Fostering Sibling Bonding: How to Set Them Up for Success

by Emily Griffin, MSW, LICSW, LCSW-C
Originally Published: 
Two foster siblings laying on a grassy surface and smiling

Sick of constant bickering? Is the sibling competition in your house driving you crazy? You’re far from alone. When your children are generally peaceful, respectful of each other and loving, this makes your job as their parent way more rewarding and enjoyable. When they bicker constantly? The opposite is true.

As an in-home therapist, parenting coach, and mom of four, I have found that a few key principles help support sibling bonding from the start…

1. Get older siblings invested from the beginning. During pregnancy, read aloud weekly emails that provide the update of your baby’s development. Make it a special time when your older child can learn about the process and growth of your developing baby. When older siblings feel that they are an important part of the team that is raising the new baby, they will naturally be protective and take pride in their responsibility in this role.

2. Let your older children help as much as they want. Maybe your three year old can’t actually help with bathing a newborn, but he or she can go get the clothes you picked out and bring them to you. Take time to answer questions about breastfeeding and other topics related to this special time.

3. Be honest with yourself about your older child’s development and don’t push them to grow up too soon. But don’t short-change them either. Sometimes moms who are preoccupied with a new baby can become a bit too permissive with the older child to try to make up for the guilt the mom experiences. Loving limits must be in place to continue the learning and growth of your older child as he or she needs structure and boundaries (as well as affection and understanding) to thrive.

4. Take time to listen to your older child(ren). They may have some feelings that are difficult to deal with during times of transition- such as bringing a new baby home. You can listen to them without feeling like you need to fix it and make everything better. Acknowledging the feeling with a simple comment like “I know, it’s been hard for Mommy too,” and a hug, can be the moment of connection that helps.

5. Model peaceful, positive communication with your partner. Siblings learn how to cooperate by watching you. If tempers are running hot with adults in the home and there is unresolved tension, children are going to take that in and inevitably act out their anger and frustration in unhealthy ways. Calming, cleansing breaths can be a simple way to work through a difficult moment if stress is keeping you from seeing straight and thinking clearly. If you model these relaxation breaths with your children and explain how to do it, they can practice with you and use this as a tool when they become upset with siblings. Using strategies like this will support you being able to get moments to yourself as the kids get older because they will be able to play harmoniously (not perfectly, but generally peacefully). I’m not saying don’t argue (because we all do); just be sure that your kids see there’s a resolution and forgiveness.

6. Sleep and nutrition are major factors in how children tolerate stress and process their feelings. A consistent sleep routine for each child will support their best behavior and ability to cope with difficult feelings when a situation arises.

7. Take time to help siblings understand each other. Currently, I have a 14 year old, 7 year old, 2 ½ year old, and a baby who is almost one year. The 7 year old understands that he must be patient and that his younger siblings do not know how to share yet, nor do they intend to hurt him if they bop him on the head. Our toddler is learning to say he’s sorry and starting to grasp the concept that other people have feelings that he can affect. This is something I spell out to my older children so they can help him practice and they can show empathy when he may be struggling with an impending meltdown. There is a sense of shared experience that fosters community and support amongst siblings when these things are spelled out.

8. Avoid comparing siblings and DO treat them as individuals. Children can be very different in temperament, sensitivities, demeanor, talents, style of learning, and preferred method of receiving affection. These are just some factors to pay attention to when trying to meet their needs appropriately and avoiding often-dreaded sibling rivalry.

9. Focus on quality of time versus quantity. Especially for working parents, it can be challenging to find enough time with the kids so we may neglect our own needs in order to get every second possible before bedtime. Out of the desperation, we can become impatient, resentful, and not very pleasant to be around, therefore creating a bigger issue. A more targeted “together” time of 15 minutes over a stressful 30 minutes will be better received and appreciated. They you can spend the other 15 minutes recharging your batteries, refilling your cup, and any other euphemism you want to visualize. The important part is: self-care for parents supports better parent-child relationships and therefore sibling relationships! It’s all connected.

11. Watch out for repeating unhealthy family patterns. Self-awareness and reflection on our own childhood is essential to creating a healthy environment for our children to thrive. Most of us did not come from an idyllic family and often becoming a parent can bring up unresolved issues from the past. Knowing your story and being able to select what you want to carry on, versus what you want to leave behind, will support your ability to have the family you want.

12. When you are feeling overwhelmed too often with family dynamics, it’s time to seek support. Find a therapist or parent coach in your area to talk to about what you’re experiencing. You don’t have to feel alone and often the acknowledgement of needing a little help is the most important step to improved family satisfaction.

10. When in doubt, LAUGH. Juggling more than one child will sober up any formidable super-mom or dad! Don’t take yourself too seriously and let your kids remind you to loosen up.

You don’t have to accept sibling rivalry as a fact of life. Many parents are passive about how their children relate to each other because they think “that’s how kids are.” Taking a proactive role in supporting loving interactions between siblings and appreciation for each other can make parenting that much more rewarding. I take solace in knowing that when I’m gone, my four sons will be there to support each other—in part because their father and I set things up that way.

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