You spent the better part of the school year taking deep breaths as your kids battled over who would get the first shower after soccer practice. You intervened gently as they attempted to strangle each other for the last slice of pizza. And now summer, with all its extra family time, is upon you. Can you make it to autumn alive?
You’ll have a fighting chance if you figure out what’s making your kids squabble in the first place. Are they bored? Do they want your attention? Do they think you play favorites? And what will it really take to get them to behave? A lot less than you think! These four pro tips from three Scarsdale experts will soothe your savage beasts.
1. Add structure. A big reason siblings fight is to assert their individuality. “They wind up competing in sports, school, games – who wins and loses is their comparison point,” says Adam Weissman, founder of the Child & Family Institute. When there’s more bonding time in summer, expect “disagreements that test the boundaries of differing opinions and solidifying identities.”
To nip this in the bud, make sure your kids have structure built into every day. If they are not enrolled in camp, sign them up for swimming lessons or arrange for them to take care of a neighbor’s pet. For younger kids, Eve Loren Goldstein, a therapist who runs Westchester Child Therapy, recommends low-key activities such as building a fort, completing a craft project, or creating a treasure hunt. You’re not aiming to fill up every minute of vacation time, says Weissman, but rather, to strike a calm-inducing balance.
2. Set up a rewards system. Another way to downplay siblings’ inherent competitiveness is by getting them to work together to reach a common objective. This can be especially useful when you’re stuck in the car or on a plane, to or from a family vacation. You can’t separate your kids in this scenario, and there’s little you can take away from them in the moment. So, you need to entice them to cooperate.
For this tactic to work, though, you and your spouse have to commit to ignoring negative behaviors as much as possible, in order to reward positive behaviors. Then, says Weissman, each time you see or hear your kids getting along, award them a point. After they’ve accumulated, say, 20 points, the whole family gets a treat: going out for a fancy dinner, or making a previously-unscheduled stop at a water park.
3. Make time for each kid. Got kids who want more of you, because they worry their sibling is your true favorite? First, says clinical psychologist Ilana Rosenberg, “Spend time talking to your children, telling them you love them differently, for being who they are.” Then, put your words to work, by carving out special time for each child.
For example, spend 15 minutes in the morning with one kid, doing whatever she likes, such as tossing around the lacrosse ball in the back yard. And 15 minutes in the evening with a second child, reading stories or playing school. (Got three or more kids? Consider a rolling schedule.) You can also defer your time by promising something like a Sunday morning bagel date that alternates among kids from week to week. When kids know they’ll get what they need, says Rosenberg, “they can hold out for a day or two, or even a whole week. That can go a long way towards stopping rivalry.”
4. Keep them active. A whining kid is a bored kid. And a bored kid is one who’s prone to picking fights. The antidote: plenty of exercise.
“Children need the opportunity to have a physical activity each day,” says Goldstein. “It gives them an outlet for their energy.” Make the most of the warm summer days and send them on hikes, bike rides, or out to organize a game of Frisbee on your block. Even rolling down a grassy hill can relieve pent-up aggression. Bonus: the resulting giggles will see you all happily through Labor Day.
Lela Nargi is a freelance writer and Westchester mom who intends to make good use of these tips.