Nurturing the Sibling Relationship

Most of us have siblings; some are close, while others are not. To some extent, our personalities dictate how close we are as adults. But as children, how can we encourage a positive relationship? How can we avoid pitfalls that drive our children apart?

  • siblingsA space of ones own. Our retired pediatrician, Jane Anderson, recommended that we give each child some space to keep belongings of his own.  If your children share a room, she recommends a cabinet or a drawer. According to Jane, who raised five children, children share better if they know they have a sense of ownership and privacy. In our house, the most expensive toys are shared — things like Legos/Duplos and Magnatiles, but each child has a few things that are their own. For privacy, my daughter is not allowed on her older brother’s bunk without his permission, and he has a cabinet of his own things in the dining room, mostly toys that are too old for her. Both children are allowed to ask for privacy, especially in the bathroom, but also when they just need a moment alone.

  • One-on-one time. Dr Laura Markham of Aha Parenting ( recently spoke in San Francisco, where she recommended that parents spend alone time with each child, not watching media, even five minutes each day. As a single mom, I find this challenging, but my children so much appreciate it that I’m working to use some small amount of childcare and leverage different bedtimes. For instance, my daughter usually goes to bed before my son, which gives us up to 30 minutes each evening. Twice a week, I pick up my daughter at preschool before my son, and we have over an hour before he joins us. My son loves to put together the snap circuit toys or read to me, while my daughter asks me to read to her or run around together.

  • No labels. It’s so easy to compare our children. Yet the book below, Siblings Without Rivalry, warns about labeling our children. On our parenting forum, I frequently see parents compare their children, for instance calling one “high maintenance” or “difficult” and the other “easy,” or calling a toddler with a new sibling a “bully”. According to the authors, labels become a self fulfilling prophesy. The difficult child believes he is difficult, so acts out more frequently. Meanwhile, the easy child feels pressure from the title, and both children resent each other.  I’m sure most of us are not extreme, but it certainly doesn’t help their relationship to compare them. Or one sibling might find spelling hard but be a math whiz. If you tell the children that one is a math whiz, and the other is great at literature, they might stop trying in their “weak” areas.

  • Step back. I try not to jump in too quickly when my kids argue, but give them space to work out their problems, a strategy I learned from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Instead, I take a pause and see if the children have solved the issue. When asked, I try to advise the children on how to handle it. So, when my son says, “Lili took my toy,” I suggest that he tell her, “Lili, I was playing with that,” and offer her something else.

  • Focus on the victim and everyone’s feelings. This past weekend, when my son got mad and tripped my daughter, I took Dr. Laura’s advice.  Rather than punishing my son, which was tempting, I focused on my daughter. I scooped her into my lap, and asked her if she was ok, kissing her owies. My son, naturally, came to us, and told me his side. I said, “Lili is hurt. What do you recommend we do?” He immediately took out some ice and gave it to her. I asked Lili if that made her feel ok, and she said, “no,” so I asked her what she wanted. She asked for a hug and kiss, and her brother gave it to her. This time, she said she was fine. Ben then told her that he was sad that she took the toy, and that he needed a hug and kiss, too. She got up and gave him the hug and kiss, and they ran off to play again. To be honest, I was surprised and grateful that it worked, and plan to do this again.

  • Teach the children about each other. A toddler will knock down a building, angering an older sibling. Explaining the developmental stage of the younger sibling can go far, “Your sister doesn’t realize how amazing your tower is.” On the other side, many of my son’s classmates treat my daughter like a doll, which she doesn’t appreciate at all. Reminding them that she is a real person can also help the relationship. As children get older, each will have unique personalities, strengths and challenges. Sympathize over a tough test, but don’t label the child as weak in that area, or compare to the other sibling.

  • Your childhood. I try to remember all the things my siblings and I did when we were children. I like to think being a middle child is an advantage when it comes to raising children; I know what both the older and younger sibling do and feel. If you were an oldest or youngest? Think about what you did to irritate your sibling. I still recall my mom telling me to be nicer to my brother, “He’d tie your shoes if you let him.” I thought, “Great idea! I’ll ask him to tie my shoes!”

  • Family time. Spending time as a family can build the bonds. For instance, family dinners are fabulous for connecting at the end of the day.  Vacations or weekend adventures also create fun times, as well as memories that we can discuss. Our family loves to visit the local science museums, and to go on hikes when weather permits. We bake together and bring food to our friends. At the end of it all, we giggle together about how funny the penguin looked or how the pumpkin bread tasted. Some more examples are in Lisa’s article Creating Special Family Rituals for Lifelong Memories.

  • Aging helps. Part of the distance between my children is due to their age difference. Growing up, I was much closer to my brother, who is two years younger, than my sister, who is five years older. But as adults, she became my best friend. At some point, the five years became irrelevant, whereas a three and eight year old don’t have a lot in common. Even for twins, time can help each sibling gain independence so that they are comfortable being together.



Siblings Without Rivalry or on Kindle


Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting or on Kindle


How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk  or on Kindle



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