Parenting for Healthy Sibling Relationships

by | Mar 1, 2024

As someone who is an only child, it has been quite the experience raising two girls. Not only am I responsible for shaping and supporting them as individuals, I am also responsible for shaping and fostering a relationship between them. As an individual and as a therapist, I have observed all types of sibling relationships at all ages and stages. I have observed healthy relationships, unhealthy relationships and non-existent relationships. And, as a parent of two, my hope is that my girls will have a strong, enduring relationship that they can lean on and turn to as they navigate all of life’s ups and downs.

When thinking about how to support your kids in having a healthy sibling relationship, it can be important to first consider what your values are as parents and what kind of relationship you want for your children. Knowing what kind of relationship you want to foster can help you know how to navigate the day to day dynamics at home. If this feels challenging or overwhelming, it can help to turn to resources like books, websites, podcasts, or even parent coaches for support. Additionally, below are some valuable strategies to try.

Don’t compare. One of the most important things you can do to foster connection between your children is avoid comparing them with each other. Comparison is not only the thief of joy, it is the thief of a loving and healthy sibling relationship. You want your children to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders, not each other’s biggest competitors. So, it is important as a parent to make sure you avoid comparison between your children, even if it seems small and harmless. If you find yourself about to make a comparative statement between siblings, pause, and instead focus only on that one child’s behaviors.

Don’t label. As kids get older, it is natural to begin to become aware of their strengths, challenges, interests etc. As they begin to become their own people, it can be easy to start labeling them as “the athletic one,” or “the smart one,” or “the trouble maker.” Not only can this lead to unhealthy comparisons, confining your children into roles can harm their identity formation. It is important for children to know that they can become whatever and whoever they want, regardless of their siblings!

Equal is not best. It can be natural to try and parent your children the same, regardless of their age, development, and gender. I mean, who doesn’t want to avoid hearing the “it’s not fair” tantrums. But the reality is, every child is unique and has different strengths, needs, desires and abilities. This is why they shouldn’t be treated as equals, but rather as unique individuals. As parents you just need to be prepared to validate their disappointment and frustration and explain your position and decision.

Let them fight. Within reason, that is. This is one of the hardest things for me to tolerate as an only child who never really had to deal with interpersonal conflict as a kid. The reality is, siblings fight, it is inevitable. Think through what you want your role to be as parents when it comes to sibling fighting and be aware of your triggers and reactions. Do you want to play referee? Do you want to let them work it out on their own? Is your instinct to defend one child over the other? What is your tolerance level? Some of the answers to these questions may depend on their age and development. When kids are younger, this is a good time to teach them how to fight fairly and establish rules and values around communication. Some helpful tips to remember:

  1. Normal bickering is OK to ignore. It is important to allow them to resolve smaller conflicts on their own. Sometimes intervening makes things worse.
  2. If it gets a little more heated, it can be helpful to intervene by reflecting each child’s point of view. Validate each child’s experience and coach them in resolving their conflict.
  3. If the situation is dangerous, describe what you see, reiterate rules, and separate – problem solve later.

Make space for feelings. It is normal for siblings to have strong emotions toward each other sometimes. It is important to allow siblings to have their feelings about each other heard. If one child says something negative about another one, don’t dismiss their feelings by saying something like “you don’t really mean that.” Instead, try to validate and help them describe their feelings with a statement like, “it sounds like your brother really hurt your feelings.” You can support your child without taking sides.

Name family values. I love this one! Whenever the opportunity presents itself, name family values around relationships. Some common ones you will hear in our house are:

  1. “Alcamos stick together”: This means that family comes first. If your sibling needs help, you help. If someone isn’t being nice to your sibling, you stand up for them. If your sibling is being/feeling left out, you include them.
  2. “We always work to resolve our problems.” Learning how to repair and resolve conflict is not only an important skill in sibling relationships, but it is an important life skill. Teaching them the value of repair and how to repair is critical.
  3. “We won’t let something/someone come in between the two of you.” For example, if my kids are fighting over a toy, they both lose it. Can’t agree on a channel? Say goodbye to the TV. We will not let something come between them.

Siblings can be wonderful life long companions and sources of supports. As parents, putting in some work to foster a strong foundation can help your children have a close bond for years to come.

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