The Sibling Relationship: Challenging but Powerful


This post from the SK archives was written by Angelica Perez-Litwin of Modern Familia. The images are from my family’s albums.  I think you guys will really enjoy this post on siblings and I’d love to hear what you think, so please leave a comment.  Thanks! – Kara

The power of the sibling relationship is often over-shadowed by the value we place on building good parent-child relationships, friendships and marital relationships.  The fact is that no bond is typically longer, stronger or more comforting than that between siblings.

As parents, it is easy to focus on the day-to-day bickering, conflict or rivalry, and loose sight of the tremendous long-lasting impact that sibling relationships have on our children.  Here are a few reminders (based on research) why we should continue to honor and foster loving relationships between our children:

The Role of Sibling Relationships on Development

Because brothers and sisters typically spend a lot of time together, they are one another’s first playmates and companions.  As a result, sibling relationships influence both social and cognitive learning:

::  Older children serve as effective role models and teachers: Older children, despite the age difference, always serve as role models and teachers in a variety of pro-social skills, such as helping, sharing, and cooperation.  Language development and communication is also influenced by the presence of older siblings.

::  The impact of the sibling relationship extends beyond the home: The social skills children learn from their siblings can actually impact interactions with peers at school or in the playground.  Negative and hostile sibling relationships have been linked to aggressive behaviors with peers during adolescence.

::  A moderate amount of sibling conflict is actually good(!): If you’re worried that your kids bicker a bit much, worry no more.  Surprisingly, a moderate amount of sibling conflict enhances social interactions with peers.  Moderate conflict, balanced with warmth or support between siblings, is associated with higher social competence, emotional control, and better school adjustment.

Factors that Influence Quality of Relationship Between Siblings

Jillian and Max playing

A multitude of factors influence the quality of sibling relationships.  If you have more than two children, however, you might have noticed the role of gender, temperament, age spacing and birth order.  There are other important factors that impact the bond between your children.  Here are some:

::  Parenting behaviors: Negative parenting practices (bribing, hitting, spanking) and inadequate parental monitoring are associated with negative sibling interactions.

::  Marital satisfaction and family emotional climate: When mom and dad are not happy, or are experiencing emotional conflict, the interactions between siblings is affected.  Children who grow up in a conflicted family environment tend to exhibit more sibling rivalry, aggression and avoidance.

::  Emotionally unfulfilling or unavailable parental care: Children who grow up with emotionally unfulfilling parental care do one of two things:  they either bond more intensely, or become hostile with one another.

::  Preferential treatment of a sibling over another: Real (and even perceived) preferential treatment appears to affect how siblings get along with one another.  Children who feel less attended to begin to feel resentful, upset and angry with their parents, and are likely to displace much of that anger towards the sibling who is receiving the parent’s attention.

Fostering a Loving Sibling Relationship


So what are some important and practical things we can do to promote a loving, close and respectful relationship between our children?  Here are some tips:

::  Role model affection. As with anything else, we are our children’s biggest role models.  Show affection in your relationship with your spouse, your children, and your own siblings.  Hugs, kisses and loving comments are excellent forms of affection that children can easily imitate when they feel positive feelings towards their siblings.

::  Encourage polite behaviors among siblings. Being polite and appreciative are behaviors we highly value at home.  Saying “thank you,” “please,” and communicating with politeness honors the type of respect that siblings should show one another.

::  Promote a sense of responsibility for one another. At home, we try our best to make each child aware of their siblings’ needs, and encourage them to be caring and helpful.  Our 4 year old is very sensitive to our 2 year old needs, and she’s often found using mommy talk with him, in a very loving way.  This can set the foundation for a close bond between siblings as adults.

::  Educate and remind your children about the limitations of younger siblings. Regardless of the age difference, developmental differences are bound to cause conflict and bickering between siblings.  It is important to help children understand why their younger siblings are not able to exercise impulse control, or express their needs clearly.  Remind your children of the stage their siblings are in, and how that impacts what they can and cannot do.

::  Give your children plenty of opportunities to do fun and memorable things together. My fondest memories with my sister took place during fun trips to the beach, family celebrations, and playing together.  Today, at home, we try to create opportunities for our children to engage in activities in pairs (we have 4 children) and as a group.  There is a qualitative difference between both experiences, especially depending on the age differences.

::  Remind yourself that the bickering and rivalry will soon pass. As with temper tantrums, the rivalry and conflict is part of normal development (as long as it doesn’t escalate to aggression and hostility).  These are stages in our children’s lives. Soon, you’ll notice their relationship evolve and transform.  In the interim, patience, tolerance and the ability to let them figure it out will prove to be quite helpful.

How do you foster a loving relationship between your children?

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  1. Thank you for your ideas. I’m always looking for ways to get my boys to “bond” They are 5 & 1. Quite an age difference so it can be difficult. I’m also an only child so I don’t always “understand” sibling interaction. A lot of times they play independently or my older is not understanding of his little brother’s inability to do certian things. He’s also aggressive at times. Just looking for more ways to get them to connect. Again- Thank you!!
    Lynne @ Our Happy Home´s latest post: Summer gone by!

    • Lynne, I have personally noticed that when there is a large gap (e.g., 1 and 5) between siblings, they tend to either be very close (and protective of one another), or somewhat conflicted in their day-to-day interactions. I think what matters most is that, at the core, there is a genuine and strong connection between the two.
      I appreciate your comment.
      Angelica´s latest post: The Sibling Relationship- Challenging but Powerful

    • Lynne, there are almost 5 years between my oldest and my middle child. Every family is different, of course, but I have seen them grow closer as they get older. A large part of this is due to the social skills and maturity my oldest is developing – she is much more patient now at age 8 than she was at age 5, for example 🙂 It has been something I’ve seen naturally evolve over time.

      As our kids go through their own ages and stages, the sibling dynamic changes, too. So, I guess I just want to reassure you that while they may not be the best of pals at 5 and 1, in a few more years I bet they become better playmates.

      Thanks for your comment!
      Kara @SimpleKids´s latest post: The Sibling Relationship- Challenging but Powerful

  2. Great article Angelica! Glad to hear that a moderate amount of bickering actually contributes to positive social outcomes. We have certainly entered that age at our house! They are certainly close and have a good relationship, but there is certainly some sibling strife. I knew it was normal, but I’m glad to hear it can actually be beneficial!
    Amanda Morgan´s latest post: Artificial Intelligence

  3. Working on a project together can help foster sibling bonds…even cleaning the kitchen

  4. good work

  5. Thanks for the post. We have three kids – 12, 8 and 2. And while they aren’t best friends all the time, most of the time there is harmony. One of the ways we encourage their sibling relationship is by reading together at night. Either one of the older two will read with the two-year-old or we will all read in our bed, silently or aloud. Plus we expect manners and “kind words” to each other which results in it happening more naturally in other relationships outside the family.

    • Sue, I’m glad you mentioned reading as activity for help siblings bond. I find that my older children actually enjoy reading to the younger ones. There is something so special about those moments. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. One thing I’ve noticed is that, with my girls, spending lots of time apart does NOT make the heart grow fonder. They seem to bicker more when they’ve had lots of time apart. Anyone else notice this? I find that giving them things to work on/do together really helps, even though that’s a bit counter-intuitive sometimes.
    Paula@Motherhood Outloud´s latest post: Life With a Newborn- Lessons I’m ReLearning

    • Paula, I know what you mean (LOL). When one of them has a sleep over or goes away for a few days, and they reunite, you hope they’ll admit they missed each other. Not so, not all the times. In fact, it almost seems like they welcomed the respite from one another…who knows, maybe that’s helpful too!
      Angelica´s latest post: The Sibling Relationship- Challenging but Powerful

  7. Angelica, this such a great post and very appreciated. With two children ages 6 and 4, I am often intrigued or exasperated by their relationship since I grew up an only child.

    I hope you will consider writing about the topic of “sharing” sometime in the future with techniques for teaching your children to share, how often we as parent we should expect them to do so, and how to peacefully resolve arguments over one object.

    Thanks, guys!!
    Monica´s latest post: Box Tops for Homeschool Education

    • Monica, That’s a great idea. Perhaps that could be a future post here on Simple Kids. The “peacefully resolving arguments…” — that’s a good one. I find that the more I hear each child’s case or reasoning, the more complicated it gets in terms of figuring out who was at fault. I am beginning to realize that it’s not about who did what at that moment, and that the conflict is usually a spill of an overall issue that they are trying to overcome, whether it is gaining autonomy over the other, or self-expression, or feeling listened to, etc. I’m telling you, it’s complicated…
      Angelica´s latest post: The Sibling Relationship- Challenging but Powerful

      • Hmmmmm, that IS a good topic idea! Thanks for putting that suggestion out there 🙂

        It can be helpful to keep in mind that a sibling who is having trouble sharing may, in some ways, simply be acting his or her age. I have noticed that my toddlers, for example, are really as capable of sharing – or at least not begrudgingly – whereas my preschoolers can share more willingly, at least at an age appropriate level of expectation.

        I agree with Angelica that argument moderation can be complicated. There are times, I feel, it is best to lest children work it out amongst themselves and develop those social skills, but there are also times we parents need to step in and use it as a teaching opportunity.

        We actually had a guest post by Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute which touched on that in regards to preschoolers:

        Really great points are being brought up here this week. I’m enjoying this discussion.

        Thanks, Angelica, for writing this post and getting us talking and thinking about these sibling relationships.
        Kara @SimpleKids´s latest post: The Sibling Relationship- Challenging but Powerful

  8. Angelica, I love the list of tips. Even though my daughter is still a baby and they don’t “do” many things together I can see they already have a relationship and my daughter stares at him and takes it all in mor from him than from me!! So it’s good to keep in mind that we can also have our parenting ways to teach them towards a great sibling relationship.
    Dariela´s latest post: Maya is 8 months old!

  9. Angelica,

    As an only child myself who has a 3 year old and a little one on the way in a month or so, I just wanted to say thanks for this very encouraging post! It’s nice to learn more about siblings, as I sometimes worry about how I will handle this between my children, not having siblings myself. Thanks for the great tips and advice!

  10. Great advice. I also heartily recommend the book “Siblings Without Rivalry.” It is simple to read and to use, and I have re-read it many times over the years with my four. 🙂
    Alicia´s latest post: Pushing preschoolers – at what cost

  11. My three boys-7,5,1 have always been close and watched out for eachother. I haven’t put a lot of thought into encouraging their relationship with eachother so this was a great article for me. Thank you!

  12. I’m reading this article while we are on a family vacation at the beach with my brother and his family. So this article was great for me because I was able to reflect on my own sibling relationship and that of my children. We are building some great memories together this week. Thanks!

  13. Erica, I’m writing this reply from my living room in suburbia, NY. It’s cold tonight. Can we trade places? LOL. Thank you for the feedback and keep enjoying your vacation!
    Angelica @ Modern Familia´s latest post: Letting Go

  14. Dorothy @ Family Vacation Ideas says:

    I think its normal the sibling rivalry when their young. Like me
    and my younger brother we used to fight when we were young
    but now we are best of friend. You have great article. 🙂

  15. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, hit home–as do all of the Modern familia articles. Then I went to Rachel’s website, My Life….Simple and Beautiful, and I noticed that she is a full time working mother of two, and still finds time to write…I am SSOOO unbelievably inspired. So…kudos to the both of you, and thank you!


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