Laura Henckel smiles at the soft babble of young voices drifting into the kitchen from the dining room of her home in Sugar Hill, Georgia. Her kids -- Gabrielle, 6, Tré, 4, and Peter, 2 -- are sharing a stack of graham crackers.
Don't be fooled. "These afternoon snacks stop them from fighting just long enough for me to make dinner," she says.
Bribery also helps, in the form of a system of rewards and consequences. "It may sound materialistic, but a little spare change goes a long way toward encouraging them to play nicely together." Yesterday Gabrielle earned a quarter and a dime for sharing her toys with her brothers and helping them clean up. It works in reverse too: Tré wasn't thrilled to pay a dime toward replacing a bottle of cranberry juice he'd spilled while making a mad grab for cookies he was supposed to be sharing. "He didn't like that at all, but I saw him stop and think twice the next time he wanted something Peter had," Laura says.
Siblings fight. It's a fact of life, a force of nature. But like wind and water, these natural rivalries can be harnessed, redirected, and even tamed -- at least temporarily. That's what the Henckels have learned through trial and error -- and a little professional help.
It started two years ago when Laura and her husband, Larry, were anticipating the birth of Peter with joy -- and concern. They had no idea how they were going to cope if the baby's arrival worsened the already raging sibling rivalry that had engulfed their home. "Gabrielle and Tré love each other tremendously, but one always wanted what the other one had -- and often that was me!" says Laura, recalling the bad old days. "They'd fight about anything," adds Larry. "I mean, they'd go at it big time over a washcloth!"
Evenings were the worst. Laura would finish teaching preschool and pick up the kids at daycare, and then everyone would tumble home -- hungry and exhausted. Making dinner was a nightmare. The kids would grab, hit, chase, and wrestle angrily, forcing their mom to intervene time and again.
When asked if they'd like some strategies for reducing the rivalry, the Henckels were enthusiastic. They were especially eager to learn how to keep Gabrielle and Tré from spinning out of control -- and what to say and do when they did.
Enter family counselor Elizabeth Ellis, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in suburban Atlanta, who met with the Henckels for an extended visit in her office. Ellis watched the family in action and suggested tactics to help both parents and kids get a handle on the daily discord. Here's the advice that she offered them -- and a look at how successful it was a month and then two years later.