Kids learn to handle emotional responses

A University of Illinois researcher has demonstrated successful strategies that children can use to handle the emotional ups and downs that go with being a brother or a sister.

These tactics not only require less parental involvement in getting their children’s negative emotions under control, they also result in fewer negative actions directed at one sibling by another and provide measurable improved sibling relationship quality, said Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the creator of the “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers” program.

“Sibling experiences can be unbearably frustrating for children,” Kramer said. “Kids often lack the vocabulary to describe what they’re experiencing, the strategies that would help them deal with the emotionality of sibling relationships, and calming techniques so they can de-escalate frustrating episodes and go on to effectively communicate with their brother or sister.”

A child’s ability to manage emotional experiences and behaviors is the foundation for engaging in other appropriate social behaviors, she said. “For example, productive conflict management is unlikely to occur if the child is experiencing high levels of frustration, anger, or other negative emotions that are not effectively regulated.”

And acquiring these social skills not only enhances the sibling relationship in childhood, it increases the chance of harmonious sibling relationships as adults. “Research shows that sibling relationships that are conflictive early in life are likely to remain so. Sibling bonds are usually our longest-lasting ties in our first family so we’d like them to be supportive alliances.”

The same skills that aid in good sibling relationships also prepare children to interact positively with parents and peers, she added.

Kramer’s program, “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers” helps children identify, monitor, and evaluate their emotions, gives them words and ways of talking about their feelings, and helps them distinguish between emotions they may find confusing — for example, they may label their frustration as anger or even lash out and say “I hate you,” she said.

“Most important, we help children understand when they’re so overwhelmed by their feelings that they need to calm themselves before reacting, and we teach them ways to do that. We call it ‘learning to chill.’ In scientific terms, it’s called regulating their emotions,” she added.

Kramer also measured “parental down regulation,” the work that parents do to manage their children’s emotions. “Brothers and sisters really know how to push each other’s buttons. That’s when you get, ‘Mom, he’s looking at me!” she said.

Kramer’s study examined the role of emotion regulation in improving sibling relationship quality in four- to eight-year-old siblings in 95 families.

Sibling interactions were observed in the children’s homes one week before the “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers” program began and after it was completed. Parents also answered questionnaires assessing their children’s relationship quality and their attempts to control their children’s emotional outbursts.

A control group of siblings who did not participate in the program was evaluated at the beginning of the study and after five weeks had elapsed. As expected, their parents reported no change in their children’s behavior.

Participants were taught emotional and social competencies through modeling, role-playing, performance feedback, and coaching in five one-hour training sessions. Puppets, videos, and life demonstrations were used to teach these positive sibling behaviors. Children then practiced these behaviors with their sibling and received immediate feedback and coaching.

“We then taught a method of instructional self-talk and self-control to be used when problems arose so kids could avoid impulsive responses, think about their goals in that situation and how they wanted to achieve those goals, respond calmly in emotionally charged situations, and explain their point of view and their needs to their sibling,” Kramer said.

Parents observed the training sessions through a video monitoring system. They were then given detailed instructions in helping children use the techniques at home and in other contexts. A final training session was held in each family’s home.

Sibling relationship quality had improved measurably following the program as children used more of the newly learned social and emotional competencies with their siblings, said Kramer. In addition, parents reported that they needed to intervene less to manage their children’s behavior. They also believed the quality of their children’s sibling relationship had improved.

“The program gave parents new tools for helping their kids handle disagreements. Parents were able to lead their children through a process of problem solving and conflict management. Children learned to approach conflicts as problems that could be solved. They learned to calm down, talk about what happened, and appreciate each other’s perspectives,” said Kramer.

“The study showed that targeting and teaching specific social skills can have a positive effect on the quality of sibling relationships,” she said.