A week ago I let my children, who are 7 and almost 6, watch the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Back in the pre-virus era, I had insisted we wait until my son was 8. But I figured if we were talking every night at the dinner table about a scary virus that was keeping us shut up at home, they could probably handle Han Solo blasting his way out of Mos Eisley.
My kids sat together on the couch, clutching stuffed Chewbaccas, amazed at what was happening. Every day since then, they’ve run around the house, my son in a rakish vest, my daughter with a green stuffed animal strapped to her back (a stand-in for Yoda), pretending to be Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. They’ve spun the movies into their own universe of play that unfolds while I’m fielding work calls, unloading the dishwasher and shoving chicken thighs into the oven.
The Bay Area was the first place in the country to enact a stay-at-home order, and as the weeks drag on, their sibling relationship is a lifeline. Yes, I’m barking “hands to yourself!” 20 times a day, but I’m still deeply grateful that my kids have each other.
Siblings tend to take a back seat in the parenting conversation, with most of the focus on parent-child or peer-to-peer relationships. But strong sibling bonds have a significant impact on both child and adult well-being, and for many of us, siblings will be the longest family relationships we have in our lives. In an era of super-scheduled childhoods, those bonds have been less tended to, with many kids spending more time with classmates and teammates than their brothers or sisters. Now, suddenly, everyone is at home together.
Here’s how to stay sane with multiple kids at home, and perhaps even emerge with stronger sibling bonds.
Focus on the fun, not the fighting
“When siblings play together more and have fun together, they are closer for the rest of their lives,” says Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” and “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings.”
Unwittingly, we’ve made that a lot harder for kids, says Markham, because we’ve replaced free play time with sports and other enrichment activities. But now, even the most dubious sibling has to recognize that their brother or sister is the only gig in town. That can be a challenge for parents, and also an opportunity.
“Look at where they have fun, and try to facilitate that,” says Markham. “Maybe your kids always fight when they play Sorry, and a cooperative board game is better. Find activities that are good for different levels, like crafts.”
If your kids love imaginative play, as mine do, they might need help coming to a meeting of the minds. “Notice what they like to do and encourage them,” says Markham. If one kid really wants to play store, and another really wants to play astronaut, you could get creative and suggest they set up a store on the moon.
Then step away. Not only because you need a break, but because your kids want time alone with each other, too. (For toddlers who are still in parallel play mode, you’ll need to stay in the same room; older kids can be left to their own devices.)
If there is a large age gap between siblings or the older sibling is a teen, acknowledge that your older child might not always want to spend time with their younger siblings. Markham suggests saying something like, “Your brother loves you and wants to spend time with you. I know you have school work and want to talk to your friends. Let’s schedule special time with your brother that he can count on, and then I’ll make sure you have alone time the rest of the day.”
How to make the screaming stop
“It’s important for kids to learn how to manage aggression, and a sibling is usually a great opportunity for that,” says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “Voice Lessons for Parents.” “I’m rethinking that for now because everyone’s stores of emotional fuel are low,” she says. “We are living in such close quarters.”
While it’s a good practice in normal times to let kids work things out themselves, for the emotional health of your household, you may need to be more proactive now. Here are strategies for keeping the peace.
First, make sure that each sibling has alone time every day, Markham says. If they share a room, assign each a separate place in your home where they can have quiet time playing, drawing, reading, listening to music — whatever they want. All of us (including parents) need downtime away from other people, and if your children don’t get this, they’ll take it out on each other.
Second, make sure each child has one-on-one time with a parent every day, recommends Markham. Even just 15 minutes. Your child needs this no matter what, but if they are struggling with an issue with a sibling, this gives them space to talk about it.
And if they do bring it up, practice reflective listening, rather than shutting down the conversation.
“Parents can become like publicists, trying to sell sibling bonding,” says Mogel. “Instead of pushing ideas — ‘it’s so important you get along with your sister because you’ll always have each other and who knows who else you’ll have’ — simply listen to a child’s complaint, and then say what your child is saying back to them.” Feeling heard may be enough for your child.
Intervene without increasing sibling rivalry
One of the mistakes parents make (and it’s one I make all the time, because we’re human) is to intervene in a sibling conflict in a way that makes one child wrong. This reinforces sibling rivalry.
Of course, when your son hits his sister on the head with a lightsaber, you can make a strong argument that he is in the wrong. But “it’s not a court of law,” says Mogel. “You’re not weighing the evidence; you are understanding the feelings.”
That doesn’t mean that nothing happens to the lightsaber wielder. Take the toy away, and use an ‘I’ statement to explain what you’re doing — “I’m worried someone is going to get hurt, so I’m putting this toy away.”
Don’t try to argue who is right and who is wrong (“Children are superb lawyers; you won’t win,” says Mogel), but explain why the behavior is off-limits (“we don’t hit.”). Listen to each child, and then reflect back what you’re hearing (“Help me understand. Is this what you’re feeling?”).
At that point you can take the temperature of the room — is it time to propose solutions to the problem, like lightsabers can only be used to hit pillows or sofa cushions — or is it time to cool off and regroup later?
If this sounds hard, that’s because it is, and it takes practice. Try to stick with observations (“I hear really loud voices! All this yelling is hurting my ears!”), instead of editorializing (“Why are you screaming all the time! You’re acting like a baby!”). Come down on the behavior instead of the kid.
Lower your ambitions
So much is being asked of parents right now, from home schooling to getting three meals a day on the table to working remotely. So lower expectations and be gentle on yourself. While it’s important to have some routines in place and honor the work your kids’ teachers are putting in by focusing on it within reason, Mogel says, maintaining your family’s emotional health is the priority.
To do that, prioritize time for your kids to have fun with each other. For your family’s happiness, it’s more important that you are a steward of imagination and silliness and play right now than a homework proctor.
I’ve watched my kids during these weeks, and they remind me of my brother and me when we were growing up — allies, friends, co-conspirators. It’s reminded me why the sibling bond is unique. They are, after all, the only two children who know what it’s like to be part of this ordinary family, which is different from every other family because it’s ours.