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Fostering a lasting bond between siblings

Squabbling over personal space. Grumbling about shared possessions. Complaining about unequal treatment. Does this sound like any adolescent siblings you know? Encouraging a bond between siblings can be challenging to say the least.

Sibling dynamics can be challenging, but they have an enormous influence on a child’s life — especially when you consider that 82% of American children grow up with a sibling, and roughly 75% of 70-year-olds have a living sibling. As a result, they’re perhaps the longest relationships your children will have.

To help your testy adolescents develop a healthy bond with each other — even as they periodically clash and are forced to learn how to resolve those conflicts — here are some things you can do to give them the best chance of having a supportive, lifelong friendship. 

Avoid favoritism (or even a whiff of it)

Adolescents are incredibly sensitive to being treated differently or unfairly. Any perception of a favored child can spark competition, resentment, and unrest between siblings. For this reason, it’s best to steer clear of making sibling comparisons (“Your sister never did this!”) or taking sides (“You started it!”). 

Instead, try to stay aware of your biases and resist putting one child above the other. Consider offering similar privileges at similar ages and celebrating each child’s unique strengths. You can reinforce the latter by spending one-on-one time with each child doing things they uniquely enjoy. 

Should circumstances make it so you need to spend more time with one of your children than the others — due to a medical issue, for example — carefully explain why to your other children. You may think they already know, but it’s good to talk about the disparity and ask how they’re feeling. 

Speaking of “fair”

Many parents try to keep things 100% equal between each child. (I remember my mother having elaborate lists of exactly how much money she spent on each child at Christmas. It was important to her to have spent — to the penny — the same amount on each daughter.) But, what each child values and hopes for doesn’t have a price. This goes for material gifts, but also experiences and time with you. Focusing on making everything equal can actually increase competition between siblings as they constantly compare and examine. Instead? Focus on each child’s unique needs and desires. This not only connects you (and them) to their internal wishes, it takes the focus off of competition. 

Intervene at the first sign of bullying

Whereas a warm sibling relationship has been shown to promote empathy and prosocial behavior, a toxic sibling relationship — such as one marked by nonphysical aggression like excluding or belittling a sibling — is associated with depression, low self-worth, and risky behaviors for the bullied child.

While it’s generally recommended to let your adolescents try to resolve conflicts themselves first, bullying is different and it 100% can happen within families. If you observe this happening, you need to step in, listen to all of the feelings, and continue to establish clear family rules. Here are a few examples:

  • In this family, we treat each other with kindness and respect.
  • I cannot let you bully your sibling. I’m separating you both now. I’m on your team, and we will figure this out.
  • No one gets to use the disputed item/space until a solution is reached. 
  • Family members stick together and look out for each other, always.
  • It’s okay to have moments when being a sibling is tough. I get it, I didn’t always love being a little sister either! But this house is a safe space for everyone.

Continued bullying or intimidation is a sign that the family needs additional support. Whether that’s changing your parenting approach or seeking therapy together/individually, it is a time-sensitive need.

Encourage shared activities and working together

To help your children’s relationship grow, spend time together as a family whenever you can — for example, playing games, watching movies, eating meals, or going on family walks or bike rides. You can also give your adolescents shared tasks, such as preparing a meal or raking leaves, with big kudos and praise for doing it harmoniously.

Use your words to send a message that working well with your sibling is important and something to be cherished. Don’t hold back on comments like: “I love it when you two work together so beautifully” or “You guys put your heads together and did something great!” It’s also okay to acknowledge that being a sibling is hard. Empathy when a little sibling is left out or a big sibling has more responsibilities is wonderful. You are not putting negative ideas in their head, but you are acknowledging that you’re there to support their tricky feelings about being a sibling.

A little praise and empathy go a long way — and if it works, the ultimate benefit is that you’ll not only have more peace at home, but your children will have each other to lean on for the long haul. 

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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  • McHale, SM, et al. “Sibling Relationships and Influences in Childhood and Adolescence.” J Marriage Fam. 74(5): 913-930. October 2012. 
  • Settersten, RA. “Social Relationships in the New Demographic Regime.” Advances in Life Course Research. Volume 12: 3-28. 2007. 
  • McHale, SM, et al. “Sibling Relationships and Influences in Childhood and Adolescence.” J Marriage Fam. 74(5): 913-930. October 2012.
  • Gallagher, AM, et al. “Longitudinal Associations Between Sibling Relational Aggression and Adolescent Adjustment.” J Youth Adolesc. 47(10): 2100-2113. October 2018. 
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