Language Matters: Fostering healthy sibling relationships - MetroFamily Magazine
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Language Matters: Fostering healthy sibling relationships

by Stacey Johnson, LPC. Photos provided.

Reading Time: 5 minutes 

One of the most powerful, important, life-long relationship dynamics we can have in life is that of siblings. Yet we aren’t taught how to do this brother or sister thing. There’s no manual for sibling relationships, and often our parents did not give us guidance in what that should look like other than through consequences. And that only after one child has already been smacked or called a name or endured another hurtful scenario in which we are told to “keep your hands to yourself!” or “don’t call your sister names!”

And, really, aren’t those pretty general courtesy to-dos in behavior in all of our relationships?

Having siblings is a relationship gift. It’s really not enough to simply “do unto others.” I believe the special bond of a sibling relationship is sacred, and the way we show up is more of a calling than obeying a list of rules. To walk this out, our kids need tangible guidance and healthy language to see how truly important the way we treat family can be. Start with a focus on four key areas:

  1. Language is everything in the home. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me? Nah. Actually, words can wreak havoc in the worst way. A better reminder is that words have the power of life and death. Speak life and encourage kids to do the same.
  2. Make time to connect. Does your family share “highs and lows” at dinner time, or engage in some other “share” to reconnect over a meal? Instead of going in order, pass the turn by sharing one thing you love about the family member you “tag” to share next!
  3. Set communication values. Converse over a meal or in a short family meeting to name three to five top family communication values, such as not interrupting one another, not yelling at each other and always greeting each other with “Good morning” and “Good night.” Greetings are simple ways to foster mini connections on a daily basis.
  4. Manage interruptions. Do your kids ever interrupt each other? Just mine? When one sibling answers for another, or gives unsolicited input, I encourage our children to say, “Not in my yard.” This has been much more helpful than reprimanding with words like “stop interrupting!” Actually, when I first started teaching my boys this technique, I would give an intense “ahem!” so my youngest would catch the hint, and he would get so excited to say, “Not in my yard!” Not only did my vocalization get his attention about interrupting and correcting his brother, but it gave him his own boundaries, which kids actually love. Boundaries, even in communication, show us where we can play. They give us healthy restrictions, but they also give us freedom!

Empowering with affirmation

Truly, speaking life starts on a personal level. We must first learn to speak value and love over ourselves before we can dish it to others. Affirmations are an incredible way
to empower siblings with meaningful language — the kind that gives us an indication of how important I am, and how important you are, too.

sibling relationships, brothersOur two 7-year-old boys each have their own identity mantra. They are similar but have a few tweaks custom to their individual needs of assurance and self-esteem. For example, they both begin with, “I am a masterpiece, created in God’s image. I’m super smart, super kind” … and then they get a little different.

DaMarion’s mantra includes how calm and thoughtful he is because his energy is lit and I want him to know the value of a calm spirit, too. One of his special gifts is how thoughtful and sentimental he is to his family and friends, and I want to celebrate that!

For Isaiah, we added “super fast.” He’s 5 months younger than his speed-racer brother, so we want to encourage his abilities that he desires to grow in. His also ends with “… my mom believes in me, my dad believes in me, God believes in me and I believe in me” because he’s very hard on himself and needs reassurance to believe in himself. Sometimes that starts with seeing himself through our eyes because he trusts us and our opinion of him. This might seem like an indirect way of fostering their bond — and it is!

Two things are important about these affirmations:

  1. When our kids are confident in who they are, they don’t feel the need to tear others down so much. This works wonders with adults, too, by the way.
  2. Most importantly, they say these mantras in front of each other, they hear each other and this helps them to receive with their ears what amazing characteristics each other has, fostering a celebratory spirit in and for one another!

Creating identity mantras

Identify mantras can be as short as three to five fun sentences, and your child can help you come up with it. Just give them a launching line or two and let them try a couple. There’s freedom here, and you can change it!

When you’ve got a good few lines of affirmation, write them out on a sheet of paper or poster board, decorate it and post for all to see. Say the mantras each night (this helps calm the evening mind, too!) and on that car ride to school or dinner.

Bonus points: let them help make a momma mantra, too! They will see the value in speaking life and learn the importance of positive language for self-esteem, and they’ll have a tried and true answer for any negative comments.

If my boys are called a name by each other — or even a fellow classmate — they have used their affirmations as a response. And if they really get to know each other’s mantras, if one brother takes a verbal shot at another, you better believe they can make a repair by dishing back positivity, starting with “You are a masterpiece…”

Anywhere and everywhere we have our words, and that is power we can help our kids to recognize and use as tools to grow closer and see the best in each other!

Stacey Johnson is a licensed professional counselor in private practice at The Purple Couch where she leads individual and group counseling and co-leads couples counseling with her husband. She holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and certification in experiential therapy and the Daring Way curriculum to help women develop shame resilience and transformative courage. She is founder of Single Space, a community of encouragement for single women that meets across chapters in three cities every year, a speaker and leader of whole health women’s mastermind groups and host of The Girly Bliss podcast. Her greatest joy and accomplishment are her eight children. Follow her on Instagram @staceyjohnsonlife or her website

Editor’s note: This column is the third in a 12-month series on family mental wellness, written by local experts on topics pertinent to parents and children. Columnists include Johnson, Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC, in private practice as a postpartum therapist and mom of two; Dr. Lisa Marotta, a psychologist, writer, speaker and mom in private practice in Edmond; and Dr. Erica Faulconer, pediatrician with Northwest Pediatrics and mom of three.

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