Successful sibling parenting

Yale University professor shares his advice on raising siblings


Every parent knows that siblings can have a hard time getting along. Dr. Michael Kaplan, Psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor at the Child Study Center in Yale University, talks us through coping strategies and tactics.

Sibling rivalry exists in every family and in every culture. It emerges because parents have limits on their ability to provide attention and affection to all of their children at all times. Sibling rivalry starts with the birth of the second child and can last throughout childhood. Parents frequently feel helpless in the face of constant arguing and conflict. They ask themselves, “What did I do wrong?” “Is this normal?” “How do I get them to stop fighting?” Sibling rivalry is normal, but parents play a vital role in creating peace among their children. It takes a lot of work to create harmony at home – but it is not impossible. Understanding where the conflicts come from and remembering a few basic parenting concepts can provide parents with the tools they need to help their children get along.

Most people don’t think about this, but, in many families, our siblings become our longest-lasting partners. For most adults, we will know our siblings longer than our friends, our parents and our spouses. Siblings matter. For a long time, researchers ignored the impact that siblings have on our development. New research is showing the large role that siblings play in our lives. We have always known that parents have a direct and dramatic impact on who we become. New research demonstrates that siblings are just as important as our parents, culture, and our genes. For example, until recently, the common wisdom stated that having a brother or sister led to competition for parental love and attention – and viewed this as a negative factor in child development. We now know, and this is supported by evidence from research, that children’s social understanding is accelerated by their interactions with siblings. Siblings help us grow.

Sibling relationships are like a dress rehearsal for life. We learn how to manage conflicts, practice our play skills, try on new roles, and deal with delayed gratification. Siblings cycle back and forth between two opposite attitudes: warmth and cooperation on the one hand and conflict and competition on the other. So how do siblings help us grow? They help buffer stress in a family. Siblings help us learn to regulate our emotions. Sibling relationships are permanent. We can’t eliminate a sibling in the way we can with friends when a relationship turns sour. This permanence forces kids to work out their problems. Siblings also inspire us to be our own selves, to do things differently from our brothers and sisters. Research shows that the kinds of bonds we form with our siblings has implications for the relationships we form outside the home and family.

Parents help children get along. In extended families, all adults participate in this process. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and other adults can affect how siblings relate to each other. They can provide a safe place for children who are feeling hurt by their siblings. Older relatives can give the attention and affection that children seek when their parents are occupied with siblings. They can also serve as referees when conflicts erupt.

So what can parents do to make things run smoothly at home?

1) It is important to know when to intervene. It is best to allow kids to work out their differences. After all, if kids can come up with a solution to a problem, they are likely to stick with it. Set firm limits around verbal and physical aggression. Intervene immediately if a child is being hurt emotionally or physically. Set very clear house rules and stick with them. Kids need to know that parents can keep them safe.

2) Avoid making comparisons between your children (such as “she is the pretty one”, “he is the smart one”)

3) Help your children come up with “win-win solutions”

4) Make them see that they are part of a “team” instead of warring factions

5) Try to find the positive in each of your children

6) While difficult, try to remain calm when your children are fighting, use praise when appropriate, and listen to all sides of the story

7) Parents set the tone for the house. Children follow their lead. The most important way to limit sibling rivalry is to have a healthy relationship with your spouse. Children respond to tension in a marriage in many ways, but most commonly, they take their anger out on their siblings.

One of the hardest challenges facing parents is raising siblings to get along with each other. It often seems like a losing battle for parents, but if you follow these common sense suggestions, it can be more of an opportunity. At the end of the day, we know that positive sibling relationships are linked with all kinds of positive adjustment, including peer and romantic relationships, academic adjustment and success and a positive wellbeing.

Dr. Michael Kaplan was recently in Abu Dhabi to take part in the Parenting Program, established by Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. The Parenting Program is comprised of a series of engaging parenting talks and classes offered by world leaders in Early Childhood Development, designed to support and empower parents and other caregivers of young children and to provide information on best practices that promote healthy outcomes for children.

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