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Nurturing Sibling Relationships

by Suzy Martyn


Suzy Martyn

Suzy Martyn is the author of Enjoy the Ride: Tools, Tips, and Inspiration for the Most Common Parenting Challenges and has 25 years experience working with children. Read more »

When my oldest daughter was seven and her little sister was five, I told them that they could go swimming after finishing a page of homework. After a while, my five-year-old raised two pages of work up in the air and proudly proclaimed, "We can go swimming now! Let's go!" Confused, I asked her what she meant because her older sister was still working on her homework. She replied, "Oh, mommy, we can go swimming now because I did two pages of homework." Wondering if she had misunderstood the guidelines, I pointed in the direction of her sister who was still busily working at her desk. With a proud smile on her face and wide-eyed excitement, my sweet little five-year-old exclaimed, "No, mommy, we can go now because I did two pages: one for me and one for my sister!"

While applauding her for her thoughtfulness yet setting the correct boundary, I told her, "Oh, honey, that is very sweet of you to want to help your sister, but she really needs to finish her own work. Thank you for the thought, but your extra page doesn't count for your sister." With an accepting nod of the head she replied, "OK, mommy, but the love counts, right?"

It warms a parent's heart to see love between siblings. When a parent witnesses one sibling choosing to do something loving towards another on his own accord, it creates a deep sense of satisfaction. More than anything else, parents want to see their children get along harmoniously, support each other and be "bestest" friends. Unfortunately, this love between siblings does not always come naturally or easily. Siblings are often squabbling, competing or having less than positive feelings about each other. Left to their own devices, they will bicker to no end. It takes vision, patience, modeling, and encouragement on the parents' part, and plenty of practice on the children's part for the sibling relationship to be a positive one. Yes, children are young, but relationships are real. As much as adults struggle with having positive relationships, children do as well. They need their parents' help.

While parents want to nurture a positive relationship between their children, many times they don't know exactly how to go about it. Should they have their children room together so that they will develop a closer bond? Should they insist on their children taking classes together or sharing hobbies? Or should they step back and let their children figure out the relationship and hope for the best?

Just like so many other areas in life, children need specific instruction and good modeling to know how to develop good sibling relationships. As most parents know, siblings do not become best friends automatically just because they are living in the same house. Children need parents to help nurture this very important relationship.

Try these five tips to help strengthen the connection between your children:

  1. Practice what you preach, because your children are learning more from what you do than from what you say. Instead of shouting at your children to stop shouting, encourage them to use a gentle voice with each other. Use kindness and thoughtfulness in your actions, and your children will be more likely to follow suit.

  2. Does every child in the family get shoes just because one of your children gets his much needed soccer shoes? Do your children always complain that you're not fair? When children complain about something not being fair, what they really mean is that it's not exactly "equal." They want the exact same portion of ice cream as their sibling every time but let's face it, life is not always equal. Explain to your children that fairness means you get what you need, but it doesn't always happen at the exact same time or in the exact same way. And, that's okay.

  3. Siblings need meaningful activities in order for them to have opportunities to work together and have memorable, bonding experiences. If left unattended on a daily basis without goals or focus, frequent conflicts and aggravations are sure to flair up. Bake cookies together. Build forts. Work together as a team toward a common goal. Children benefit greatly when parents help to channel their children's energy into something positive.

  4. Consider whether your children have been together too much for their own good. Allowing each child to have private time in the playroom for a day or letting a child attend birthday parties alone once in a while can be a good thing. Maybe they could benefit from a change in scenery and company.

  5. For siblings who have five or more years between them, it can be more challenging to find connections and opportunities to nurture. Despite the wide gap, it is still very important for them to have a positive relationship and the energy put into this is well worth it. One danger to avoid is giving the older sibling authority over the younger sibling. Of course they should look out for their younger brother or sister but parents need to set the boundary and expectation that siblings are friends first.

As often as you can, intentionally nurture the sibling relationship with good modeling, opportunity, encouragement and teaching. It's impossible for kids to always get along, but at least you now have a few strategies to help create harmony among your kids. What other strategies have worked for you?


Comments

luis Fernando writes...

We as parents are in the goal of teaching our kids to protect to one another, and the older is always alert of taking care of his little one, here is one mazing story as an example.

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Thanks for the 5 tips are amazing Suzy, God Bless you

Amanda writes...

This article was such a help to me. I appreciated the advice on having structured activities instead of a free-for-all every day. It really helps in the sibling relationship for my children.

Andrea writes...

I'd love to have a pro/con list of having siblings close in age versus having siblings distant in age. I have one young child and am trying to figure out how long I should wait to have another, and what the age difference will mean for the children's relationship and closeness.

Suzy? writes...

That is a great question and something that many parents wonder about. I will provide a list of some pros and cons below but keep in mind that although these have some validity, the most important factor in how your children will get along will be the result of your guidance, love, and the wisdom with which you parent. Also, as children grow and mature, the difference in age becomes less pronounced and even a decade between siblings can become unnoticeable. Best of luck to you and ENJOY!

Siblings close in age (1-2 years)

Pros: common interests and abilities to participate in activities together; sharing of friends, sharing of clothing and toys; gives oldest child a best friend from an early age and they can relate well to each other/go to h.school & college together; more likely for siblings to have children around the same time and have cousins who grow up together

Cons: more likely competition, comparison, and frequent squabbles; harder on parents having multiple children in diapers/infancy stage at the same time; financially harder on parents as both children are in college/getting married during the same time

Siblings further apart in age (3 or more years)

Pros: gives oldest child more time to bask in full attention of parents; older child can be helpful in care of younger child; parents only have younger child in diapers/infancy stage; more time for parents to concentrate financially on one child at a time (college/wedding)

Cons: oldest child can be lonely for a few years before sibling is born; interests of siblings vary diversely by age/ability; not in same school for long nor sharing experience of college/wedding at the same time

Those are just a few factors to consider when planning spacing of children. However, like stated earlier, the most important determinant of how well siblings get along has little to do with their age difference. Brothers born a decade apart can be the best of friends and sisters just one year apart can live worlds apart depending on their home environment and outside support. Focus on nurturing your children in every aspect of their lives rather than the kind of age span you have between your children. Most of all, enjoy your children because the time they are home goes way too quickly!

Amy writes...

Thanks for the helpful tips! I guess I thought leaving my daughters (ages 6 and 2) to figure things out on their own meant they'd eventually work things out, but really all they do is fight with each other, and now my 2 year old is getting physical.

Anthony writes...

The examples for doing specific activities together and having them work as a team are my favorite! Thank you!

Judy writes...

I am a grandparent of a 14 year step grandson and a 9 and 4 year old granddaughter.
My daughter in law lets her oldest (14 yr) old babysit the two younger ones. When I am babysitting he tries to take control of discipline with the 2 younger, and the 9 yr old has reacted by becoming emotional, bursting into tears and saying her older brother doesn't love her--hates her! I am at a loss as to what to say or how to handle the situation...can you help?

Suzy? writes...

Hi Judy,

That is a tough situation. It's really hard for younger siblings to accept that their older sibling is an authority sometimes and at other times just a peer. Having five years between your grandchildren makes it even harder. It is really important to very clearly teach children what the expectations and roles are for each child while parents are away.

For starters, I don't like to use the word "babysit". Sometimes, just that word alone sets the wrong tone. What I do with my kids (ages 8, 11, 13, 14) is I tell them that they are all responsible for themselves when I am gone. For instance, they have to observe bedtimes, take care of responsibilities, follow rules, be safe, etc. all on their own. They can give each other gentle reminders but the goal is that everyone gets along peacefully and that things run smoothly. No one is calling the shots, regardless of age. All are required to behave the same as when I'm home with them. The oldest is in charge but that doesn't mean she can tell the others what to do. She will, however, report to me how things went during the night and she IS IN CHARGE if there is an emergency. Only in that situation are they required to do anything she says.

It's really important to nurture a sense of cooperation and community amongst siblings especially when the parents are away. If children understand that they are a team working together to keep the household running smoothly, then it can help the eldest to not look at the situation as an opportunity for a power trip nor for the younger ones to feel defensive about their sibling's temporarily changed role.

It takes plenty of practice and it is not always an easy endeavor but taking the time to set the ground rules and expectations is very important. Children will learn and adapt to parental expectation if there is clear and supportive guidance. Best of luck to you as a supportive grandparent helping your grandchildren figure out this careful balance.

Emma writes...

I'm a single mom of a brilliant, resilliant, and happy 4yr old girl. However, I am sometimes at a loss as to how to find balance in my life. I am either working or going to college full time, and seeing a man I really enjoy spending time with. Sometimes I feel like I don't get enough quality time with my 4 year old, and sometimes I'm not spending enough time on homework, or with my boyfriend. It's stressful to try and arrange for her to be with her dad, or one of her two sets of grandparent's while I am in school/work or spending time with my boyfriend. I spend time that involves all three of us as well, (boyfriend, daughter, and I) but i feel like alone time for the two of us is necissary too. I often recieve guilt trips (especially from my parents) about how much time I spend at school/work, ect. I do feel like Im not spending as much time with my daughter as I did when I was single, but I feel like more of the time we have together is spent interacting, rather than just being in the same room...Am I wrong to want a life, and have one? Is there really any balance, or will my schedule always be in flux? Do I just keep my head up and do my best?

Suzy? writes...

You are really working hard to have a balanced life and it sounds like you are doing a great job at it. Sorry to say that it is always going to be somewhat of a tough balancing act it will not be perfectly balanced all the time. There will be times when one area of your life rightfully deserves more time than others. Taking care of yourself should always be in the mix, however, because that in effect will help you to care for others in your life even better.

My advice is to continue on the path you are. You are very aware of your needs and those of others around you so I think you are a good judge of whether you need to adjust things. Don't feel badly about taking care of yourself. Talk with your daughter often and schedule in regular daily and weekly time together. Periodically take stock of all areas and readjust as needed. It won't be easy but just being aware of the challenges and wanting the best for all puts you way ahead of the game. Lastly, give yourself grace. It does not need to be perfect all the time. Sounds like you are doing a wonderful job. Keep it up!

Vel writes...

I am a care taker of two children ages 9 and 5. The 5 yr old told me on several occasions that he would like to kill his sister or have her killed. These 2 also fight on a daily basis. I guess what I'm asking is this normal behavior or should I speak to the parents about this. Thanks V

Suzy? writes...

Are these children watching violent movies or playing violent games? Have you talked with the children about appropriate words to use to express their feelings? Perhaps give them words to replace the harsh words they are choosing and discuss further why they might be feeling this way. If this is a sudden change in behavior, it's possible it's related to something that's happened at home or school. In this case, it could be good to mention to the parents to get to the root of the problem. Otherwise, set the boundary while the children are with you. It's okay to say certain words are acceptable to use and others are not.

Caroline writes...

Thank you for your article, especially your second tip, how to explain the concept of "fair" -- I'm sure we'll be putting it to the test in the near future.

bunkertank writes...

Half-time single dad here. Thanks for the pointers. I'll give anything a try with mine (I have 2, 13 and 10 and driving me to drink -- just kidding). By the way, my pal's wife told me about your site (my pal watches pbs).

Suzy? writes...

GREAT to see dads involved and wanting to make a difference in their childrens' lives. Keep up the great work!

Julie writes...

As a mom of five, and someone who focuses on the "little things are the big things," I wholeheartedly agree with this post. My teen sons have built a relationship that will not be parted, and we are continually drilling into them, "your friends will come and go, but your siblings will always be there for you." It's so worth it! :)

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This article was such a help to me. I appreciated the advice on having structured activities instead of a free-for-all every day. It really helps in the sibling relationship for my children.
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Zubari writes...

The examples for doing specific activities together and having them work as a team are my favorite! Thank you!
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Laura writes...

I have 2 kids close to the same age so competitiveness is a factor. It's not necessarily a bad thing as long as the kids don't take anything personal. They also share many things in common which is also great for them. I am installing a TV wall mount right now and one of them volunteered to help me so the other one jumped up to provide double the help. So it works in my favor too!

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Awww your daughter sounds adorable!

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Amit writes...

Found you through "The Small Notebook." As a mom of five, and someone who focuses on the "little things are the big things," I wholeheartedly agree with this post. My teen sons have built a relationship that will not be parted, and we are continually drilling into them, "your friends will come and go, but your siblings will always be there for you." It's so worth it! unlimitted hosting

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Kaneria writes...

Siblings need meaningful activities in order for them to have opportunities to work together and have memorable, bonding experiences. If left unattended on a daily basis without goals or focus, frequent conflicts and aggravations are sure to flair up. Bake cookies together. Build forts. Work together as a team toward a common goal. Children benefit greatly when parents help to channel their childcare's energy into something positive.
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