Dr. Michelle Golland: As moms, we know life is filled with big and little moments of joy and comparable moments of pain. We experience this with our children often. When people ask me how my two kids get along, my response is always the same: "It is heaven and hell."
I love my kids, but day to day (and even from one minute to the next), I do feel like I move from heaven to hell and back again. What keeps my hopes up during the hellish times is the blissful memory of the heavenly times. Without the bad, what does the good really mean, right?
Take, for example, one of my recent heavenly moments: It is 6:30 AM and everyone is sleepy, waiting for breakfast and wiping the sleep from his or her eyes. As I am walking back into the kitchen to pull out the pancakes from the microwave, I hear Asher ask Tova, "Tov, can you hand me that pillow?" He asked her in such a sweet voice -- no attitude, no anger that she already had two pillows and he was in some way victimized by this. And then came her response: "Sure, Ash." (Melodic with ease and a sense of love. I melted!) And she gently handed it to him, no questions asked.
Maybe it was that they used their nicknames, or maybe I was just feeling particularly emotional that day, but it really made my heart sing to see them in a quiet, easy moment of give-and-take. It was my heaven!
I have accepted my life with my children, and dealing with sibling issues will simply include heavenly moments and hellish ones as well. I believe that the acceptance of this as a reality is what allows me to not pathologize their conflicts, but instead help them work through them with as much respect and love as possible, while also teaching them that sometimes we need to agree to disagree about things, and that everyone doesn't see or feel things the same way we do.
I am sure my mother, who had four girls, would say that even though we're now adults, there are still moments of heaven and hell. The pain I have experienced with my own siblings can be described in the same way: moments of amazing support, love and connection, and times of deep despair, sadness and disconnection. What we need to do as parents is teach our children that conflict is normal and the goal is understanding and repair.
I believe the biggest mistake we can make is to try to stop all conflict between our children, because what they will learn is that disagreeing is bad. Then someone will end up suppressing their honest feelings, which is unhealthy when there may be real issues that need to be addressed.
Whether our children are 4 or 40 years old, we as parents need to let them deal with conflicts on their own, providing neutral guidance as much as possible. Here are my three imperatives for handling sibling issues:
1) Conflict is normal. Teach your kids that conflict happens, and that how we deal with it is what matters. We don't always agree with someone, but coping with disagreements honestly will actually deepen the relationship. If we expect our children to just "get along" all the time, we are setting them up for major relationship challenges their whole lives, whether with their siblings, their spouses or their own children.
2) Empathy and understanding are key. We must encourage each of our children to see their sibling's point of view. Teaching them to be empathic toward each other will allow them to move through conflict as they grow up. Allowing our children to see the impact of their actions -- especially hurtful ones -- will help them become less self-centered.
3) Parents should remain as neutral as possible. When parents continually take sides -- especially the side of one particular child -- they are setting their children up for serious issues as adults. If your children are in conflict, encourage them to speak with each other, and guide them through it by helping them listen to and hear their sibling's pain or anger. Guide them in coming up with a solution as well.