Sibling Relationships: Nurturing Positive Sibling Bonds

They're playmates, adversaries, champions, antagonists – and, researchers say, represent one of the most formative relationships we'll have in life. Learn how to build strong sibling relationships in your kids.

Parents leave us too soon and coping with losing a parent alone can be incredibly difficult. Spouses and children come along later in life. But siblings are there across the decades and can help during that time of loss. Perhaps no person knows one better, or more completely, than the individual or individuals with whom one shares a home, a bedroom, a bus stop, parental attention, toothpaste, yard work and years upon years of childhood memories.

In his popular TED Talk, Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect, opined on the sibling dynamic and sibling relationships.

“There may be no relationship that affects us more profoundly, that’s closer, finer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with woe than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters,” he said.

Jonathan Caspi, Ph.D., is a family studies professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey and author of the book Sibling Development. He has published books and numerous studies on the sibling relationship, which he asserts can be one of life’s most intense.

“The sibling relationship involves lots of positive feelings, connection, togetherness, bickering, antagonism and not-so-great feelings,” he says.

The combination of this emotional intensity and the sheer amount of time siblings spend together sets individuals up for a lifetime of influence in positive and negative ways.

“Research demonstrates siblings are really influential in who we become – perhaps even more than parents,” he says.

And it doesn’t end there. Caspi says research has identified a link between positive sibling relationships and living longer, with greater happiness and better health in later years.

So how can parents foster this important relationship beginning from early on? Here, we offer some tips.

1. Nurture a bond from the start

Lisa and Bill Finateri of Birmingham welcomed their second child, daughter Zoey, in June of 2016, joining big brother Derek, who is 3 1/2. From early in the pregnancy, the Finateris worked with Derek for help the toddler adjust to a new sibling.

“We had him help prepare her room,” Lisa says. “He helped paint and pick out things. We talked to him about everything he would need to teach her, since he’s such a big boy. Now that she’s here, he likes to hang out with me while I’m nursing her to ‘help’ by bringing her toys.”

The Finateris try to keep things as normal as possible for Derek by continuing to take him to do things just with mom or just with dad.

Joshua Sparrow, M.D., author of Understanding Sibling Rivalry – The Brazelton Way, would approve of the Finateris’ efforts. He says it’s common for parents to worry about how their first child will respond to being dethroned by a new baby.

“Parents feel terribly guilty and responsible,” he says. “They say to themselves, ‘She won’t be jealous. She won’t feel deserted by me. I won’t let that happen.’ Guess what? It will always be that way. Accept it and open up the conversation.”

Sparrow encourages parents to make space for the feelings that their older child is likely to have. He says they should assume their child will struggle with feelings like jealousy and resentment, but that they can help him or her work through these feelings.

“Tell the child he or she will always be your first baby,” Sparrow says. “Carve out regular time for the older child and protect this time.”

Going from star of the show to cast member can cause some kids to act out. Caspi advocates including the older child as part of the process.

“Communicate the message that we’re in this together,” he says. “Prepare the child for his or her new sibling in an inclusive and realistic way. Acknowledge with your child that sometimes it will be hard, but that you are so proud of him or her becoming a big sibling.”

2. Coach on conflict management

Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., is a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. She has done extensive research on the sibling relationship and says that small children bicker an average of eight times an hour.

“Research shows that some conflict, when not hurtful, is linked to some developmental achievements,” she notes. “When you wake up the next day after a big fight with your brother or sister, they’re still your sibling. It’s different from friends where the relationship is voluntary.”

Kramer notes that children learn from mild conflicts. Examples include conflict management, how to deal with negative emotions that come from conflict, and who they are and what they believe in.

“This is why we don’t rule out all opportunities to engage in conflict,” she says.

Research has shown parents can play an important role in ensuring kids have the skills to manage conflicts. Kramer is a proponent of teaching children collaborative problem solving so each child figures out a way for his or her essential needs to be met.

“The idea is to encourage kids to identify what the fight is about, what each wants to happen and then to come up with some ideas to resolve the conflict and let each child get what he or she needs,” Kramer explains.

She has developed a prevention and intervention program for families called “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers” that teaches kids a simple self-control strategy: Stop, think and talk. She says the program works well for kids in the 4- to 8-years-old age range.

Using the example of kids fighting over the remote control, she would encourage a parent to say something like, “I see an issue here. We need to use our sibling steps.”

“The kids are cued to stop what they’re doing,” she explains. “The second step is to think. The parent then coaches through what each child is thinking and wants to see happen. Both kids should be able to express their unfettered wants.”

Next, she’d prompt parents to ask each child to tell them back what is important to the other sibling. It may be that they each want a different show or that they don’t like being bossed around. Both can get their needs met. Then they talk through ideas like using a timer or taking turns.

“The parent should not evaluate these,” she says. “Just guide the children through the process.”

The kids then pick the best idea and try it out. If it works, great. If not, they should go back and pick a different idea.

“Kids learn quickly, even at age 4,” she says. “They just need coaching through the process. Over time, the kids will automatically get to generating solutions to the problem on their own.”

3. Avoid comparisons

Sparrow says it’s vitally important for parents not to compare their kids to one another.

“Don’t talk in judgmental terms about one child to the other,” he says. “Don’t set up competition.”

Caspi notes that parents sometimes introduce their child or talk about one child as “the smart one” or “the athletic one.”

“The child hears that as ‘I am not athletic,'” he says.

He encourages parents not to force their kids to be in the same activities. Allowing them to have their own activities gives them space for their abilities to develop.

In “sports” families where perhaps one child is a very strong athlete and another is in the art world, parents need to be just as enthusiastic and supportive of the child whose interest isn’t as aligned with the family’s focus, Caspi says.

4. Avoid playing favorites

Caspi says that while most parents would say they don’t engage in parental favoritism or have a favorite child, their kids would answer otherwise.

“Research has found that kids – even adult kids – believe there was favoritism in their family,” he notes.

Kramer says that when siblings believe there is unjustified or unfair treatment, it can be associated with a range of negative outcomes related to individual well-being, sibling relationship quality and parent-relationship quality.

“This doesn’t mean parents have to treat siblings the same way,” she notes. “That is impossible. They are different individual people at different developmental levels. They don’t want or need the same things.”

It is the perception of differential treatment that needs to be taken seriously by parents, both Kramer and Caspi say.

“Periodically, ask your child how he or she feels,” Caspi suggests. “Then be open to the answer. Don’t be defensive or dismiss accusations. It’s nice to bring this up when things are going well.”

He suggests parents broach the subject by asking if the child thinks he or she is treated fairly or how it is to be in his or her family.

5. Schedule uninterrupted family time

The tween and teen years can see sibling relationships that were once close become less so. Sparrow acknowledges distance between siblings can be difficult for parents to observe, but they can never manufacture relationships.

“I also wouldn’t assume distance between siblings in middle school means distance over time,” he notes.

Sparrow says that often a younger sibling reminds an older sibling of what he or she no longer wants to be. Distance and argumentative behavior may become more commonplace.

“Parents try to force things and in the process get things further off track,” he says. “When you tell a 13- or 14-year-old that he has to play with his little brother when he wants to be with his peers, it’s like an obligation or a punishment.”

His advice is for parents to develop a ritual for family time together with no agenda, something low-key that everyone can do and enjoy.

“It might be a hike in the woods together where there aren’t things like screens pulling people away,” he says. “In the old days, it was board games. Someone wins and someone loses, but you’re all together.”

6. Foster open communication with much older siblings

Sibling relationships where a significant age gap exists present their own challenges and opportunities.

“When you have siblings very close in age, they tend to fight more, but also tend to be much closer,” Caspi says.

When there is a big age difference, the relationship may be friendlier but also more distant.

“There’s not as much to fight over,” he says. “A 12-year-old is not interested in a 2-year-old’s toys.”

He notes that the younger child is likely in most cases to be excited to have another older person to pay attention to him or her. Where opportunities for strife often occur is in caretaking expectations.

“Is it being coerced? Has there been any discussion on the topic?” Caspi asks. “The older sibling may be resentful that he can’t be with his friends because he has to watch his little sibling.”

Caspi encourages parents to have open discussions with the older child about his or her caretaking role and to praise the older child for helping.

Kramer concurs, noting that the older sibling may feel like he or she is a pseudo parent responsible for the younger sibling’s well-being but with no authority. She advises parents to encourage older siblings to share their feelings and why they feel that what they are being asked to do is unfair.

Despite large age differences, the essential sibling relationship ingredients can apply across the life span, Kramer notes. While children have different developmental issues in high school and preschool and very different interests, parents can find some activities for them to connect by leveling the playing field, so all are able to participate in a meaningful way.

“Marshmallow roasts come to mind,” she says. “Think of things all can enjoy.”

7. Set a zero tolerance violence policy

According to Caspi, the No. 1 form of child maltreatment is perpetrated by siblings.

“Sibling abuse outnumbers peer abuse, parental abuse and domestic violence combined,” says Caspi, who notes that this includes physical and sexual abuse and psychological torment. “But no one talks about it.”

Caspi indicates that among the many reasons for the high incidence of sibling abuse is that people don’t tend to take violence between siblings seriously, so it’s perpetuated.

“There is no relationship other than siblings where you can punch someone without consequences,” he says. “Many times when you see brothers punching, families just attribute it to siblings being siblings.”

Caspi notes that parental favoritism combined with lack of supervision can breed intense violence.

“We live in a violent world,” he notes. “A lot of how kids see people expressing anger is by being violent. If not checked or if it is modeled by aggressive parents, it will play out among siblings.”

Caspi says families should establish “no violence” rules from day one.

“When families observe a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old fighting, they often assume it’s bi-directional,” he notes. “But typically one is instigating and one is defending. The 10-year-old is not excited about it.”

8. Help only children have peer social experiences

While myriad developmental benefits are afforded by having a sibling, only children are not at a loss. That is if their parents proactively seek out ways to help their child have peer-based social and emotional experiences with cousins, preschool friends or neighbor kids, Kramer says.

“If an only child was never to go to preschool and then starts kindergarten at age 5, it could be tough for him or her,” she notes. “They missed opportunities to struggle for resources and attention.”

Caspi notes that only children are at an advantage in many facets of life.

“They have no competition for parental attention and resources,” he notes. “They grow up in more mature environments. They learn how to manage with adults. They tend to be high achievers and hold leadership roles.”

This is true, he notes, when kids grow up in happy families where their parents’ marriage is strong. “Where only children are at a disadvantage is in dealing with the bad things in life. In this case, not having a sibling is huge. These kids may feel more depressed or isolated. Having a good sibling relationship is a really good buffer for dealing with the bad things in life. The negative effects of a parent’s divorce, for example, are not as hard on siblings.”

This post was originally published in 2016 and is updated regularly. 


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