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Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

ClassroomStressTeacher Appreciation Week has passed, along with “Mom Appreciation Day,” but parents and teachers continue the important work of shaping children’s brains all year long.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that can get in the way of this worthy goal, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the widespread misunderstanding of the conditions children need for learning. Just as a child needs secure attachment with caregivers at home to lay the foundation for healthy brain development, they also need secure attachment with teachers in the classroom if they are to build on that foundation.

However, points out Pepperdine University professor Dr. Lou Cozolino in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education, schools aren’t always constructed with concern for human biology. “Most schools are based on a model of industrial production where raw materials are converted into a predetermined product,” he writes.  But students and teachers aren’t “uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers,”he says. “Relationships are our natural habitat. . . . Our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom.”

This is a profound truth. The human brain is a social organ, shaped by our interactions with others. When those interactions are positive, we feel safe and connected, which allows brain chemicals to support new neural growth: the stage is set for learning. On the other hand, Cozolino points out, thinking and feeling are so intertwined that plasticity turns off when anxiety levels are high. “Stressed brains,” he underscores, “are resistant to new learning.”

Is all stress bad? Of course not. But the circuits involved in arousal, stress, and fear operate much like a muscle. They operate well under low levels of intermittent stress, when there is adequate time for repair, but high levels of chronic stress can cause these circuits to malfunction. Anyone who has done weight training can easily understand the concept: a muscle burdened with too much weight for too long will break down rather than grow. In the same way, chronic, high levels of stress flood the brain with cortisol, shutting down all systems but those required to fight or flee. Immune systems are shut down, as are systems involved in neural growth and learning.

On the other hand, when people around us make us feel safe, understood and cared for, these biological processes are reversed. When teachers are aware of the emotional needs of their students as well as tailoring tasks to their abilities, they help regulate children’s stress levels. Even children with poor attachment at home are capable, given time, of responding well to nurturing relationships in the classroom. “Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories,” writes Cozolino. “Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning.”

Of course, no parent is attuned to their child at all times and teachers will also have stressors that get in the way of their ability to attune with students. But “good enough” parents supporting and supported by “good enough” teachers are the building blocks of the kind of school communities that are needed to create a fertile ground for learning.

stress effectsIt will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with psychology research that much of who we are and what we do goes back to the quality of our family relationships. Positive, supportive family relationships contribute to our well-being in countless ways—while negative, abusive ones can be deadly.

Of course, most of us don’t tend to analyze what we do from the viewpoint of our own family history—we just want to give our children the best possible environment for their physical and emotional development because we love them. They’re an extension of us, we’re invested in their future. It just happens to be a bonus for society that when we focus on meeting the needs of our children, the wider community and future generations reap benefits too.

But it isn’t always easy  to carve out the necessary quality family time in our busy Western society. Increasingly, families need two wage-earners just supply the “basics.” School, extracurricular activities and other obligations also encroach on down time. How do these daily stressors affect familes? This was the question explored by Rena Repetti and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a peer reviewed study published in the April 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“The family is popularly imagined as a stable haven, a place where individuals come together to recuperate from the ups and downs of the outside world,” wrote the researchers. “But the family has ups and downs of its own; it is a dynamic system, not impermeable to outside influences but porous and continually in flux. For example, parents’ job schedules and children’s homework shape family time, activities, and routines. Other effects of work and school on the family are less overt.”

Certainly, as the researchers explain, people often continue to react to a stressful event long after it has occurred and may find themselves nursing too many work wounds at home as a result. How does the fallout affect family relationships?

“We have found that, following more stressful days at work, spouses and parents adjust their social behavior at home in two ways.” write the UCLA researchers. “One common pattern is an overall reduction in social engagement and expression of emotion.” Mothers as well as fathers withdrew emotionally and disengaged socially from their children after stressful or exceptionally demanding work days. Spouses “were more distracted and less responsive” toward one another. Children also showed lingering reactions to school stress. Both elementary-school-age children and teens initiated more conflict with other family members after a day filled with academic problems or difficulties with peers.

“A second short-term response to job stress resembles the stereotypic image of an agitated employee kicking his dog after an argument with his boss,” says the report. This plays out as “an increase in irritability and displays of anger with both spouse and children.” Ripetti and her colleagues note that this second pattern is most likely to occur in people who have a history of psychological distress.

How harmful is all this take-home stress in the long run? It depends. If the short-term effects are allowed to build up over time, there may be more lasting effects. Especially within families with high levels of conflict, or where one or more family members have a history of depression and anxiety.

We do know from other studies that family support and parental engagement are crucial to the well-being of children, so if our coping style in reaction to stress at work involves withdrawing from our families at home, it can’t be good over the long haul. As difficult as it may be to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, resilience experts suggest that connecting, rather than withdrawing, is our best bet for handling stress. Rapetti’s research is fascinating and important in several respects: but perhaps the most important thing parents can take home from this study is a new awareness of what they may be bringing home to their children at the end of their work day.

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