Raising a single child is a challenge, but after having a second child you’re dealing with a whole new beast called “siblings.” With this new family dynamic, strategies and logistics need to shift. Siblings, by necessity, change the way parents approach everything from discipline, to daily schedules.
But brothers and sisters also act upon each other in ways that can seem helpful in one moment and harmful in another. Parents are suddenly faced with issues like sibling rivalry and how to raise siblings who get along. Luckily, with strong values and some examination into sibling dynamics, raising siblings can become second nature.
The Science of Siblings
One feature of siblings is that they feature a disproportionate amount of strong positive and strong negative relationships. “Moderate to high levels of both positive and negative sibling relationship dimensions are typical,” Dr. Sarah Killoren told Fatherly in 2019. Killoren studies sibling relationship dynamics at the University of Missouri. “Most differences in adjustment are seen between siblings who have very positive relationships — high intimacy, low negativity — versus those who have very negative relationships — low intimacy and high levels of conflict.”
So, while it’s true that sibling relationships are only one influence among many that can influence who a kid becomes, they still can have profound, lingering effects.
Studies have also shown that younger siblings teach older siblings to care and that siblings who report feeling close succeed or fail in academics as a unit. We even know that the best sibling arrangement is when the eldest child of either gender is born two years before a brother who is born five or more years before a sister. Too bad you can’t plan those things…
Sibling Rivalry is Real
Rivalry happens, and being challenged by a brother or sister can help kids grow in healthy ways. But sometimes sibling rivalry can become sibling bullying, leading to depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Some studies have found that up to 40 percent of children are exposed to sibling bullying at least once per week and, unlike bullying in school, there’s very little room for escape.
Parents need to make sure they are keeping their eyes out for signs of sibling bullying. These can include clear, sudden changes including underachievement in school, chronic, unexplained illnesses, or cycles of self-harm. But when the warning signs of sibling bullying appear, parents should err on the side of stepping in.
“Prevention is always better than having to treat a longstanding major problem,” Shoshanah Shear, a private occupational therapist and author, told Fatherly in 2017. “Don’t wait for a problem to get worse. Always take note of bullying and work towards developing a healthy, united, loving family environment.”
How to Raise Siblings Who Get Along
The trick is for parents to allow siblings to challenge one another without causing emotional, psychological or physical pain. But it’s also crucial for parents to give every sibling some one on one time which increases feelings of support. And those feelings of support reduce the need to use conflict to gain parental attention and approval. Those feelings can be further amplified through communal family time which allows both parents to model cooperation and good relationships in front of the siblings.
It also helps when parents give siblings cooperative and non-competitive tasks. Think: puzzles and cooperative games. Finally, there is some wisdom in letting brothers and sisters find a way to resolve conflict without a parental presence. Getting along takes practice.
So does raising siblings.