Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Helping Your Children Develop Friendship with Their Sibling

by Jason Caillier

“We are family. I got all my sisters with me.”
With those words, a catchy melody, and a funky beat, Sister Sledge’s song, “We are Family,” rose to number one on the R & B and Disco charts in 1979. The song celebrates family and solidarity among sisters.

When you think about your family, you cannot help but to think about your siblings and the influence they’ve had on your life. Often, they are our first friends and most trusted allies. Of course there will be instances of sibling rivalry, but if an outsider talks negatively about one of our siblings they better watch out!

A research article published in the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family surveys the various ways that siblings influence childhood and adolescence. The author’s goal was to highlight the importance and “centrality of siblings in family life” (p. 914). The article surveys many other research studies and shows how siblings can influence our lives in direct ways such as providing support and being role models to indirect ways such as being the baby of the family that can never do anything wrong, but blames an older sibling… (oh wait, I may have digressed!)

Anyway, there is little doubt that siblings can play a significant role in influencing one another. So, how do parents lead their children to have healthy interactions among siblings? Here are a few tips that may help.
  1. Promote playtime together. Unless you have multiples in the first pregnancy, when you start out as a parent, you are typically the first playmate for your child. Of course there may be cousins and friends who play with your child, but when you know the name of every “My Little Pony” or character from “Cars,” it is obvious that you’ve been “getting your play on” with the firstborn. Of course playing with your children, as Michael Whitehead reminded us last week, is of utmost importance in creating bonds with your children and should be continued; however, when siblings come along our job now includes incorporating the children into play together. 
  2. Try not to micromanage their interactions. Of course there are going to be the times when you have to step in to prevent sudden disaster (i.e. jumping off the top bunk with a parachute pillowcase), but parents should not always feel the need to work out all the difficulties that come from a developing friendship. Older children need help understanding that younger children cannot do everything they can do or understand things the same way. Help them learn to work things out by giving them options and ideas of how to solve their problems, but do your best to let them do the solving.
  3. Help them work together. Remind them that not everything is a race. My son is the older of our two children. He likes to “win” at everything. First one with shoes on. First one to the car. First one to go to bed. (Wait, that last one never happens!) This can be frustrating to his sister who is three years younger (and has much shorter legs!) As parents we can encourage our children to work together on something. Instead of racing to be the first one to finish a puzzle, help them understand that they are working together.
  4. Praise positive actions one child does for the other. This is the prize situation for a parent. When you catch one child doing something nice to the other, be sure to give praise. It will encourage both of them to think about being nice to one another in the future. 
  5. Don’t forget about the need for space. Everyone needs a little independent space from time to time. Sometimes it will be to play with things that may not interest the other, sometimes it will be to spend time with a parent one-on-one, and sometimes it will be to play with friends without having to bring their sibling along. In any case, remember children do need individual time alone.
  6. Be a fair parent. As best as possible, parents should be consistent with each sibling. Establish family rules and stick to them across the board. You don’t want to be the cause of your child feeling mistreated. (Really, you just don’t want to have to hear a teenager tell you, “It’s not fair!”) Use age as a guideline for allowing older children to do things that are appropriate for them but not for the younger sibling. Remind younger children that they will have their turn in time (i.e. dating, wearing makeup, driving a car, etc.)

Basically, a parent’s role in this matter is part coach, part referee. Be proactive in helping your children develop good relationships with their siblings. It will help them as they begin to socialize with others and experience life outside the home.

What is one thing you can do today to encourage your children and promote healthy sibling relationships amongst them?

If you can't think of anything, find some Sister Sledge on YouTube, turn up the speakers, and break out in spontaneous dancing!
"So get up ev’rybody and sing! We are family!"

McHale, S. M., Updegraff, K. A., & Whiteman, S. D. (2012). Sibling relationships and influences in childhood and adolescence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(5), 913-930.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

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