Sibling RivalryMaking the Most of Summer Part 1 - Strategies for Parents!

Children cherish the summer time.  They wait all year for the season when they can stay home and play with their friends. For them, summer is a time of exploring, swimming pools, sports, video games, bike riding and no home work! But for parents, summer time is not always so carefree. Here are some tips to help keep summer fun while making sure your child's brain doesn't "turn to mush" and you don't pull your hair out.

1. Add structure to your summer. Daily routines and scheduled activities create structure and predictability for kids. Routines can relieve some of the parent’s role in directing behavior. Children often become accustomed to the  new schedule quickly and follow it much like they would at school. Routines can include morning, bedtime, and mealtime routines, to name only a few. Summer is a great time for extra-curricular learning. Regularly scheduled activities can build routine into summer while promoting self-confidence by learning new or honing ones.  Some common summer activities include: art, tennis, Karate, or swimming lessons, to name only a few.

2. Use traditions to teach. Family traditions add structure, but they can also teach appropriate behavior, social skills, values and socio-emotional understanding.  For instance, children whose families eat at least one meal together daily have lower rates of juvenile delinquency,  teenage pregnancy, and drug and alcohol use. It's not just meal time, traditions can include lots of fun and creative ways to build relationships and emotional understanding. Summer is a great time to start new traditions. See Making the Most of Summer Part 2 for specific ideas.

3. Teach problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence. Summer is often a time of increased sibling conflict. Parents should try to stay calm and teach tools to resolve conflict. The meltdowns and fights that we all dread, often stem from a child's inability to solve problems in effective ways. They simply don't have the tools yet. So, be attuned to their small successes, the ones you may currently take for granted. Praise and reward their attempts to resolve conflicts in healthy ways. Train yourself to see sibling conflict as an opportunity for teaching social problem-solving skills. For many families, it helps to schedule a "Family Meeting" time to openly and democratically collaborate on problems and identify possible solutions. If you try this, remember to seek out the children’s input and help them come to effective solutions to whatever problems arise. It is not a time for lectures. Help the kids to develop empathy and understanding of emotions in other family members by discussing how their actions affect one another. Help them to label and talk about feelings in themselves and in others. Studies show that emotional intelligence is often more crucial for success in life than IQ.

4. Use discipline effectively. In a nutshell, there are two broad categories of parenting tools to train children to use appropriate behaviors. First, there are strategies that reinforce desired behaviors and second, there are strategies that punish undesirable behaviors. I'll say a few words about each. Let's start with reinforcement, which can include any feedback, or parental response, that increases a behavior. In this toolbox we have praise, attention, and tangible rewards (like stickers, or other prized objects). Studies on parenting and learning theory tell us that in children, behaviors that get rewarded happen more often, whether they are good or bad behaviors. So, in short, use your reinforcement tools, praise, attention, and tangible rewards, to make certain that good behaviors are getting reinforced and bad ones are not. Use these tools strategically, such as by noticing and commenting on the behaviors your child is working on. For example, if your 8-year-old child struggles with playing too roughly with his 2-year-old brother, saying things like, "wow, John, I just saw you playing very nicely with with your brother, I like it when you're gentle with him." These simple statements offer praise and positive attention that serve as feedback, teaching your child how to play and interact with others.

Now for consequences, which is everyone's favorite tool, but is probably less effective than reinforcement. Consequences are parental responses designed to teach through punishment, or the application of aversive tactics to prevent the recurrence of a behavior. To make the most of consequences, administer them consistently and matter-of-factly, with minimal emotion involved. Choose consequences that are easy to implement and  developmentally appropriate for the child. Ignoring is another tool in the same category, which may be harder for some, but without doubt is an effective tool when applied. Ignoring certain behaviors works by withdrawing all attention for a behavior. It is especially useful for behaviors that are intended to seek attention, such as making irritating noises or stomping to the bedroom when in trouble. All in all, the idea is basically that if the behavior is intended to get attention and it doesn't work, then they'll stop or try something else. Just be sure to give attention to the appropriate behavior when it occurs.

5. Think proactively rather than reactively. As parents, it often seems like we are putting out fire after fire when it comes to directing our children's behavior. The core message in this article, however, is to be prepared. The most effective tool is prevention. Use the above strategies: applying structure, engaging in routine activities, teaching skills, and using praise, attention and rewards to increase desired behavior,  as each of these tools will prevent problems, often by teaching skills. When all else fails, use effective consequences, but as the old Boy Scout motto states, Be Prepared! Many misbehaviors can be prevented by simply anticipating situations where kids are likely to have problems, such as when shopping at Wal-mart. See my previous article  "Managing Children Behavior in Public," for specific strategies to help manage behaviors outside the home.

With these tools and a little luck, I hope you have a great summer with your children! Remember, think proactively not reactively!!