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Ask the Experts

How can I help my children get along?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My 8-year-old daughter gets angry with her 6-year-old sister for no reason at all. She yells at her and says, "I hate you." Most of the time they play together just fine, but it's those other times that drive me insane. I had a second child so that my older daughter would have a playmate. How can I help her be nicer to her sister?

Answer:

Sibling rivalry is a complicated issue that has fascinated us since the beginning of time. There are scientific articles, textbooks, biblical stories, novels, television programs, and films on the subject, but no one has figured out how to keep it from happening. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to figure out why your older daughter resents her little sister, focus on addressing the behavior.

Consider having regular family meetings to increase communication and bring family members closer to one another. In the meetings, every person has a chance to talk about his or her concerns, needs, accomplishments, and activities. Each person is listened to with respect, no matter his or her age or ability to speak. Prior to the first meeting, parents should create a list of “family rules.” Here are some pointers:

  • The list should be short and broad so that lots of things (including chores and manners) can fall under each rule. Make sure the rules are understandable to all family members.
  • Family rules should apply to everyone in the household. Examples might include:
  1. We speak nicely to each other.
  2. We always tell the truth.
  3. We help out when someone asks.
  4. We watch TV after homework and chores are done.
  • • Phrase rules in a positive way. For example, “We watch TV after homework and chores are done” is better than “You cannot watch TV unless you do your homework and chores.”
  • Reward family members for following rules instead of criticizing them when rules are broken. Rewards can include praise, allowances, special treats, playing games with parents, or going to the park.
  • Introduce the rules to the children at the first family meeting. Ask for their input, and decide whether to add or change any rules. Be sure the children understand that even though they can provide feedback, parents have the final say.
  • Write the rules on a large piece of poster board, and have the children work together to decorate it. This activity will be their first opportunity to try out the new rules. Praise them if they work well together, and remind them of the rules if they do not.
  • Remember that family rules are flexible and will need to be modified as the children grow and their developmental needs change.
  • Decide together how often to have family meetings; remember that these meetings are the place to check in and discuss how the rules are working.
  • Parents must be consistent in abiding by the rules as well as in doling out rewards and consequences.

For more tips, check out Our Family Meeting Book: Fun and Easy Ways to Manage Time, Build Communication, and Share Responsibility Week by Week, by Elaine Hightower and Betsy Riley.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

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