Let’s be honest — raising siblings who are friends is a major goal for any parent. You’ve probably daydreamed about future family get-togethers where your adult children have become lifelong friends. You’ve already put so much time and effort into making sure they get along as friends, so why wouldn’t you want that to translate into happy, long-term friendships?
Psychologists have proven that sibling relationships are important, but they’re also unique and difficult to navigate. Here are some tips for parents on how to foster healthy interactions between your children.
The Importance of Siblings
Siblings are more than just people who grow up in the same household. They are people who shape one anothers’ futures.
“Your siblings, your brothers and sisters, they’re with you throughout this life journey,” says Northeastern University’s Dr. Laurie Kramer in an interview with the American Psychological Association (APA). “They are people who really understand you, both your flaws as well as your strengths and assets, and they use that in many ways. But they’re truly the individuals that we learn with. We develop so much of our character, of learning how to negotiate various social situations, other life challenges, and they teach us so much in so many ways.”
Dr. Shawn Sidhu with The University of New Mexico points out that siblings will often share important information with their brothers or sisters before they share with their parents. That vulnerability can be about everyday things, such as navigating friendships, relationships, and school. However, it may also include serious topics. So while a child may feel wary of sharing with a parent initially, a strong relationship with a sibling could lead them to getting the help they need.
Siblings may also turn more readily to one another as a source of support during difficult times.“This piece is critical, because we know that one of the biggest risk factors for developing youth is suffering in isolation,” says Dr. Sidhu. Simply not feeling alone could make the difference in a child getting the support they need and feeling completely overwhelmed.
Potential Negative Influence
If you have siblings — or have raised siblings for longer than 5 minutes — you know this unique relationship also comes with a lot of difficulty. “While healthy sibling relationships can be an incredible source of support, unhealthy and toxic sibling relationships may be equally devastating and destabilizing,” Dr. Sidhu points out.
The area that parents tend to fret about most is the amount of fighting that occurs between siblings. The constant bickering can stoke the worry that the only thing siblings do well together is fight. And, unfortunately for parents, the research backs this up to a point. Dr. Kramer conducted a study that found siblings have, on average, seven and a half disputes per hour.
Seven. And. A. Half.
If your children are with each other for 12 hours a day, that’s 90 disputes.
And, for better or worse, the tone siblings set for one another early on in life tends to persist. Dr. Megan Gilligan at Iowa State University says, “Unless there was something — an outside intervention or something within your family that changed that relationship — most of the time if you have a distant, absent, conflictual relationship, you’re going to see stability in that. Same with if you have a really close solid foundation, that’s going to probably carry with you throughout the life course as well.”
Siblings have an enormous influence on behavior, too. This is especially true when it comes to older siblings. If they are engaged in persistent unhealthy behavior, their younger siblings are at a higher risk for following in their footsteps.
This news can whip up all kinds of fears and anxieties in parents. If conflict among siblings seems inevitable, they want an answer to the question, “What can I do to make sure my children have good, helpful, loving relationships that matter now and in the future?”
What Parents Can Do
So what can parents do to make sure siblings form healthy, mutually beneficial bonds?
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on a point in the previous section. It mentions children engaging in persistent unhealthy behavior. The keyword is persistent. Because children throw tantrums. They go through phases where their attitudes and behaviors are less than perfect. There will be a plethora of opportunities for siblings to be “bad” influences on one another. And you can’t stop it from happening.
But don’t fret over younger siblings watching one of these episodes and instantly deciding, “I’m going to do that, too.” Ultimately, what they’re watching has less to do with how their sibling is behaving and more to do with how you respond to the behavior.
Because, again, you can’t control how your child behaves. But you can control how you respond to them. And if your child and their siblings are met with compassion, respect, and consistent consequences when they act out, they’ll see that bad behavior doesn’t pay.
This extends to fighting among siblings, too. Your response — especially if your children are in early elementary school and younger — is critical in helping them interact with each other and how to manage conflict with others, too.
Here are just a few ways that you can help foster meaningful relationships among your children.
1. Teach them how to “fight.” In other words, show them how to navigate conflict in a healthy way. In her interview with the APA, Dr. Gilligan shares that separating kids, threatening them with punishment, or trying to control behavior doesn’t help siblings resolve their conflicts. It just delayed the inevitable — another fight.
But zero fights isn’t the point. Learning how to resolve conflict and promote harmony is a very important thing to learn.
“But really what we’re looking for is helping children to develop the skills and competencies they need in order to successfully manage those conflicts so that they can have reasonable disagreements with a sibling, stand their ground, talk about their point of view, not necessarily give in to a more powerful sibling, and to do that in the midst of also having very positive interactions with their sibling,” Dr. Gilligan says.
So the fact your young children are fussing isn’t an indication that they’ll fight with each other forever. It is something they will need help navigating, though. And that is MUCH easier said than done. Because those nearly 100 fights a day can weigh heavy on parents. But know that the earlier siblings learn how to manage conflict, the stronger the positive bond they’ll have later in life.
The number one thing you can help teach your children is deescalation. When things start to get heated and they become angry, teach them how to recognize the emotion and start calming things down.
The older your children get, the less you’ll need to be involved in their conflict resolution. Around the age of 8, kids enter a developmental phase where they can start implementing the conflict resolution strategies you’ve taught them without needing to be constantly reminded on how. At that point, you can let your children resolve their own conflicts more often without feeling the need to get involved every time they disagree.
2. Treat siblings fairly. “From a very young age, kids start monitoring how their own relationships with their parents compare to those of their siblings,” says Dr. Christine Carter in an article with Greater Good Magazine. “What is important here is not that we treat our kids exactly the same, but that our kids believe our differential treatment is FAIR.”
How do we do that? Cornelia Seigneur with the TODAY Parenting Team suggests never criticizing one child in front of their siblings, never picking sides, not having older children parent their younger siblings, and not comparing children to one another.
3. Tie siblings being together with positive emotions and memories. Left to their own devices, siblings may create more negative memories than positive ones together. But that’s where you as mom or dad can step in. Work to create rituals and memories that engage everyone in the family and that will help siblings have more fond memories and happy feelings together.
Because, remember, their fussing SEVEN AND HALF TIMES AN HOUR.
The brothers and sisters people have will be some of the oldest relationships they have in life. So, as the parent of siblings, keep trying to create emotional and familial closeness, even if there is distance between family members. Again, you can’t control their actions or emotions, but you can help them work through difficulties, remember the good times, and make some new good memories while you’re at it.