Social distancing is stressful for everyone—there's no way around it. And as difficult as it can be, it becomes even harder when you have multiple children. Healthy sibling relationships require thoughtful parenting and care even under the best of circumstances. Add in non-stop togetherness, stretched-thin parents and kids going stir-crazy from being trapped at home, and sibling tensions can begin to reach new (and unpleasant) heights.
These 7 easy-to-use strategies can help siblings get along better and ease the tensions in your home during social distancing:
1. Create a family marble jar
Sibling tensions often rise when kids compete against each other to get parental attention or other needs. With a marble jar, kids work together towards a common goal.
Start by setting a few sibling goals (think: sharing, using kind words, offering to help) and a family reward, like pizza night, sleepover in the living room or double dessert day. Whenever you see a child demonstrating a goal behavior, praise the child and put a marble in the family jar. Encourage kids to "report" on each other by telling you when a sibling has earned a marble with good behavior (but don't allow self-reporting—it gets hard, to be honest).
When kids start to fight, rather than reprimand them, remind them you're looking for kind behaviors so they can earn their reward. When the jar is full, everyone gets the prize. Although it may take a few days to break their old habits, kids soon realize that they get more out of being kind than arguing.
2. Use timers to support sharing
Doesn't it seem like kids always want the same toy at the exact same moment? Although it can be frustrating, it's also a great teachable moment. Explain that everyone gets to use family toys, so we need to be kind and take turns. Then, use a timer to help ensure each child gets the same amount of time.
When parents monitor sharing, we often get distracted and forget to have the first child share the toy at the promised time. A timer keeps everyone on track and, eventually, kids can learn to track turns themselves. Visual timers (like hourglass timers) work best with little kids who may not know numbers yet.
3. Model self-advocacy with self-talk
When kids begin to battle, parents often jump in to resolve disputes. Although this approach stops the fight, it doesn't teach kids how to manage the issue, and the next time the issue arises, they're likely to end up fighting again.
It can be far more useful to walk kids through how to handle disagreements with self-talk. In self-talk, an adult gives suggestions on how to handle a situation by "thinking out loud" to themselves. For example, if your daughter is complaining that she wants to use the markers her brother has, prompt, "If I wanted a marker, I'd say 'Can I have the red, please?'" Self-talk teaches kids what to say without talking for them. It also limits battles between children and parents.
Direct instruction ("If you want the marker, just ask him") often leads to arguments ("I know he won't share with me! He never does!"). Self-talk puts an idea into the world, but allows your child to decide whether to use it.
4. Build in daily physical activity
To help keep tensions low, ensure kids have a daily dose of physical activity. In addition to exercise being good for little bodies, it helps relieve tension while improving moods. Make sure you find ways to let your little ones burn energy every day—even if you're stuck inside and it's just a vigorous game of head, shoulders, knees and toes!
5. Keep kids on a schedule
While being stuck at home can make days feel long and lazy, sadly, as we all know, this isn't actually a vacation. You're probably tired of hearing it by now, but to help kids get through the days, it really is best to keep them on a daily schedule or routine. Ensure they're eating healthy foods at consistent times. Make sure they still get to bed on time. These routines help bodies feel healthy, and that's an important component of good moods—everyone is grumpier when they're tired and hungry.
6. Create individualized break areas
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, being quarantined means kids are going to be tired of each other. Give children their own spaces for times when they just need a break.
Even in small homes you can still find a way to make an individualized spot for each child. If your children have their own rooms, create a break spot in one corner. If they share a room, it may be a spot next to the dresser or in front of the bed. It could also be in your bedroom or under the kitchen table. The goal is to make sure it's a safe space, it's just for one child, and it's accessible anytime they need a break. If it has cozy materials (pillows, stuffed animals, blankets), even better!
When your kids start getting frustrated with one another, remind them about their break areas. Remember, it's a positive break, not time out. Don't angrily send your child there, rather, gently ask if they might like a break ("You seem frustrated right now, do you want to take your teddy bear and go chill in your cozy spot until you feel happier?").
7. Schedule individual parent time for each child
Meeting your child's needs for attention and connection will help reduce sibling tension and allow them to better manage frustration and stress. The care they need from you right now includes actual physical care (diaper changes and bottles) as well as emotional care (story time, snuggles and attention).
If you have a baby that needs a lot of care, build in blocks of time for older children when the baby naps. If your children are bigger, plan blocks of time with one child when your other children are engaged in preferred activities. Have one child watch a show while you play a game with another. Have one child eat a snack while you read a book with another. It's okay if you only spend a few minutes together, just as long as each child gets some solo parent time.
Being a parent during these days of social distancing isn't easy—stress levels are high and kids are going to get frustrated with one another. By using a few simple strategies, though, you can help make your days run more smoothly.