Parenting Siblings: 3 Tools to Help Them Manage Their Emotions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Should you allow your children to complain about each other? How can you minimize sibling rivalry among your kids? When should you intervene in their fights?

Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist. She’s also a mother of three, so she knows all about sibling dynamics and the special challenges they can bring. In Good Inside, Dr. Becky shares three tools you can use to help your children navigate the emotions involved in sibling relationships.

Keep reading for Kennedy’s advice for parenting siblings.

Parenting Siblings

Sibling relationships can be challenging for children and elicit unwanted behavior, such as fighting or whining. Kennedy argues this is because siblings can feel threatening to a child’s attachment needs since they can see your attention going to someone else. The difference in abilities and in the parental involvement other siblings require can also be frustrating to children. 

Kennedy suggests using the following tools when parenting siblings: 1) empathy, 2) confidence-building, and 3) a combination of validation and boundaries. She believes that these will help your children manage the emotions that sibling relationships generate.

Tool #1: Empathy

Give your children the opportunity to complain about their siblings to you—just not in the presence of the aggrieving sibling. Kennedy says that this will give them an outlet for their emotions without harming the relationship between them. Don’t let the complaining turn into name-calling, as this is dangerous and destructive. 

(Shortform note: Sometimes, a child simply needs more time and attention, and it can cause her siblings to feel invisible. For example, siblings of children with medical needs can become “glass children” when their parents become overwhelmed with the needs of the other child and “see through” the other children. To avoid this, experts recommend sharing a journal with her and connecting her with other young people in similar situations to help her see she’s not alone. These can be safe spaces for her to vent safely and feel that others empathize with her situation.)

Tool #2: Confidence-Building

Explain that you’ll give each child what they need, not give them each the same thing. Kennedy argues that this will help avoid comparisons in the short term and, in the long run, it will help your children define their wants and needs for themselves, not in reference to other people.

(Shortform note: The way you allocate resources to each child can certainly trigger unhelpful comparisons, but there are other ways that parents encourage this problem. Often, parents actively compare their children, or label them as “the most/least” of some trait, which can encourage competition and passive-aggressiveness and undermine confidence.)

Tool #3: Validation & Boundaries

When an argument is brewing, Kennedy says you should be an objective narrator. Describe what you’re seeing and how each must be feeling, and pose questions to prompt them to problem solve without you. If a situation turns physically or verbally aggressive, step in decisively: Announce that you won’t let them hurt each other, then separate them. Decide which sibling needs you most urgently and tell the other sibling that you’ll be with them soon and that you know they need you, too. Then help each one regulate their emotions using the strategies for tantrums.

(Shortform note: When you act as an objective narrator, you can treat sibling arguments as opportunities to coach your kids in the kinds of social skills that the authors of The Whole-Brain Child say you must teach your children. For example, you can help your kids practice seeing another person’s perspective by asking questions about how their sibling may have reacted in a certain way. Similarly, if the disagreement went so far that you had to separate your children, you might teach them the value of making amends after an argument rather than just apologizing.)

Parenting Siblings: 3 Tools to Help Them Manage Their Emotions

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Becky Kennedy's "Good Inside" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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