You are here

Getting Kids to Get Along

When we offered a family a sibling-rivalry "makeover," they jumped at the chance. Here's what you can learn from their success


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.

The Visit

On a crisp spring morning a few months after Peter's birth, Laura, Larry, the kids, and Larry's parents drive to Duluth, Georgia, to meet with Ellis. Both older kids start playing quietly with toys in her office. Ellis turns to Laura, who's holding Peter on her lap, and says sympathetically, "You look exhausted."

Before Laura can respond, 4-year-old Gabrielle and 2-year-old Tré start to fight over a dollhouse. Ellis offers Tré a stick puppet, which he accepts (while still clutching a miniature chair). "Children this age have no comprehension of manners, so your first line of defense is prevention," she says.

During the lull, Larry relates the family's main issues: relentless yelling, chasing, and hitting over toys and treats; arguments over who gets to pick the next video or computer game; competition for attention from parents; World War III at the end of the workday.

"When we get home, I'm tired from the day, I'm frazzled from their fighting in the car, and I need to nurse Peter right away," says Laura. "But as soon as I sit down with the baby, Gabrielle and Tré need something. A drink. A Blue's Clues video. Food. It absolutely can't wait or they fall apart."

Ellis commiserates. "I think my next book will be titled Being a Working Mom Is Not for Sissies," she says. Then she engages them in brainstorming. "Let's see if some preparation the night before can help smooth the workday afternoon. And we'll look at tactics to prevent the constant fighting."

The Plan

Ellis helps them come up with a checklist of diversions that can be waiting for the kids when they walk in the door each day: juice boxes and snacks within reach on the lower shelf of the fridge and a video they can pop in the VCR by themselves. When Larry complains that Gabrielle and Tré ignore their overabundance of toys, Ellis suggests they bag up and stash most of them, then bring out a bunch each month so they seem new again.

By now, Gabrielle and Tré have begun whining and tugging on Laura  -- one on each side. So Ellis invites them to take some toys and join their grandparents, who are in the waiting room. When they've left, she says, "They clearly love each other and want to play together. They just don't know how."

Not only that, the two older children are also at different stages of development. Gabrielle is just now able to grasp concepts like sharing and waiting her turn, says Ellis; Tré is not. Right now, Ellis suggests that Laura and Larry set up situations in which Gabrielle and Tré (and Peter, in a year or so) can play alongside each other independently, without competing for toys or control, such as:

  • Engaging in some delightfully messy activity with divisible material, like Jell-O or play foam

  • Jumping on a mattress in a safe place

  • Scribbling with crayons or markers on a table covered with newspaper

  • Dancing to lively music

  • Running through the sprinkler outside when it's warm

    Fine, says Laura, but what can she do when the inevitable tug-of-war over some object does arise? "If I don't make them share and I always run to get another toy, aren't I just indulging them in instant gratification?"

    Not at their ages, says Ellis. As soon as the two start tussling over something, redirect one or the other to another item. It may be easier to offer Tré a toddler toy that's not going to interest his sister. If that doesn't work, gently but firmly separate them. "You might have to put Tré in his room with a gate up," she says. "But make sure he understands that it's not a punishment, just time to play apart."

    Gabrielle can also learn some problem-solving skills. "Show her how she can be your helper and teach Tré the rules," says Ellis. "She'll like that." If Tré hits her to get a toy, for example, she should tell him, "No hitting!" instead of clobbering him back. If he snatches a toy from her, she's to say, "No grabbing!" or "Go play with something else!" Whenever her mom and dad see her do this, they should praise her.

    Both Gabrielle and Tré are at ages where they're internalizing such rules, explains Ellis. "Give them a simple, forceful rule like 'No yelling' and they'll repeat it. Believe me, it will come back to you."

    Carrots and Sticks

    Gabrielle is also old enough for a formal reward system. Ellis produces a cup of colorful, translucent bingo chips  -- "For some reason, kids just love 'em"  -- and spells out the system: Each time Gabrielle behaves appropriately  -- sharing a toy or waiting her turn, using her words instead of hitting  -- she gets a chip. When she has ten, she can cash them in for a special prize. Ellis invites Gabrielle back in and explains the chips. "If Tré takes a toy from you, tell him, 'No grabbing. That's bad. You go play with something else.'"

    Gabrielle chirps with enthusiasm, letting a handful of chips run through her fingers. Then Tré pushes his way into the room  -- "He'll track her down every time," observes Larry  -- and the session's over. Ellis writes out a plan for the Henckels to follow. A year or two from now, they can redeploy it to defuse the inevitable tensions that will arise between Tré and Peter; by then, Gabrielle may be less rivalry-prone.

    A Month Later

    Though still bustling to keep up with the competing needs of their kids, the Henckels already look less frazzled.

    Simply having snacks, juice, and videos waiting when she and the kids arrive home has been the greatest help of all, reports Laura. Tré settles right down with a Blue's Clues video, and even though Gabrielle's first instinct was to scream for a different tape, she has adjusted to playing undisturbed in her room  -- especially now that a box of dress-up dolls has been retrieved from the attic. Says Laura, "We're so glad that Flower Barbie is back with us!"

    Three fish-shaped water guns are another source of play without conflict  -- Gabrielle and Tré love to soak each other outside on the deck. With three similar squirters to choose from, there's no fighting over who gets what.

    When quarrels over toys do occur, Larry has found it easier to redirect Gabrielle than Tré. "It's not really fair, as she's almost always the one who has to take the substitute," he says. "But she seems okay with it, and we're all a lot happier."

    Both children enjoy a modified version of the chip system. Each has chosen a color (Gabrielle, red; Tré, blue) and a small plastic bucket to store them in. Tré has earned two or three chips for sharing toys in the bathtub and being nice to his sister. "He gets excited about them every now and then, but he doesn't really understand what they're for," says Laura.

    Gabrielle, though, has taken to the chip system with true passion, earning ten in the past week alone. That's the magic number that earns a trip to the Dollar Store with Mom.

    She's also been told she can lose chips for misbehavior. "The other night she kept pulling Tré off an old trike she never uses. I threatened to take the whole bunch of chips away," says Larry. "She lost interest in torturing him real fast."

    Laura prefers to take a more positive approach. "When Gabrielle wouldn't let Tré play with this little mailbox that I have, I told her, 'Fine, you don't have to share, but that's not going to earn you a chip.'" Gabrielle realized she could wait a few minutes until Tré lost interest in the box.

    Separating the siblings once they're out of control has proven more difficult. "It's hard for them to understand that they're not actually being punished when they're put in their rooms," says Laura. Although the tactic may restore peace in the short term, she's concluded, she prefers not to use it too often.

    Gabrielle's newfound maturity has impressed both parents  -- as has her positive influence on Tré. "He really does look up to her," says Laura. "I think I always knew it, but now we're learning to harness it."

    Looking back on the whole experience, Laura says, she was surprised by the direction Ellis took with her "makeover" advice. "I guess I was expecting her to tell me all the things I was doing wrong, and how to change them. Instead, she showed me that I could expect more of my daughter. It's really worked to give her more responsibility for her behavior."

    Two Years Later

    Nothing lasts forever. The chip system fell out of favor, for one, but Laura has revived it by offering coins instead of chips.

    Separating the kids is trickier too, now that Peter and Tré share a room. "Fortunately, Peter's usually content to stay with me while the other two play in their rooms," says Laura. Or one child can usually be directed downstairs to a video.

    Rotating toys to maintain interest and using regular snack times to circumvent hunger-induced meltdowns still work.

    Of course, sibling rivalry can rarely be "solved." What works this month will need adjustment next month. But the rewards are great. Laura's particularly pleased with the benefits for Peter, now 2. "Ever since Gabrielle and Tré stopped fighting so much, they've both been spending more time with him." Peter's also catching on to the system. "He gets rewards for helping around the house," says Laura. "He's just starting to understand how things work around here."

    Contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs wrote "Is Your Child's Car Seat Safe?" in the October 2002 issue.

  • comments