Why Sibling Relationships Matter to Mental Health

Strong sibling bonds can support your kids well into old age — and you have more influence over their relationships than you might think. Find out how.

How often have you heard parents talk about wanting their kids to be best friends? Not just getting along, but having genuine love and respect for each other. Maybe you’ve wanted this yourself.

Nicole Runyon shared this desire with a colleague when she was pregnant with her second child. “She said — and I’ll never forget this — whether or not siblings get along has everything to do with the parents,” Runyon says. This made sense to Runyon, who is a psychotherapist and parent coach in metro Detroit.

Positive sibling relationships are important for many reasons. Research shows that adults with strong sibling relationships tend to experience less loneliness and depression. The strength of these relationships can even predict good mental health and resilience into middle age. 

Why do siblings matter so much?

Friends come and go. But for better or worse, siblings are stuck with each other. And that’s  good for their emotional development. This gives kids the freedom to test out different ways of connecting with others, without worry over losing the relationship, say researchers from the Sibling Aggression and Abuse Research and Advocacy Initiative. 

Parent Resources for Strong Sibling Relationships

When siblings argue — and when they cooperate — they learn important cognitive and social skills like problem solving, seeing another’s point of view and the consequences of actions. These learned skills inform all of their future relationships.

What does parenting have to do with sibling relationships?

Parents may think they’re lucky if their kids get along. But the quality of sibling relationships is about parenting, Runyon says. Parents can actively foster positive relationships between their children. 

Most parents recognize that each of their children have gifts and strengths. But when parents begin to define their children by these traits, they assign a role to each child that every family member recognizes. 

These defined roles can cause parents to treat each child differently. Some researchers even refer to this as “parental differential treatment.” Siblings can be highly sensitive to this — and it’s linked to negative sibling relationships through adolescence. 

“A lot of the work I do with parents is self-reflection,” Runyon says. “You have to really know yourself.” If a child’s personality traits trigger you, siblings interpret that and keep their distance. “Parents have to be aware of their tendency to favor their kids…and how their triggers are affecting the family dynamic.”

Even if you aren’t overtly practicing parental favoritism, your children may be comparing themselves to each other. Children who perceive themselves to be less favored show higher levels of depression, antisocial behavior and substance use, according to studies.

First tip for sibling relationships: avoid labeling your child 

All families have a child who is the “smart one” and another who is the “athletic one,” and parents rarely think twice about sharing this out loud. It seems innocent, but children see their siblings through the lens of that assigned role. 

“That makes the kids look at their sibling and say ‘Yep, that’s you,’ and not be able to see them in any other way,” Runyon says. “Siblings are the first peer-to-peer relationship, and they are there to teach out how to then relate to the outside world. If you’re rigid about how you see people, it makes it very hard to interrelate with other people.”

When parents can see their kids as whole people — not a stereotype — children in the family learn to do the same. 

Encourage your children to do acts of service for each other

Acts of service help siblings see each other as helpful people they can rely on. Older siblings may already ask younger ones to do things for them, and they’re all too happy to oblige. But parents should encourage give and take wherever possible, Runyon says. 

Siblings may even barter — “If you empty the dishwasher for me tonight, I’ll take out the garbage for you tomorrow.” This is fine, as long as the exchange is equitable.

“Teaching reciprocity comes from modeling and kids mimic what you do. So if you are doing acts of service for your spouse, then you want to make sure you say ‘I got your socks last night, but can you do this thing for me tonight,’” she says. “It’s not always tit-for-tat, but the idea is it eventually comes around.” 

Establish a culture that values relationships and family

Simply put, when you show your family members how much you value them, your children will follow suit. They will recognize their siblings as “their people.” This is important because siblings will support each other long after you are gone.

“Parents can foster all kinds of family connections, especially in today’s world where we have technology,” Runyon says. Making family dinner time is a small habit that can go a long way. 

Even better: shop, plan and make meals together, with each family member contributing in some way. “That’s teamwork,” she says. “To get to the end result, you have to do it together.”

Nicole Runyon is one of five siblings. She says every summer Sunday, the whole family gathers for dinner — and her siblings have become her friends. Find her at nicolerunyon.com. Content sponsored by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation, flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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