All families are different, but there are some things all families can do to help kids get along.
The story of how my sisters and I grew up to be friends is not the typical sibling story. Before I was even born, my older sister wanted my parents to give her a little sister. She communicated her wish with words and even with drawings, through a little stack of photos with imaginary siblings drawn over them. For my parents, it was no surprise that my sister loved me and was kind to me after I was born. She loved holding me and laying me down with her dolls. She talked and played with me through all of my childhood (with the exception a brief period when she was becoming a teenager).
When our younger sister was born, the dynamics changed — I wasn’t as eager to stop being the family baby. So adjusting to our new dynamics took some time and a lot of patience. I asked my mom what she did to help us get along, she says she always told us “sisters come before friends, because friends come and go, but sisters are forever.”
What the research says.
Lots has changed since then. My sisters and I are all in our thirties. And although many of the things my parents did to help us get along worked out, there’s new information that didn’t exist back then. New studies on sibling bonding reveal what families can do to foster great sibling relationships. Research also shows that all families are different and many factors influence how kids will get along.
I looked at research from the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley, and other recent studies via the National Institutes for Health, to learn how siblings can bond with each other. Those studies looked at families with varying birth order, where siblings are together from birth and where they meet each other through the blending of families, foster care or adoption.
1. Treat all of your children with kindness and fairness.
According to Greater Good Magazine, when kids report that a parent’s attention decreases in warmth relative to the warmth that parent shows their sibling, it can really affect kids’ happiness. What’s more, it can impact their relationship with their brother or sister. Being careful to show similar levels of affection, praise and discipline goes a long way — it can help kids develop healthy self esteem and also support the relationships siblings form among themselves.
2. Let them play.
Laughing is a great way for kids to bond with each other. You may have had enough of the fart jokes, but these silly jokes can be the foundation of a life-long friendship. Encourage children to do things they both enjoy together: play board games or card games, choose a recipe to cook together, or make art. If there is a big age gap, model patience and kindness in teaching something new. Then, encourage the older sibling to teach the younger one. “I know your big sister, Sandra, knows the best way to topple dominoes.” When you see them playing, give them space and time without interruption.
3. Encourage them to spend time outdoors.
Time outdoors and exercise help to release oxytocin, AKA the love hormone. Plan family nature walks, explore a local park or take turns pushing the littlest one on the swing set. If you have siblings that are getting to know each other, time outdoors might involve a lot of planning and conflict resolution, but in the end it will be worth it.
4. Come up with a family bedtime routine.
Many families have bedtime routines, like brushing teeth together, singing songs or reading books. With more than one child, many of these routines fall through the cracks. Start a tradition where everyone says “I love you” or “good night” to each other. Or where siblings take turns choosing a bedtime story. The routine will help you all feel like your home is not just where you sleep, but also where you belong.
Is your family adjusting to a new family member? Every night, try asking, “What was your favorite part about today?” For siblings that are too little to answer, come up with what you think was their favorite part of the day!
“I think baby Eric’s favorite part of the day was when Tina made the giant bubble in the bathtub.”
5. “We take care of each other.”
Do you have family guidelines, rules or norms? Including “We take care of each other” can help grown-ups model positive behaviors and teach empathy. When a little sibling hurts themselves, have the other siblings stop what they are doing and see how they can help. Who is in charge or fetching the band-aids? Who will be the “medical assistant”? Your family is your little team, and team members help each other.
6. Choose activities where they can act like a team.
Another way to encourage a feeling of unity is to choose family activities where siblings work together toward a common goal and are not pitted against each other. Some teamwork-ready ideas: Making a birthday card for uncle Roy, working as a team to clear the weeds in the yard or throwing a welcome party for the new pet hamster. Each task requires different skills from different people. Many newer board games for young children focus on working together. Those are typically labelled “cooperative” on packaging. When you play games that aren’t cooperative, always play grown-ups versus kids. (And maybe let the children use team work to beat you more often than not.)
7. Start a family kindness journal.
Children often know how we feel when they break a rule or behave in ways that challenge us. A kindness journal is a way of celebrating — and encouraging — the behaviors we want to see more of. Find a notebook and label it “Our Family Kindness Journal.” Fill it with your family’s good deeds:
“Esther shared her Little Pony with Loren.”
“Tony helped put the groceries away.”
Include your own acts of kindness too:
“Dad put a band-aid on Esther’s scraped knee.”
8. During conflicts, observe before intervening.
Pay attention to how children approach conflict resolution. Disputes are an opportunity for children to learn. Although you may mean well, intervening might not help them in the long run. In some situations siblings might interpret intervention as “taking sides.” Ask yourself, “Is the issue resolving or escalating?” before you jump into to help.
9. Try coaching them through conflict resolution.
Take deep breaths to calm down. Identify the problem and use words to describe it. Ask your little learners, “What are some ways you think this problem can be solved?” Want more in-depth tips for helping them manage big feelings? Read this interview with Brighter Futures Indiana childhood experts.
10. Show them how to disagree with respect.
We know adults tend to not always agree with each other, and expecting children to do so will probably not work out. Instead, show them with examples of what grown-ups say when they don’t see eye-to-eye. “Let’s agree to disagree” or “I respect your opinion, but I think something different,” will teach your kids the words they need to put some arguments to rest.
What are ways your family builds sibling bonds? Share in the comments!