Dear Rachel,

My children play beautifully together when I am not around. They seem to save this secret ability to relate to each other well for those precious mommy-free moments. Yet as soon as I enter the scene, the ‘Who is going to win Mommy’s attention?’ game continues in full-swing. Their constant bickering is driving me crazy and is turning their winter break into a nightmare. I can’t wait for them to go back to school.

Frustrated Mommy

Dear Frustrated Mommy,

While a sibling relationship has the potential to be a treasured and beautiful relationship, it is not a given that all sibling relationships will achieve this potential. Most do not, because the unique stresses involved in sharing both parents and living space, and the competition for limited family resources can turn the sibling relationship into a fierce rivalry.

So for starters, relax. First of all, this situation is a natural one, and it is present in every family at certain times. However, when sibling rivalry begins to interfere with the family’s ability to spend time together as a complete unit, it is advisable for parents not to let nature take its course, but rather to employ the following tactical strategies designed to enhance family togetherness.

Reserve family time for bonding with the family as a whole:

Parents need to be careful not to single anyone out for special attention, whether by sitting someone on their lap, tickling them or even by throwing them in the air. This type of parental behavior can inadvertently set the stage for a new round of conflict, by giving them an incentive to start competing for your attention. Family-time, such as time around the table during family meals, and relaxing in the living room after the meal, is not the time to bond with individual children. Reserve family time for bonding with the family as a whole. If your family enjoys singing, select songs that everyone can sing. Choose games that the family can play as a whole.

While it is important to strengthen individual relationships within the family system, save that for a time when you can be alone with an individual child, for example at bed-time or while taking a walk. Many Jewish communities offer parent-child learning opportunities in the neighborhood synagogue, which is a wonderful opportunity to focus on individual children. Every child can have some time alone in this setting.

Don’t be a Judge or a Policeman:

As long as nobody is being physically or psychologically injured by someone else give them the space to work out their conflicts alone. Don’t get more involved than you need to be. For example, try saying to your older child, “Your brother is crying. What can you do to make him feel better?” Such a question is a way of empowering her and emphasizing her responsibility to find a solution. Instead of focusing on the issue of who started it or the details of what is going on, it maintains the focus on how to end the negative interaction.

Focus on the Long-Term Goal:

The sibling relationship is a distinctly separate one from the parent-child relationship, with its own set of rules and interactions, even its own language.

Parents who make the mistake of always being the middle-man in their children’s interactions may find that even after their children reach adulthood, they still do not relate to each other directly. If you want your children to be close to each other as adults, take yourself out of the picture now.

Let your children use this time to get to know each other, and create the bond that will accompany them for the next hundred years. This is a chance for them to interact in new ways, and deepen their connection, away from the distractions provided by school classes and friends. Their relationship is not about you, and they don’t need to relate to each other the way they relate to you. While you may not want your boys wrestling with you, it is fine if they wrestle together if that is something they both enjoy. Don’t worry. By the time they become adults, they will probably find a new way of relating to each other in place of wrestling, but they will still hold onto the bond that wrestling helped them to develop.

Rachel