I started writing for a local parenting magazine and it has been fasinating. My first assignment was to look at the bond between siblings.
Here's the story:
The Ties That Bind: Beyond Sibling Rivalry
by Jen Christensen
Take a moment to think about the most important relationship in your lifetime. Your spouse, children or parents might be the first people who come to mind. But research shows we are missing the most important relationship - the one we have with our siblings.
The Sibling Bond, a book by Stephen Bank and Michael Kahn, says most of us will spend 60-80 years with our brothers and/or sisters, more than any other person. So as a parent, your natural instinct to tell your kids to “love one another” is crucial to the rest of their lives. Thirty years ago most assumed our parents were the principle molders of personalities - now research shows our siblings have a much bigger role.
Reduce the emotion, not the argument
Dr. Eric Ward is a child psychologist at OSF St. Francis Medical Center, and says a positive relationship with siblings is enormously important. “There were seven kids growing up in my house. You weren't allowed to be rivals, you were a junior babysitter. We had to work hard at teaching them to respect and control their arguments and fights. Now, we are all best friends."
Dr. Ward's family life has helped him in his practice, and he often talks to parents about rivalries among their children. In fact, it is the biggest topic brought up concerning siblings.
He said he often tells parents to take a look at the emotional aspect of an argument. Ward said, "When kids fight, parents ask who's at fault and try to reason with the kids, when in fact, most of these behaviors are emotional more than cognitive. We need to get parents to realize we don't need necessarily to reduce the arguments, but reduce the emotions." He recommends stopping the kids from screaming at each other and asking them why they don't like what their sibling is doing or saying. For example, a mother could ask, "Why is it so upsetting when Johnny comes into your room without permission?” instead of “Johnny, don't go into your brother's room again!" Dr. Ward says getting your children to talk to each other in a calm, respectful way is a big step in solving a dispute. He adds that the fights might have an underlying cause, like family tension, and don't necessarily signify a problem between the kids.
Friends and enemies
According to the book Caring for Your School-Age Child by Edward Schor, sibling rivalry peaks between the ages of eight and twelve-years-old. Siblings of the same sex that are close in age are the most likely to argue. Dunlap mom Melinda Stoneking knows first hand about sibling rivalry. She has two boys, Gabe, 9, and Sam, 5. But she notes that any arguments they have bring them closer together. "They do everything together, she says. They are inseparable. They sleep in the same room. I never realized how close they are until you started asking me about it. They are definitely best friends."
Dr. Barton Schmitt, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and author of Your Child's Health: The Parents' One-Stop Reference Guide to Symptoms, Emergencies, Common Illnesses, Behavior Problems and Healthy Development gives these tips for coping with sibling arguments:
- Encourage children to resolve their own disagreements.
- Have a rule like: "Settle your own arguments, but no hitting, property damage or name calling."
- If an argument becomes too loud, do something about it. Tell them they need to have the argument without yelling. If they don't listen, take the item away or put the kids in separate rooms.
- Do not permit hitting, breaking things or name calling. Under these circumstances, punish both of them, not just the one who got violent first. Let them know it is okay to be angry with one another, but they should not vent their anger by fighting or calling each other names.
- Stop any arguing that occurs in public places. Warn the children to stop arguing. If they don't, separate them. If that doesn't work, remove them from the situation.
- Avoid showing favoritism: Parents must avoid the myth that fighting is always started by the brother rather than the sister. Rivalry will be that much more intense if parents show favoritism.
- Praise cooperative behavior, and give group praise whenever possible. Compliment siblings when they help each other and settle disputes politely.
Melinda hopes Gabe and Sam continue to be good at resolving conflicts and keep their close relationship into adulthood. When asked how she fostered such a strong relationship between her boys, she responded, "I don't believe in fighting. I always stop them and say you boys need to love one another."
Brothers and sisters
In The Sibling Bond, Bank and Kahn show the relationships most and least likely to remain close. The warmest relationships are sister to sister, followed by sister to brother, with brother to brother being the least warm of the relationships. The research points to women being the communicators in most relationships as the reason for the order. Studies showed women are more likely to initiate contact with siblings and plan family get-togethers. Men value the relationships, but might just assume they will see their siblings during scheduled family celebrations instead of calling and making plans.
Peoria mom Jaime Peterson was surprised by the order of warmest relationships. She has a five-year-old daughter and four-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. Peterson said, "I know how “catty” girls are. My girls fight constantly over the same toys and clothes. I guess maybe when they're older they’ll be closer. My twins get a long very well. They always want to know where each other is. Eddie was in the bathroom the other day and heard Elynn cry and ran in the room saying, ‘Is she okay? Is she okay?’ It shocks me that the girl/girl relationship would be stronger."
Enhancing the sibling bond
How can we as parents enhance sibling relationships? According to V.G. Cicirelli, author of Strengthening Sibling Relationships in the Later Years, and Gregory C. Smith, who wrote Strengthening Aging Families: Diversity in Practice and Policy, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Provide kids with opportunities to share time and activities, despite differences in age.
- Encourage older children to help younger ones.
- When older siblings leave home, help promote efforts to maintain contact with younger siblings.
- Maintain a strong relationship with your own siblings and set a good example.
- Establish traditions within the family during holidays and other important events.
Research shows moderate fighting between kids is normal and healthy. According to Child Study Journal, a publication providing news and analysis of children's health, Joan Newman, researcher and author of Conflict and Friendship in Siblings Relationship refers to studies proving children who sometimes fight but have an otherwise warm relationship with their siblings and parents have better social skills. Teachers reported those children are often better problem solvers and negotiators.
Sibling relationships and mental health
As a parent, you know helping your children to have a close relationship is important for their adult life. But did you know it can also affect their mental health? Not only does it give them a sense of security and unconditional love, it can also help them avoid depression. An article in ScienceDaily.com, an on-line magazine devoted to science, technology and medicine, reports that the quality of the relationship between siblings during childhood may be a predictor of mental disorders they may encounter later in life.
Brigham Women's Hospital researcher Dr. Robert Waldinger, the lead author of the Study of Adult Development at BWH said he doesn't know why a close relationship between siblings is less likely to lead to a depressed adult, but he said there is enough data to warrant more research on the possible link.
He ain’t heavy…
If you help your children establish a close relationship when they're young, it may be one less thing you have to worry about as they become adults. Research cited in The Sibling Bond shows less than 15 percent of siblings break contact with their brothers/sisters at an older age. Jaime says of her children, "In my heart I know they will have a special connection. They have a very special relationship and it's very interesting to watch them."
The effort you and your children put forth now to have a positive sibling relationship is likely to stick with them throughout life, and you can be secure in the fact that they will always have someone to lean on.
You can find Midwestern Family Magazine at Barnes and Noble in Peoria, Bloomington, Champaign and Springfield. If you don't live in the area, you can order it on www.midwesternfamily.com
So tell me, are you close to your siblings? Why or why not?