What Can Parents Do To Encourage Strong Sibling Relationships?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

I always longed for a sibling. Older or younger, brother or sister, it didn’t matter. I would have loved to have another child in the family, anyone close in age, to share my childhood with. Even now, when friends talk about getting together with their siblings for holidays or vacations, I feel a stab of envy. Luckily, I married a man with nine siblings, so I feel like I’ve now got all the sisters and brothers I need.

This only-child backstory is why I felt so strongly about having two kids (or more, if the first two deliveries hadn’t totally put me off the whole experience). It’s not like the second kid is a present for the first kid—I mean, No. 2 is a person in his own right—but I did kind of think of the second baby as something I was doing for the sake of my first. But now they’re both here, two boys who wear me out every day. They wear each other out too, alternately squabbling and hysterically laughing. In fact, I’ve learned the peak of hysterical laughter is the exact one second before someone falls and splits his lip, or someone kicks someone in the face, or someone pulls over the cabinet in their room and spills out 93 pairs of shoes.

Now that they’re 2 and 5, I worry about fostering a good relationship between the two of them. I know enough people who don’t really like their siblings very much, which bums me out enough as an observer that I can’t imagine how their parents feel.

People who don’t have good relationships with their siblings seem to blame their parents in two ways. One way is that their parents pushed them too hard to be friends and the kids pushed back (because that’s what kids do) and it became a power struggle. These friends tell me variations of “if they’d left well enough alone, we could have gotten to know each other, so to speak, in our own way and in our own time.”

Others say that their parents didn’t do enough to foster the relationship. One friend told me that he thinks siblings have to be taught to see what’s good and fun in interesting in one another and that his parents didn’t attempt that at all with him and his brother. And at the far end of the spectrum, of course, is sibling abuse, which for whatever reasons parents either turned a blind eye or weren’t able to stop.

So what is a parent to do? The sibling relationship is very high stakes: Not only is a sibling the first friend and the person you’ll have the longest familial relationship with, the quality of that relationship can have profound effects on mental health. A new University of Missouri study shows that siblings who had negative relationships in their teen years had higher incidences of depression and risky behavior later in life. So obviously we want to get it right.

The study suggests that parents should, indeed, take an active role in fostering good relationships, but not necessarily in a pushy way. Traci Pedersen, writing for PsychCentral, notes, “Parents also play an important role in socializing their children to value family[…]. Parents should encourage their children to spend time with their brothers and sisters, to be positive role models for their siblings and to take care of each other. By instilling those values, parents can encourage positive sibling relationships that children will want to maintain throughout adulthood.”

At this, I imagine millions of siblings rolling their eyes. It’s all well and good to “value family,” but what if one family member is a jerk? It’s hard for parents to see if one of their kids is kind of nasty. Or even if all kids are just fine, some temperaments gel more than others.

That’s the thing I think we parents can let ourselves off the hook for. We can encourage our kids to spend time together, to value family, to be respectful even when they’re mad. But the crapshoot of personality and temperament is beyond our control. In those respects, our kids might crack each other up and help each other move for their whole lives, or they may be reduced to a cordial phone call on holidays. At a certain point, the sibling relationship, is, well, up to the siblings.

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