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Sibling relationships can teach 'emotional intelligence'     Send a link to a friend

[JUNE 19, 2004]  URBANA -- Parents are often advised to stay out of sibling squabbles and let kids work things out on their own, but family relations expert Laurie Kramer takes a different view.

"We can't expect kids to be able to resolve conflicts if we don't give them the skills to do it," said the professor of family studies at the University of Illinois. "Sometimes we have to be very strategic and teach our children how to interact well with each other."

Kramer said that parents often focus on eliminating undesirable behaviors when it would be better to promote desirable ones. In her lab, she teaches siblings some important skills that can contribute to their "emotional intelligence" as adults. "These skills are important enough for parents to coach," she said.

The researcher said that children can learn a lot in the sibling relationship and that it's important that siblings get along. "Research shows that one of the most significant predictors of a person's emotional health at age 65 is his closeness to his siblings when he was college age," she said.

In Kramer's first program, Fun with Sisters and Brothers, social, emotional and relational skills were taught to groups of siblings, the oldest child aged 4 to 7 and the youngest child between 9 months and 2 years. "When babies become mobile, older sibs become territorial. That's an early opportunity for parents to teach some important skills."

In her second program, More Fun with Sisters and Brothers, older siblings are from 6 to 8 years old and their younger brothers and sisters are aged 4 to 6 years. When an argument occurs in either group, children are taught to stop, think and talk.

When a squabble begins, children learn that they should first stop what they are doing. "This keeps them from acting impulsively and doing something counterproductive."

Next children are taught to "think." Children figure out what they would like to have happen in a situation and consider what their sibling would like to have happen. A sign showing two eyes with red glitter eyelashes says it's time to "see it your way, see it my way," a chance to practice seeing a problem from their sibling's perspective.


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One child may say, "I'd really like to use the green crayon right now because I'm coloring some grass." The other child shows he understands the first child's point of view, then explains his own: "I only need the green crayon for two minutes to finish this picture."

Children are also taught to identify and regulate their emotions. "When children feel really frustrated, they may not know what to do with that feeling. They may interpret it as anger, and it may lead them to fight," she said.

They also learn how to "chill," she said, "which can be anything from taking deep breaths, counting to 10 or taking a walk to release some energy. We give children a lot of choices about how to chill because certain strategies work better for some kids than others, especially if they're having intense feelings."

The third step is talking so siblings can tell each other what they'd like to have happen and work together to figure out a solution to the problem instead of acting it out physically, said Kramer.

Kramer encourages parents to give children steps to take and words to use to help them solve their conflicts. "It's probably unrealistic to think parents can lead their children through these steps every time kids start to bicker.

"But sometimes parents need to step in, not to solve the conflict, but to say, 'OK, let's use our steps to solve this problem.' Give them a structure to use so they learn to do it themselves," she said.

"If children can learn to solve problems, deal with frustrations and tolerate the negative emotions that surround conflict, those skills will be very helpful in other relationships down the road," Kramer said.

[University of Illinois news release]

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