When cousins do not see each other often, conflicts can arise when they are thrown together at family gatherings and expected to get along. Here are some suggestions for ways to encourage cousins to play nicely together and form good friendships with one another.
Prepare Children, But Do Not Pressure Them
Smart parents prepare children ahead of time to meet their cousins, especially if the children either have not met the cousins before or have not seen the cousins for a long time. Thoughtful mothers and fathers should take a moment before a family visit to share pictures of and talk about each cousin that will be present, mentioning details such as the cousin’s age and interests. By describing ways that cousins might all play together and mentioning some fun activities they might do, parents help children visualize how they can have a good time with their cousins.
Parents should not, however, put too much pressure on their children by lecturing them about the importance of getting along or threatening punishment if children do not interact well with their cousins. Kids may rebel under this pressure and behave badly on purpose or feel stressed out about living up to expectations that have been set too high.
Be Aware of All Inter-family Relationships
Cousins who live far away from the rest of a family may feel excluded by the closeness of the relationship between grandparents and cousins that live near to each other and see each other all the time. In turn, the cousins who live closer to grandparents may feel possessive and view visiting cousins as trespassers.
Caring grandparents can help this situation by refusing to play favorites and making themselves equally available to all cousins. Make sure no one feels excluded. Respect and acknowledge the feelings of cousins who are used to having grandparents all to themselves, but be clear to them that they must share the grandparents now visiting with cousins who are not lucky enough to see them all the time.
Avoid Making Negative Comparisons Between Cousins
Sensitive adults understand that all children mature at different rates, excel in different areas, and have different interests. Where one cousin might have walked early, another might have talked early or learned to read first. Parents who care about the feelings of their children and their siblings’ children will refrain from making comparisons between cousins or, worse, pitting them against each other.
Tip: If a grandparent or other relative does compliment one cousin at the expense of another, the parent of the complimented cousin should be sure to then point out something nice (and true!) about the overshadowed one.
Assign Cousins Different Roles to Play
Make sure no cousin feels neglected at a family gathering in favor of other cousins. Give all cousins special jobs and responsibilities during holiday celebrations or general get-togethers. In The Successful Child [Little, Brown and Company, 2002], Dr. William Sears, M.D., Martha Sears, R.N., and Elizabeth Pantley describe different roles parents can assign to siblings to encourage good sibling relationships. The same roles can be adapted and assigned to cousins:
- Protector role: Have older cousins be responsible for looking after younger ones. Remind older cousins to model good behavior and show younger ones how to act.
- Helper role: Older cousins can help younger ones stay safe, and younger cousins can be assigned to help older ones with simple tasks such as setting the table for a family meal or playing with a goal-oriented toy such as a puzzle or building blocks. See Activities to Keep Cousins Busy at Family Events for other project suggestions such as making a family tree together.
- Teacher role: Older cousins might enjoy demonstrating for younger ones how to master a skill or learn new knowledge. Bring toys and games to family gatherings that foster this sort of interaction.
- Adviser role: Encourage cousins to confide in each other, share their experiences, and offer each other advice about problems or issues they face in their lives. Later in life, as cousins grow older, they will appreciate the lines of communication established in childhood and be able to rely on each other as a support network.
Tip: Grownups should allow cousins space to interact and work through personality conflicts without adult interference. At the same time, parents should also check on cousins from time to time to make sure no child is being neglected or hurt.
With a little preparation and sensitivity, parents can set the stage for cousins to establish and maintain good relations with one another.