- Research finds that sibling relationships can have significant positive and negative impacts.
- Smaller age gaps among siblings are associated with more conflict but a closer relationship.
- Although sibling conflict is extremely common, research finds that some parenting practices may help to reduce tensions.
Anyone who grew up with siblings or has raised siblings knows that the sibling relationship is very important and very complicated. It is often characterized by both a special kind of love and a special kind of conflict. A recent national study found that 82 percent of children in the United States live with at least one sibling. This percentage is higher than the percentage of children who live with a father or father figure in the U.S. (78 percent).
Children also spend more free time with their siblings than anyone else in their lives. Although the amount of sibling contact diminishes as children grow up and move out of their childhood homes, sibling relationships continue to influence adult well-being. Even in old age, research finds that the quality of sibling relationships is one of the most important factors in mental health and well-being.
So, what does research tell us about siblings and how we can improve this very important relationship?
Why does it matter if siblings get along?
Children develop many essential skills through playing and interacting with their siblings, including perspective-taking, understanding emotions, problem-solving, and negotiating. They then generalize these skills to other social relationships, including friendships.
Research finds that when siblings have a supportive relationship, they can have many positive influences on each other, including improved empathy (the ability to understand and feel the emotions of others), more advanced social skills, and greater interest and engagement in school.
However, when siblings have a more negative relationship, they can negatively impact each other’s development. For example, sibling conflict in childhood is associated with school problems, substance use, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
What about age spacing between siblings? Does this impact the sibling relationship?
Yes! Research suggests that wider age gaps seem to be related to less conflict among siblings, while smaller age gaps are related to a closer sibling relationship. In particular, research finds that siblings aged four or more years apart show greater affection, prosocial behavior, and admiration towards one another, while siblings aged less than 4 years apart are more likely to be close. Research also finds that this pattern of increased conflict among siblings closer in age persists into adulthood.
What can parents do to address sibling conflict?
Many parents identify sibling conflict as the most common problem in their families, yet most parents are unclear about how to best address this problem.
Research has found that siblings fight up to eight times per hour. Furthermore, 70 percent of families report physical violence among siblings, making sibling violence the most common form of violence in a family.
So what can we do as parents? The following evidence-based strategies may help to reduce sibling conflict, and ultimately improving your children’s relationship:
1. Stay as calm and as neutral as possible.
Research indicates that, when mothers favor the younger child (as parents tend to do when refereeing sibling conflict), their children are likely to interact with each other less frequently. Approach the conflict assuming the best of both children involved (for example, saying, “What happened here?” rather than, “Did you hurt your sister again?”).
2. Help children learn to regulate their negative emotions during a conflict with siblings.
Teach your children how to identify their own emotions and the emotions of their siblings and then develop coping strategies for regulating their emotions (deep breathing, going to a “calm down” space, asking a parent for help, etc.). Teach and practice these skills when your children are calm rather than during a conflict!
3. Teach important social skills to help siblings play together effectively.
Specifically, teach children how to ask their sibling to play, how to accept or decline a sibling’s offer to play, and how to see the situation from their sibling’s perspective.
4. Mediate sibling conflict.
Help each child listen to the other’s perspective and learn how to resolve conflict on their own (that is, without parental assistance). Teach children how to explain their own perspective, problem-solve, and compromise. Research shows that children are more likely to resolve conflict when parents intervene to some extent. When left to their own devices, the older sibling tends to “win” without either child learning how to compromise.
5. Avoid simply solving the problem in your children’s conflicts and involve children in the process of resolving it.
Research shows that when both parents and children are involved in solving the problem, children gain important skills that will enable them to resolve their own conflicts in the future.
6. Praise your children when they are playing nicely rather than punishing them for fighting or becoming aggressive with each other.
Research shows that praise for opposite behavior (that is, playing nicely with each other) is very effective in reducing sibling conflict.
7. Model healthy ways of resolving conflict in your own disagreements with your partner and children.
Research shows that marital conflict and hostility of a parent towards a child have a negative impact on sibling relationships.
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