The Sibling Bond: How to Help Make It Stick
By Linda Stade
My mum and dad had three kids in three years. They created for themselves quite the parenting challenge with two toddlers and an infant. However, in doing so, they gave me siblings of a similar age, and that was a good result.
Siblings are your witnesses throughout life. They see it all. They know what it was like to grow up in your home; the good bits, and the hard stuff. They remember your Aunty Glad, who wasn’t very glad at all, and the family sing-alongs in the car to Neil Diamond. Annoyingly, they recall almost every regrettable decision you’ve ever made, including THAT high school boyfriend and the elfin haircut that definitely did not make you look like an elf.
The fact that they remember all these things creates a sort of shared consciousness. I don’t look forward to a time when I might carry those memories alone.
Siblings are what is left when everyone else comes and has gone. Jeffrey Kluger in his book The Sibling Effect says, “Our parents leave us too early; our spouse and our children come along too late. Our siblings are the only ones who are with us for the entire ride.”
If we are lucky, siblings are around for the joy of that ride. They are also there for the heartbreaks and the illnesses. In fact, it’s at those times they might have to take the wheel.
Obviously, sibling relationships aren’t all peace and kumbaya. There are times when siblings press your buttons. Of course they do, let’s face it… they helped install those buttons.
The power of sibling relationships
There has been so much research into the impact of ‘the mother bond’, the involvement of fathers, and even the impact of friends on child development. It is strange that the influence of siblings has been far less thoroughly explored.
This may be because there are so many variables in these relationships, things like age differences, gender differences, and birth order. There is also the reality that parents and their circumstances change over time and, consequently, they parent each child slightly differently.
That said, there are some interesting findings by researchers about both the positive and negative impacts of sibling relationships. The following are all cited by The American Psychological Association:
Warm sibling relationships can help buffer against the negative effects of stressful life events, such as bullying at school and divorce or unemployment as adults. Warm sibling relationships correlate with better mental health throughout life. Siblings have a sense of being understood as they have a shared history. However, fraught sibling relationships are associated with negative effects like depression and substance abuse.
Siblings are among our earliest teachers and guides. They model how to behave in the family and out in the world. Sibling relationships aid with peer acceptance and social competence. They also help navigate intimate relationships in adolescence and young adulthood.
Minor squabbles among siblings can help children learn to solve problems and manage conflict. But not all sibling fights are minor. Parents often panic when there is intense conflict, and it can cause unhappiness for all family members. On the upside, siblings who have intense conflict are also often intensely loyal and loving to one another.
Siblings can be highly influenced by the example and behaviours of their siblings. In most areas, such as academic engagement and attainment, this has a positive impact. However, it can also be negative, depending on the older sibling’s choices, particularly when it comes to risky behaviours.
As you can see, the quality of sibling relationships is what is crucial, so it is well worth working towards positive sibling relationships among your children.
How to help ensure the sibling bond is a strong one
1. Give kids time to be alone together. You don’t always have to be involved.
2. Encourage them to cheer each other on. Take them to each other’s sports, dance, music recitals, or parkour lessons. Help them become cheerleaders for one another.
3. Teach them how to fight fair. They will have conflict, there is no doubt, but teach them the rules of engagement. The best way to do that is through modelling. Fight fair in all your relationships.
4. Teach them to repair. Over the course of their shared seventy or eighty years, they are going to fall out. Make sure they have the tools to repair their relationships and give them the perspective to see that the road they travel together is long and some of it will be bumpy… and that’s okay.
5. Build rituals. Kids need touchstones in life to return to. For example, how do the siblings acknowledge each other’s birthdays and achievements?
6. Promote the idea of family songs, and family in-jokes, and tell them family stories. Make their shared history visible to them with photos and the stories of their past. In this way, you create a sense of warmth and light that will help to outshine some of the challenges in their relationships.
7. Have family meals together. Kristina Morgan is a clinical psychologist at Lourdes Hill College. She is a strong advocate of regular meals as a family. “Create an environment where everyone is important and gets turns to talk. The conversation doesn’t need to be the conversation you ideally want to have or want to hear. But model giving space to different interests, ideas, and respectful opinions. Show that people can disagree and still hold value.“
8. Kristina also advises, “Let go of the fantasy in your head of what the sibling relationship should look like. Let your children negotiate between themselves how they want their relationship to be. Your job is to provide the interpersonal skills and opportunities for them to grow together.”
9. Show them how much you love your own siblings. Show them what your siblings add to your life, even if you live in different towns, states, or countries.
10. Don’t play favourites. Nothing breaks a sibling bond like the firm belief that there is a favourite child. Jeffrey Kluger says, “70% of fathers and 65% of mothers exhibit a preference for at least one child. And keep in mind here the keyword is ‘exhibit’. The remaining parents may simply be doing a better job of concealing things.”
Be a parent whose eyes light up when each of your children enters the room. If each of your kids feels deeply loved, the idea of a favourite is less obvious and less important.
Despite your very best efforts and fervent wishes, you cannot determine the exact nature of your children’s sibling relationships. They may not end up as close as you would wish, they may be inseparable, or they may have a relationship you don’t understand at all. What will be, will be. Ultimately, it is their relationship.
What you do have control over is your part in your relationships with your own siblings… the people who have shared history with you. Make those relationships warm.