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How to Help Sibling Relationships Grow Stronger During Quarantine

Coronavirus presents an opportunity to help brothers and sisters bond. Here's how to make the most of it.

The sibling relationship is an all-purpose canvas. It’s where kids have fellow pretend cheetahs and in-house basement goaltenders. It’s also where they learn to share, negotiate, and problem-solve, but not always well, which sets the bond apart from the closest friends. And now, with coronavirus forcing everyone indoors, there’s a opportunity to truly strengthen sibling bonds.

“Sibling relationships are pretty safe,” says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University. “You can have huge fights, wake up and they’ll be there. These relationships can often withstand really negative stuff.”

Covid-19 has added another test. No playdates. No teams. No classes. These are negatives, sure, but it also means that brothers and sisters have less static coming in from the outside world that will infringe on their relationships and likely want to spend more time with one another – because they’re forced or because they simply want to.

The question is, can the pandemic’s restrictions bring young siblings closer? Kramer calls it an opportunity. And Susan McHale, distinguished professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University says, “They’re going to have memories that no one else will have.”

Parents want those memories to be good. They can help make that happen, and it begins with accepting certain realities. The most loving siblings will battle – it’s unavoidably love-hate and they get hungry, tired and bored – and it can be exacerbated if parents don’t have a backyard or if the kids share a bedroom. The goal is to have more positive interactions than negative, Kramer says, and in today’s environment, your kids need to do two things in particular with each other: have perspective and have fun.

It also helps to remember that kids can be empathetic, but they need help. It takes patience, lots of repetition, and forgiveness when parents fall short, because the current situation is stressful and hard. “You’ll feel like you’re making no headway. You need to believe in yourself,” McHale says.

Here’s what parents can focus on to make the sibling bond stronger than ever.

Give Them Jobs

 It could be setting the table or raking leaves; just make it meaningful. Kids will sniff out when something’s being tossed off. But if parents explain that it’s helping the family, then it’s about identity and value, and there’s a greater chance they’ll meet the challenge, McHale says.

Coach them on the expectations, and say, “Remember how you did it yesterday? Do that that again.” It’s called scaffolding, Kramer says, and it will allow them to eventually work together. Parents also want to find chances for them to help each other. It could be homework. It could be bringing over a snack. It could just be asking, “What kind of cereal do you think your brother likes?” With this tactic, parents are getting siblings to be considerate and “understanding that what the other person wants and needs is important too,” Kramer says.

Play with Them

The coronavirus has demanded untold energy towards safety and maintaining income, and fun gets pushed out. Have them team up for hide-and-seek, soccer, or the game they create to just jump on dad. The physicality brings a release, and parents are helping them regulate their emotions by getting excited, then having to calm down. Mostly, parents will have some laughs, which is no small thing for them.

“Any time you experience something positive with other people you naturally like those people more and you want to spend more time with them,” Kramer says. And witnessing the play can also boost a parent’s mood. “It feels like there’s hope for the future.”

Give Them Alone Time

Another casualty with all the caretaking is that kids end up doing everything together. So, as much as it’s possible, parents should carve out their own spaces and activities. This makes it so, as Kramer says, “they’re not defined by their siblinghood.” Try to give them individual time to let them get a parent’s entire focus. But underlying all of this is to treat them fairly. Any perception that’s off can lead to resentment towards parents or their siblings, Kramer says.

Listen when someone says, “That’s not fair.” Instead of going on the defensive, ask, “Why do you feel that way?” By doing this, parents will potentially learn a few things: The complaint has some merit. A behavior makes more sense. Or mom or dad didn’t explain their rationale, and doing that sometimes resolves the issue, Kramer says.

Let Each Kid Be the Boss

Since younger siblings often have to go along, let each child be the boss for 15 minutes each day. It gives everyone a chance to be in control, gets the others to listen, and it’s all easier to accept when it’s known a turn is coming. And with any step that parents take, when they witness anything good, from holding a door to not fighting for 30 minutes, praise it. Such feedback tells kids what they just did makes mom and dad happy, and, “It should increase that behavior,” Kramer says.

Reminisce about the Day

Ask kids for the highlights. They might share, but, if needed, remind them of the fun they had together, and they’ll possibly realize, “Oh, I do like my brother,” Kramer says. McHale suggests to try a compliment circle. Each person says one thing. Everyone is getting noticed – hopefully siblings do it for each other – and it’s encouraging the long-term skill of expressing feelings. It’s also another form of praise. “It makes kids feel good, and when kids feel good, they’re much more likely to do what you want,” she says.

And however and wherever it fits in, express the idea of how important kids are to each other and how them being close is important to mom and dad. This is another expectation to set. “They won’t hear you today or tomorrow, but keep saying it,” McHale says. With repetition, it has a chance to seep in. And just to help, take pictures. This time might not register fondly, but one day you can show them proof of being laughing collaborators and conspirators. “Those are all elements in a close relationship, even if it’s a struggle right now,” McHale says.