids and have been a mother for three short years. These are a collection of things I’ve learned, things I’ve read, and things I’ve heard… all through the lens of what we’ve been working on over the last few months about sibling relationships.
Siblings that get along are rewarding in the long run (my three siblings are some of my very best friends) but they’re also super practically beneficial right now. I often say that two is easier than one …. and most of the time these days it’s true. They entertain each other, they engage each other, and if I’m lucky, they do it happily.
Here are ways to encourage sibling relationships from an early age and get them to be friends with each other. For reference, at the time of this post, Lincoln just turned three and Adelaide is 19 months:
ENCOURAGING SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS: Building Best Friends
1. Start with side-by-side play
Even when children aren’t playing together, encourage side-by-side play by setting up different play “stations” in the same room. I’m using the term “stations” loosely here – I put Lincoln with some cars at the kid’s table and Adelaide with some blocks on the floor. Usually after a few minutes of playing alone one will wander over to the other and they’ll begin playing together.
Have you heard the saying “Love is spelled T.I.M.E?” I think it’s true in sibling relationships as well. Give siblings the chance to become playmates by having ample time for them to do things together.
3. Don’t Force it
Depending on the age gap and current ages, your children might not be ready to be playmates. Or maybe they are, but on any given day, one of them just isn’t feeling it. Be okay with them playing separately. Don’t force them to play together.
In the early months Adelaide loved to watch Lincoln play and now most days they play together. But, some afternoons Lincoln wants to play by himself and I find a space where he can play uninterrupted. He will usually want Adelaide to come join later, or come back to playing with us after he’s had his time, but this option to go play alone is important. Adelaide hasn’t showed a similar need (she’s an extrovert from what I can gather, though, and Lincoln is definitely an introvert).
4. Communal toys
One piece of advice I got was to have all the toys be shared, nothing belonging to a specific child. We don’t do this exactly, but for almost all the toys, they belong to the family.
Each child has their own blanket and security item. Other than that, we have never emphasized toys belonging to a certain child. When Adelaide got a cooking set at a gift exchange and Lincoln got a car set, we put them both on the shelf and invited both kids to play with both toys.
5. Talk about the importance of family + loving each other often
Make the discussion of family and the love you have for each other a frequent one.
I can see the sense of pride and belonging Lincoln feels when we talk about being a family. In addition to making him feel loved and included, it strengthens his understanding of his connection with Adelaide. Also, because Adelaide is just learning to talk, our verbalizing her feelings for the rest of us helps Lincoln understand that she loves him.
In practice: I’ll say things like “Lincoln, I am so glad you are part of our family. And I’m so glad I get to be your mom. I am so glad Adelaide is part of our family.” We’ll also ask things like “Who loves Lincoln?” and then help Lincoln list all the family members that love him. Other times I’ll mention that I love Daddy and Lincoln will chime in “and I love Daddy!” and we’ll continue it for the rest of our family members.
Additionally we try and create a family culture about being happy, helpful, and kind (probably another full blog post). I try to use statements like “In our family, we are helpful – thank you so much for putting away those cars – that was so helpful!”
6. Prioritize people over things
If they fight over it, take it away.
I HATED this rule as a kid and it is one we are just starting to implement. If our kids can’t get along with a certain toy, the toy gets put away and no one gets it. This encourages them to find a way to work it out, take turns, or play together.
7. Encourage communication
Giving kids a way to express their feelings and have them validated often solves the problem of a disagreement. When my kids are starting to get frustrated, or sad, or hurt, I label their feelings. Lincoln is old enough at three that he can repeat what I’m saying or express it on his own.
I ask something like, “Lincoln, what is wrong?”
Lincoln usually responds with the action that bothered him, ” Adelaide took the car that I was playing with.”
I respond with labeling his emotion, “You’re feeling sad because you wanted to play with the car.” (I also try to keep this part focused on him so it’s “you’re sad because you wanted to play with the car” instead of “you’re sad because Adelaide took the car” but I’m not always consistent about this).
Lincoln will usually confirm with, “Yes, I’m feeling sad.”
Sometimes this recognition of his feeling is enough for him to move on from it.
8. Encourage Empathy
To continue the previous conversation, once we’ve established Lincoln is feeling sad and wanted to play with the car, I’ll turn to Adelaide and say, “Adelaide, look how sad Lincoln is because he wanted to play with the car! What could we do to make him feel better?”
Now, Adelaide, at 18 months, is still quite young. Most of them time I need to bring up the solution.
The point is, focus on helping your kids recognize the emotions of their siblings before trying to make things fair. If Adelaide takes a toy, I’ll often make her give it back. If Lincoln knocks over a tower and refuses to help build it, he’ll need to go play somewhere else. But, before those consequences, I try to help them recognize how their sibling is feeling as a result of their actions and give them the opportunity to fix it.
Most of the time at our house this plays out after Lincoln has taken a toy from Adelaide and she’s crying. After this conversation with Lincoln he’ll usually suggest giving her another toy. The judge in me wants to make him give back the original toy but I let him try this solution and if Adelaide is happy with it, I let it be.
9. Comfort before discipline
One rule of thumb a friend shared a few months ago was to always comfort the victim first. Instead of jumping in to discipline the child who took a toy, threw a block, or hit, make sure the child that got hurt or is sad gets your attention first. A lot of the time acting is out is a cry for attention and when you reward it with your immediate attention (even if it’s negative attention), that encourages the behavior.
In practice: When Lincoln has taken a toy from Adelaide, I’ll comfort her first. “Adelaide, you’re feeling sad because you were playing with that toy and now Lincoln has it.” before turning to Lincoln and helping him empathize, “Lincoln, Adelaide is feeling sad after you took that toy away, what could we do about it.”
I also try this when my kids do something to another child. Like last week at playgroup Lincoln threw a ball straight at the face of the one year old. He got removed from the situation and needed to come hang out with me for awhile (“because if we can play if we are going to play nicely”) but only after he was ignored while I made sure the other child was okay (while being thoroughly embarrassed and super frustrated with my three year old who should know better).
10. Let them be crazy
The most laughter we have in our house is when Adelaide and Lincoln are running around together being a little bit insane. If I can, I just let them be.
As long as the kids are having fun and no one is getting hurt, let them keep at it.
11. Stay out of it
As long as you can, stay out of it, especially if they’re having a disagreement. Give them a chance to work it out before you get involved. You might be surprised at how they can resolve it.
It is more important for them to find a solution that works for them than for you to execute the solution you think is fair. We have a lot of things go on that aren’t fair between my kids but if they can find a solution on their own that works for both of them, I call it a win.
Of course, if the fighting doesn’t stop within a minute or so, I’ll often intervene (when they get older I think they’ll be able to disagree and work things out for a longer period of time – but, as toddlers, a minute of pulling on a toy is plenty long).
12. Compliment and highlight acts of kindness
Whenever you see your child serving, sharing, or helping the other, compliment or highlight it. In addition to calling out the action, label it as kind or helpful.
In practice: When Lincoln picks up a toy Adelaide dropped and gives it back to her I’ll try and say something like, “Adelaide, that was so kind of your brother to give your toy back. He is such a helpful big brother.”
This also acts to encourage helpfulness between siblings and I’ve found Lincoln is more apt to serve and help Adelaide since I’ve started recognizing his efforts.
13. Role play positive responses to conflict
Give your kids the communication tools early to express their feelings and deal with conflict in a healthy way. An easy way to do this is role playing responses you’d like them to use in situations.
In practice: When Adelaide has taken Lincoln’s toy and he is screaming I’ll try and say something like, “Lincoln, you’re feeling frustrated because you were playing with that toy. You can say ‘Adelaide, I was still playing with that. May I have it back please?'” We also like “It’s still my turn. Would you like a turn when I’m done?”
14. Set some basic rules
Help your kids understand the basic framework in which they play together. I’m still working on what our rules are in our family but the one I go back to often (usually daily) is “We don’t take things from hands.” This means that no matter what, even if you were playing with something and Adelaide picked it up from the road you were building and walked away, you can’t pull it out of her hands.
15. Show how fun it is
Show your kids how fun playing with their sibling is. Sometimes Lincoln won’t want to join in building blocks with Adelaide but if I sit on the floor and have a great time with her, laughing and playing, he’ll often join. I can keep playing for another minute or two and then they don’t notice as I slip away to clean the kitchen.
16. Encourage teamwork
Find things your kids can accomplish together to build a sense of comraodery and teamwork. One great way is to give them simple household tasks to do. With toddlers, we like to ask them to clean up a bin of toys together, encourage them along, and then celebrate their completing the task together.
In practice: I’ll ask, “Lincoln and Adelaide, can you two clean up these cars by putting them in the car bin?” I’ll encourage them with, “Great job – Adelaide and Lincoln are putting the cars away and that is so helpful!” When they’re done I’ll thank them, “Thank you guys for working together and cleaning up – that was so helpful.”
17. Don’t compare
In front of them, or where they could overhear you, don’t compare your kids.
This one is SO hard for me because I find their differences so interesting and sometimes surprising. But, I’m trying to keep the conversation with Ben saved for after they’ve gone to bed or are well out of earshot.
18. Give them enough one on one time and attention
We don’t get a lot of one on one time with each of our children but I find that when Adelaide is playing happily I can sneak in building a tower with Lincoln and giving him my undivided attention. Alternatively, when Lincoln is racing cars I can sneak in a story on the couch with Adelaide. Both my kids are better behaved and kinder to each other when they’re feeling loved and aren’t seeking additional attention.
A few other things about sibling relationships:
When we go to the gym and I drop my kids off I’ll often ask Lincoln to look after Adelaide and make sure she’s feeling “safe and loved” (a phrase we use a lot around here). When I ask him about if afterwards I can sense the pride and responsibility he feels for having a task and taking care of her. I’ll often get a response like “Adelaide cry but I gave her a ball.” or “Adelaide and I play together.” I love finding ways I can encourage them to watch out for each other.
One piece of advice I got (or read) before Adelaide was born was to not blame the baby for not being able to help my toddler. If Lincoln wanted me to pick him up while I was feeding Adelaide, instead of saying, “I can’t hold you right now because I’m holding Adelaide,” I’d say, “My hands are full right now. I would love to pick you up in a few minutes.” I’m not sure if this actually made a difference but I like the idea of not calling out how the sibling is taking away from the other.
Also, buy them darling matching rain boots. These two love wearing these and always want the other to be matching. We got ours from London Littles and they couldn’t be cuter.
Great Books about positive sibling relationships:
- Peaceful Parent Happy Siblings (under $10 on amazon right now)
2. Siblings Without Rivalry (available as audiobook, kindle, or hard copy)
I hope you found a few of these sibling relationships tips that were useful!
Now I would LOVE to hear what things you do or are trying to do to encourage your kids to be friends! As they get older do you have other ideas? Is there something that has worked really well for you or your parents? Leave a comment and let me know!
And if you found these helpful, I’d really appreciate you sharing it with a friend who might like it or pinning it on pinterest.