April 27, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
It is not uncommon for parents to get in touch with me, asking about the sibling relationship and for advice on how they might all get on a little bit better.
Often, however, it is when parents are at their breaking point; someone has been physically harmed during sibling ‘play’ or the sibling conflict has become so contentious that it is seriously affecting the dynamics and health of the whole family. Ideally, we all need to make sure things never get to this point. We can do so by taking the quality of the sibling bond seriously from the ‘get go’, and by understanding our influential role in its evolution.
The origins of sibling conflict are often bound up in complex family dynamics. Siblings understandably compete for parental attention, love and resources. As one of three children, I remember bursting with pride when I managed to wrestle for the ‘front seat’ position with my father on long car journeys. There is little incentive to support and sustain another’s success if it means that one’s own status is threatened as a result. When my eldest learned of the arrival of my youngest, he promptly requested his new brother be sent ‘back on the plane to God please’.
You might be reading this post with a wry smile, smug even, as your own offspring adore one another and always have done! If so, huge congratulations. However, you are likely to be in the minority, as research has shown that sibling disharmony is pretty common and, believe it or not, that isn’t necessarily (always) a bad thing. Research by Professor Claire Hughes has found that mild sibling rivalry can actually accelerate children’s social understanding and hone executive functions. It is when sibling rivalry is characterised by physical violence and emotional bullying that harmful, longer term consequences can follow.
Sibling violence is one of the most common, yet least recognised forms of violence in children’s lives, yet it is so often underplayed, ignored and perilously left to fester.
Negative sibling relationships are associated with social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties and negative sibling interactions tend to include conflict, aggression, fights, violence, abuse and bullying.
Outside of family life, if you witnessed a child or teen pulling someone’s hair violently, or throwing things at them, you would consider it ‘assault’. Outside of family life, if you witnessed a child or teen kicking someone else in the leg, or grabbing them by the neck, you would take action. When it comes to siblings, it seems, parents can tolerate a lot of physical argy-bargy, perhaps seeing it as ‘part and parcel’ of growing up, or a useful dress rehearsal for life.
Yet, as very recent research indicates, being involved in any type of sibling bullying at age 11 years, either as a victim or perpetrator, is associated with children’s higher internalising and externalising problems at age 14 and lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem at age 17. So, we need to care and care deeply about how siblings get along; be proactive in fostering mutual respect and work to reduce conflict as and when it arises along the way.
How can we better distinguish between bullying and normal ‘rough and tumble’ play? A 2015 paper led by Dieter Wolke, usefully defines sibling bullying as: “any unwanted aggressive behaviour(s) by a sibling that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated; bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted sibling including physical, psychological, or social harm”.
More often than not, parents feel ill-equipped to manage the relationship once it has reached this point, and may wearily default to simply telling both of them to stop. This blanket approach threatens to aggravate at least one sibling party, as it smacks of injustice, and can leave children feeling unheard, isolated and even angrier.
Emre Deniz, our current Researcher of the Month, advises that when arguments arise, parents should talk to each child individually and listen fully to what they have to say without prejudging the situation. Parents should then talk to both parties together and aim to help them understand each other’s point of view a little better. Encouraging them to problem-solve when they argue, rather than simply telling them both to be quiet is deemed optional. When they do manage to listen to one another, show any empathy, work things out or compromise (even for a short amount of time), notice and praise them. Phrases such as: “I really like the way you handled that”, or “I have noticed you are being very kind today, well done”, can encourage and motivate.
In general terms, we should all maintain consistent rules for breaching behavioural expectations, and ensure that these rules are discussed and understood ahead of time. Siblings have a strong sense of injustice and perceived unfairness. So, whilst it may well be appropriate to have slightly different rules due to your children’s ages, make sure that these are clear-cut.
We also know that parental supervision improves the quality of sibling relationships, so spending time together as a family, doing things that are fun, is a good investment in developing strong sibling bonds. With younger children, try to promote play that is positive and collaborative (where they need one another to survive or win the game) and encourage them to work together for a common cause. Finally, don’t forget that siblings are influenced by the way that parents interact with others at home. If there are two adults in your home, or you are co-parenting, try to minimise conflict and model how to deal with disagreements constructively.
We might argue with them, moan about them, or compare ourselves favourably (or unfavourably) to them, but ask anyone who has ever lost a sibling and they will tell you that it is a profound and unique grief.
Like it or not, our identities, our life stories and the ways in which we regard ourselves are intricately shaped by this extraordinary relationship. Often, losing a sibling earlier in life is due to some traumatic event and this can affect the surviving sibling’s own development and future relationships. Organisations such as the Sibling Grief Club or The Compassionate Friends are great to tap into for tailored support and a sense of community. Organisations exist to support surviving siblings of those who have died from disability, from SIDS and for those affected by loss through suicide. Siblings bereaved through suicide are often acutely impacted in ways that differ from other types of loss but there is support out there. Of course, behind sibling losses in childhood are devastated parents coming to terms with a traumatic loss of their own. The NHS has usefully collated a list of organisations that can help parents navigate this unimaginable scenario.
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On Monday May 16th, we will be talking with sociologist, Dr Laura Towers, who will be sharing evidence-based approaches to support young people who have experienced sibling bereavement. Join us for free for this live webinar at 8pm.
If you want to learn more about how to help siblings get along better, listen to our podcasts with renowned American researcher, Professor Susan McHale, sociologist Dr Katherine Davies or our current ‘Researcher of the Month’, Emre Deniz, who focuses on sibling bullying in the context of families with an autistic child.
You might also like to browse our top tips on nurturing positive sibling relationships or encourage your children to consider the things they love and admire about each other with our Celebrate Your Sibling activity. If you have a new baby on the way, we’ve got some evidence-based advice on how best to welcome new siblings and a list of books which might come in handy.