Becky Dickinson reveals how to encourage sibling relationships that last into adulthood
The bond between siblings is often the longest relationship of our lives. Nobody knows you quite like the person, or people, you grew up with; the brothers and sisters who shared your bath, argued over your toys and fought for your parents’ attention. And nobody will back you up quite like a protective sibling.
Yet as anyone who has a sister or brother knows, sibling relationships can also be complicated; at worst, a source of bitter rivalry and resentment.
Unfortunately, this is the case for 34-year-old Kate, and her sister, Sophie. “I was an accident and my parents had me in their late forties,” says Kate. “My sister was convinced they always favoured me. Then at my dad’s funeral, she got insanely drunk and aired this grievance in front of the entire family.”
Sadly, Kate and her sister are no longer on speaking terms. Yet as parents we yearn to see our children develop a closeness that will outlast childhood into adulthood, too.
So is there anything we can do to ensure this happens? Of course, there are short term benefits to encouraging our little darlings to ‘be nice’ to each other – parenting is so much easier when they are playing harmoniously as opposed to hurling pieces of Lego at each other while wailing ‘I had it first’.
But ultimately, we want our children to support each other when we are no longer around. “If children get on well together when young, this can help build a strong attachment that lasts throughout adulthood,” says family and relationship coach Su Ball.
Su believes good parenting skills can help prevent painful rifts in adulthood. And she says it starts with quality time.
“Make sure siblings spend time together on their own to laugh and play and, when possible, sort out their own squabbles. Quality time as a family is also important, such as mealtimes and outings. Parents can help reinforce sibling and family relationships. This helps us recognise our similarities and build communication and trust.”
But ask any parent if their children argue and the answer is likely to be a resounding yes. From disputes over what to watch on TV, to who has the biggest slice of cake, to the frankly ridiculous, ‘he’s looking at me!’
While the temptation is often to intervene (or shut yourself in the bathroom with a glass of wine) it’s important to remember, as exhausting as these spats are, they are just a natural part of growing up. Squabbling provides an opportunity for children to learn important skills, including taking responsibility for their own emotions and how they affect others.
“Disagreements are healthy,” says Kristen Harding, childcare expert at nanny agency, Tinies. “They help children develop into individuals with opinions and personalities. They help prepare us for the real world where not everyone will think or act like us.”
However, both Kristen and Su agree, there are occasions when adults do need to get involved. “Remember children’s impulse control is still developing,” says Su. “They need adults to intervene when they become intense, and when cruelty, physical or verbal violence is involved. If there is a pattern that seems more than ‘just squabbles’ look at the dynamic: is one child always holding power over another? Is one child very timid and unable to hold its own? The parent could join the siblings’ play for some time to help moderate and role-model good relationships.”
If a child is developing a pattern of negative behaviour, then Su suggests helping them to identify and accept their feelings and then moderate that behaviour.
“Share some time with them on caring activities such as looking after a pet or a plant, making something to share, and help them to talk and think more about how ‘caring’ feels. Keep activities going and help extend this towards their siblings and others.”
Trying to foster sharing, caring relationships between siblings who are naturally competitive can test the patience of the most saintly parent. But the rewards can help establish a deep, enduring closeness.
Unfortunately, Kate and Sophie were unable to resolve their childhood differences and Kate has now moved on. Su agrees that in some cases stepping away is the best solution.
“If despite our efforts the relationship is emotionally painful, abusive or just not reciprocated it may be time to draw a line (with an open heart if we can manage it). We must, after all, make sure we look after ourselves.’’
As Kate has discovered, it is possible to have fulfilling relationships in adulthood that do not include a sibling – not everyone has a brother or sister, anyway. However, there is something special about the relationship with someone who accompanied us through childhood and who shares our family history. Encouraging our children to be friends as well as siblings may be one of the most important things we can do as parents.
Childcare expert Kristen Harding’s top tips for encouraging healthy sibling relationships:
– Build an environment of trust and respect: Don’t play favourites, or force the same things on all your children. In return, insist that everyone shows respect for all family members.
– Let them be individuals: Not all children are the same – if you insist they all play the piano and only one is good at it, it may cause rifts in their relationship. Let children develop in their own ways.
– Let them play: All too often we forget that children just need time to play together. Over-planning can be a curse, quiet times together are important.
– Let them find solutions: Don’t always solve their differences for them. As they get older, the act of problem-solving together can build stronger relationships.
– Talk together… … even when no one wants to talk. There will usually be a reason why children squabble, and often things like jealousy are at the root of the issue. You need to find the cause of this jealousy before it becomes impossible to come back from.
– Seek further advice Su Ball: suball.co.uk; Tinies: tinies.com
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