How to foster a closer sibling relationship

A sibling can be a best friend for life with some little help from parents, Charlene Aquilina says
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As a mother of two young children, I can understand from a personal perspective how it is every parents’ dream to see their children connect, play and talk together. In my practice, several parents come to ask for some professional guidance on how one can support their children in developing a positive relationship from the start. Here I would like to share with you some general tips.

Creating a positive sibling bond

Research proves that family plays a big role in one’s well-being and development, from the physical developmental aspects to the emotional and social repertoire. Sibling relationships can be another positive source of safety and security. Knowing that your sibling loves you, is there to listen to you and always has your back may give one more confidence to love oneself and to explore the world around them.

Sometimes siblings may find it easier to first open up with one another as they may be more understanding of the social realities they are facing on a daily basis. Older siblings may sometimes also be seen as role models by their younger counterparts. Research also highlights how, no matter the age, a closer sibling bond is associated with increased empathy, sensitivity and social skills.

Fostering a positive co-parenting relationship

Having a positive co-parenting relationship helps children to feel safer and calmer. Parents can model what a healthy relationship looks like for their children.

Children may be less preoccupied about what might be going on in their parents’ relationship, and this frees up more energy for exploration and more positive relational connection seeking.

It is very important that parents communicate with each other, and that they send the same message to their children so as to avoid any loyalty dilemmas. It is not the children’s responsibility to choose between their parents. Both parents are valuable and can have a unique place in their children’s heart and lives.

Giving them the space to play alone and to connect supports sibling relationships.

Encouraging a closer relationship through activities

When parents notice what activities their children enjoy playing together, they will be in a better position to offer their children more opportunities for such forms of play. For example, my daughters currently both love unicorns and they engage in a lot of symbolic play, especially when simple props are available, such as cardboard boxes and colours.

Giving them the space to play alone and to connect supports their sibling relationship. I also make it a point to praise them when I notice kindness, turn-taking and laughter.

Children feed on positive attention, and highlighting the positive behaviour increases the chances of it occurring again. This also helps with helping them to recognise their beautiful qualities and contributes towards the building of a healthy self-esteem.

You should also encourage activities that require a joint effort. This is valuable for fostering a closer relationship. For example, building a tower of blocks together or building a castle with cardboard boxes, painting together on a large piece of paper, baking cookies and gardening. Siblings are likely to feel a good sense of pride in having created something together and in feeling recognised, as well as praised, by their parents.

When siblings have more opportunity to work with each other, rather than against each other, they are more likely to build their connection and to bond together. Parents can, for instance, create a treasure hunt for siblings to solve together, or give them a project to work on together.

It is important to keep in mind that the concept of sharing is alien to children; alternatively, it is more helpful to introduce them to the concept of turn-taking. You can also discuss with them various simple options of problem solving and help them to reach a compromise.

When things get out of hand, giving them space from each other to calm down is pivotal. For example, should one sibling be hurting the other despite your best interventions, it is helpful to momentarily separate them until they are calmer, and then to talk it out together. All these are important social skills will ultimately help them in their lives.

No matter the age, a closer sibling bond is associated with increased empathy, sensitivity and social skills

Sibling disagreement and conflict

This is likely to occur and is understandable as well. Our job as parents is to help the siblings navigate their disagreements in a healthy manner and to cope with them as best as possible.

To support this process, it is first of all helpful to be mindful of our emotions as parents, to be able to pause and to choose how to respond rather than merely react. Responding from a calmer place will enable us to offer more containment to our children, which will positively influence their coping skills when it comes to handling various emotions, including anger and disappointment.

Parents can support their children by hearing each child’s perspective, while refraining from taking sides and trying to explore options on how a compromise can be reached. Making clear boundaries on how aggression and violence are not acceptable is also very important. For instance, one can say: “It is understandable to feel angry right now, but at the same time, it is not acceptable that you hit your sister. Hitting is not OK.”

Parents can hear each child’s perspective and explore options on how a compromise can be reached.

Model empathy and support

When children grow up in an environment where it is safe and acceptable to express emotions, they are more likely to open up about their joys and struggles. As parents we can support the development of a positive sibling relationship by helping each child to understand the value of empathy, by firstly, being empathic with them, and then also helping them to understand how their sibling may be feeling in that situation.

As parents, it is helpful to create an environment that encourages communication and to support siblings in being curious in each other’s lives and interests. For instance, parents can encourage siblings to attend each other’s activities, such as sports competitions and concerts.

Setting time aside for sibling dates may also be a lovely idea. Both can take turns to think about what the other sibling would enjoy doing and spend time together accordingly.

As parents, you can also nurture sibling communication through the modelling and teaching of active listening skills. Emphasise the importance of having siblings listen to each other’s ideas and emotions.

Emphasise the importance of having siblings listen to each other’s ideas and emotions.

Support siblings to respect each other’s boundaries, as well as their need for space and privacy

All children benefit from having time alone and special time with each parent. This may help each child to feel more seen and special, while also giving them the opportunity to open up more about anything that may be on their mind.

Maybe as parents you can talk about how you could take it in turns to go on separate dates with each individual child – this will continue to foster a positive rapport between parent and child, as well as between siblings. This may also reduce the likelihood for children to feel the need to compete for their parents’ attention, since they may feel that this need is being satisfied on a more regular basis. It may also be helpful to discuss with siblings the importance of asking for permission before using their sibling’s object/toy.

Knocking before going in their sibling’s bedroom, especially for older children and adolescents, may also be another way of showing respect for privacy and in order to prevent conflict.

Parents can read their goodnight stories all together, especially if the siblings are of a similar age.

Highlight and appreciate the uniqueness between siblings

As parents we can help by finding the time to verbalise the strengths and uniqueness of each sibling without engaging in comparison. To promote the positive development of self-esteem, it is important that as parents we do our best not to compare our children and their abilities. Unfortunately, comparing siblings may backfire, as it may encourage sibling jealousy, resentment and rivalry. I understand that this is something that we find ourselves doing almost automatically.

At the same time, such comparisons do not help our children’s self-esteem nor the siblings’ relationship. As parents we want to show our children that each one of us has unique strengths and qualities, which we should encourage them to foster. Appreciating each other’s uniqueness promotes better well-being.

Encourage a bedtime routine that helps them bond

As parents you could also decide to read their goodnight stories all together, especially if the siblings are of a similar age. If not, you could also encourage the older sibling to read to the younger siblings at bedtime. Other ideas include giving hugs, singing a lullaby and giving their siblings cuddly soft toys to sleep with. Practising such ideas may support sibling bonding.

Finally, although children may not always appreciate the beauty of having a sibling, especially when they want the same toy or when they want to watch different TV shows at the same time, it is part of our work as parents to tell them about how some friends may come and go, yet a sibling can be a best friend for life.

 Personally, watching my two daughters play and laugh together truly melts my heart and far outweighs the frustration of their everyday feuds. It makes me feel proud of my family’s consistent efforts in building more secure familial relationships.  

Let’s remember that a sibling is someone who has lived with you through so many life experiences, and who understands what it feels like to be a part of your family. It is one of the greatest blessings for our children. 

Side by side or miles apart, siblings are connected by the heart.

Charlene Aquilina is a clinical psychologist and family therapist. This article is being published in collaboration with Positive Parenting Malta. You can view the original article here.

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