Want young siblings to stop fighting? Try empathy. Have them walk in another sibling’s shoes. As Atticus said in To Kill a Mockingbird, you never know another human being until you walk in his shoes. Teach siblings how their behavior affects other siblings to avoid catastrophes in the future.
Stepsisters Angie and Jennifer despised each other as kids forced into a remade family. Angie felt like a modern day Cinderella, and she saw stepsister Jennifer as Drusilla, her evil stepsister. As a midlife adult, Angie finally decided to write her “I Hate You” story because 30 years later she was still in psychic pain.
When she and Jennifer met, Angie was surprised that Jennifer had her own tale of woe about her own parents’ divorcing and growing up in a stepfamily. Jennifer was devastated as a child when her own Mom and Dad split throwing her out of her own family nest. Angie was able to see the other side of her stepfamily stories and what Jennifer had gone through as a child, something she had no idea about when they were young. So Angie finally was able to have empathy for Jennifer, an emotion that helped her forgive her sister and bring them back to an aligned sibling relationship.
Parenting your children so that they are sensitive to each other’s point of view is important for exposing sibling issues and diffusing blame and hurt that can turn into sibling wounds, then scars, then sibling “I Hate You” stories. Family meetings, spending one-on-one time with each child, emphasizing each child’s self-worth can give each sibling a forum and a reason to be sympathetic and empathetic to the others and avoid sibling wars now and in the future.
Parents can teach empathy by using some mom or dad tools. First attempt to have a child describe his or her own feelings. When you have two siblings that have had a spat, help them tell you how they are feeling—not what the other brother or sister made them feel. This matches “I” words with feelings. “I feel mad or happy or sad”—not “the way my brother took the toys away from me made me feel mad.” We are feeling empathy as a parent by assisting the siblings in putting their extreme reactions and feelings into words.
Model empathy. When a child makes mistakes like breaking a plate, provide emotional sustenance as parents by not blaming but offering understanding that accidents can happen. Treat pets kindly and with affection to teach how kindness counts in all people and animals’ lives.
Assist siblings in reading facial expressions and body language. When children are young and you as a parent read books your kids, point to the facial expressions and signal emotion like kindness or anger. Reinforce kindness and explain how our actions sometimes bring on anger and how we can understand it and dispel it in others like siblings.
Talk about how people’s action can elicit feelings in others—perhaps something like “Your brother looked so happy when you let him play with your fireman Playmobile. Did you notice his large smile?”
Practice empathy with your family at home.
“Nod is meowing and brushing on your leg. Do you think you could give him several pets?” “Your sister is having a hard time opening that jar and her face looks unhappy. Do you think you might help her unscrew it?” “Grandpa is having a hard time getting those birthday boxes out to his car. Could you carry some out or him? That would be so kind of you.”
So as a parent teach and model empathy to avoid temporary or life long nuclear meltdowns between siblings.