First, know that you’re not crazy — or alone. Siblings who spend their summers together without a lot of structured activities are often more likely to find themselves fighting with one another, according to Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University. Plus, heat and humidity don’t help either.
Kramer runs an online program for parents with children between the ages of 4 and 8 called More Fun with Sisters and Brothers, which aims to teach children how to take each other’s perspectives into account. Here are some of her tips, plus some from other parenting experts, to help minimize squabbles:
Add more structure
If a parent feels like their children could benefit from less free time, Kramer suggests they come up with a schedule together that could include making lunch or working on a puzzle together.
“That might help create a little bit more predictability,” Kramer said.
Establish house rules
Maureen O’Brien, a parenting expert who holds a doctorate in child development, said she often recommends — once a child is about 6 to 8 years old — that parents start explaining to them why certain rules exist and even letting them set some themselves. O’Brien said these rules should be clearly posted somewhere with easy-to-understand language.
“It allows the parent to say, ‘What did we agree to?’ ” said O’Brien, who is the director of curriculum and training at the parenting program Families First. “It takes some of the me-versus-you out of it and makes it a more third-party objective . . . that we talked about together.”
Collaborative problem solving
When entering a tense situation between kids, O’Brien says parents should recognize what their kids are feeling by saying something like, “Wow, it seems like people are awfully excited about something.”
The next step is figuring out what happened. O’Brien says it’s incredibly important to be a neutral party in these situations by asking each child for their version of the story.
“Have them do it in front of one another,” she said. “You’re less likely to lie to your parent if you’ve got a sibling right there to counteract with the facts.”
When a parent sees that their kids are starting to fight, they should interrupt what will inevitably spiral into a negative situation by saying, “I think we need to stop.” Kramer suggests that parents use that interruption to facilitate a conversation that can help the kids focus on what’s bothering them and determine what their goal is.
“This is really different from approaches where parents jump in and say, ‘I’m going to settle this,’ or ‘You’re going to get the ball this time,’ ” Kramer said. “It’s much more empowering if kids can be put in charge with how they’re gonna solve this problem together, and I think kids learn a lot as a result.”
Teaching children communication skills that allow them to explain their feelings and motivations has the potential to be especially beneficial later in life, Kramer said.
“We want the kids to be able to manage these things without us,” Kramer said. “It’s not fun for parents to be in the middle of it, and I don’t think kids are learning that much.”
It’s always good to have a backup plan — like going to separate rooms — because there’s a chance that not everyone will follow through on their part of the solution.
“It’s not always going to be success,” O’Brien said. “What you’re doing is role-modeling for them that when emotions do get high, you’re not acting impulsively. . . . You’re looking for a solution and it’s not about blame, it’s about what are we going to do now.”