How to help siblings get along better

Sibling relationships allow children to try out new social and emotional behavior, particularly when it comes to conflict.

(CNN)Sibling rivalry is often taken as an unexamined fact of family life -- as much a part of parenting as potty training or bedtime stories.

But experts say parents don't have to put up with the bickering and the fights: There are strategies and techniques to help brothers and sisters get along better, strengthening a relationship that will support them for life and make for a more harmonious home.
Given the enforced proximity that is still a reality for many as a Covid-19 winter approaches, a game plan to improve sibling relationships could be a lifesaver for struggling parents tired of snarled insults and hurled objects.
"It's been part of our culture, at least in the US, to think that siblings fight. That there's going to be lots of times they don't get along. That's what they do," said Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston.
    "When social lives are so restricted, families really see the value of encouraging their kids to be friends, in some respects, to be companions and playmates."
    Unlike many of our relationships, we don't choose our siblings, and this makes for a unique dynamic. Brothers and sisters can withstand far more negativity and behavior that simply wouldn't fly among friends, Kramer said.
    That's one reason why sibling interactions are developmentally so important. These relationships allow children to try out new social and emotional behavior, particularly when it comes to conflict, helping them learn ways to manage emotions and develop awareness of other people's thoughts and feelings.
    "It's helpful for children to have experiences in a very safe relationship with a brother or sister where they can work through (conflict) and learn conflict management skills that they will be able to use in other relationships in their life," Kramer said.
    "Conflict can be very constructive and helpful. It helps children get a sense of who they are and their own identity."
    It's worth parents spending some time to help their children get along since these are typically the longest-lasting of our close relationships. That shared history can be really important in a crisis.
    So what steps should you take to help feuding siblings get along? Here are some ideas.

    One-on-one time

    It may sound counterintuitive, but scheduling regular one-on-one time with your children is a good first move.
    "When you have one on one time there is no competition for your attention. There are no perceived winners and losers in this regard," said family therapist Jonathan Caspi, a professor in the department of family science and human development at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
    "There is the ability to praise and correct without the audience (and it having any meaning) for the other children. It's a freer relationship and one in which bonding and closeness can be developed without interference," he said via email.
    Another tip: While it's tempting to seize the moments they do get along to get things done, it's important to take a moment and praise siblings when they are cooperating and playing nicely -- parent the good behavior as well as the bad.

    Intervene or ignore?

    Tougher to deal with are the fights and knowing when to intervene or not. As a rule, Caspi said, it's better to ignore simple bickering.
    However, he stressed that physical violence and the name calling that often precedes it should be policed.
    "Since violence escalates incrementally in its severity, it is important that parents stop verbal violence before it becomes physical. Name calling is violence and opens the door for escalation into more severe violence."
    "Do not allow your children to call each other curse words or negative terms like 'fat,' 'stupid,' 'icky,' etc. While physical wounds heal, verbal ones can last a lifetime."
    Children under the age of 8 don't usually have the skills to manage conflict, said Kramer, who encouraged parents to act as mediators or coaches to facilitate solving the problem at hand rather than serving as a referee.