“He hit me!” “Who said you could wear that?” “Make her leave me alone!” Such is the soundtrack of most parents’ lives, and to a certain degree, we shrug it off. After all, siblings fight, and why wouldn’t they? They are captive audiences – forced to share belongings, attention and personal space. It’s fertile ground for conflict.
The good news is all that squabbling can teach valuable social lessons, such as negotiation, compromise and patience. But increasingly, research is making clear that the fighting we tend to accept as just part of growing up is also capable of inflicting lasting psychological wounds. Consider these findings:
- Bullying done by a sibling can do just as much harm to mental health as bullying done by a peer, a 2013 University of New Hampshire study And even a single incident can be damaging.
- A 2014 study that followed thousands of adolescents found that those who had been bullied by siblings several times a week or more as kids were twice as likely at age 18 to be clinically depressed and to have self-harmed within the previous year.
- Negative relationships with siblings are linked to delinquency, aggression and substance use, according to a University of Delaware study.
By contrast, siblings who have each other’s backs are more likely to be sympathetic and altruistic, do better in school, and have greater social competence and well-being. A good sibling relationship as a child is even a predictor of positive mental health in old age; a bad one is a predictor of major depression.
Over the past decade, more researchers and scholars have turned their attention to the sibling relationship, realizing that this is a bond whose importance has historically been understudied and underestimated. What they’ve determined is this: Our kids have enormous power to influence each other – for better and for worse – and everything we can do to help them create healthy, loving relationships will pay off richly now and later. Conflicts may be inevitable, but fighting and unkindness don’t have to be. Consider this advice:
- Be on the lookout for aggression. Sibling bullying doesn’t just mean physical violence and yelling matches. In the studies mentioned above, the bullying also included invading personal space, stealing, and saying things to make the other sibling feel bad, scared or unwanted. Just as damaging was being ignored. If ill will or violence is spiraling out of control, reach out for family counseling.
- Hold your kids to the same standards with their siblings as you do with others. How would you react if you witnessed your child berating or hitting one of his friends? Now imagine seeing the same scene between your own children. We don’t allow our children to bully those outside the home; don’t allow it inside either.
- Don’t rush to solve every problem. The temptation when tempers are hot is to blow the referee’s whistle and sort out the mess. But you will be doing your children and yourself much greater good if you show them how to see things from another’s point of view, how to communicate their feelings in a positive way, how to identify and manage their emotions, how to problem-solve, and how to come up with win-win strategies. Siblings exposed to an afterschool program that taught just those skills were more socially confident and controlled, performed better in school and had fewer internalized problems such as depression, the research team reported.
- Make a unique place for each child. Recognize each child for the individual they are without showing favoritism. But don’t get caught in the “equal” trap. Explain to your child that being fair doesn’t always mean getting exactly the same thing or experience as their sibling.
- Establish clear family rules. Let your children know that bullying and unkindness are not accepted in your home, and respond consistently when those rules are violated. Set clear expectations about respecting privacy and property – things such as not borrowing clothes without asking and knocking before entering a bedroom. Research confirms that siblings are especially sensitive to personal space, and fights about these issues have special power to damage trust and communication. Don’t forget to praise your children when you see good things happening, such as cooperation or sharing. Most important: practice what you preach.
- Create opportunities for positive interaction. You may be thinking, “My siblings and I fought like cats and dogs, and now we couldn’t be closer.” The good news is that grudges and disputes often fade with time, but only if the good experiences outweigh the bad, experts have discovered. That means kids need opportunities to interact (away from screens) – things such as family trips and outings, a class or camp they can attend together, a chore they can share.
- Build a sense of family. One of the most powerful things you can do is encourage your children to see themselves as part of a team, rather than as competitors. Help them understand how special a sibling relationship is. After all, few people in their lives have the potential to be there with them for the entire journey, and no one will be able to relate to them in quite so intimate a way as those who have shared their upbringing. Encourage them to see past the everyday annoyances and ahead to the bigger picture. Yes, that brother or sister might be a brat at times, but they are also one of life’s greatest gifts – family.