Is there an optimal spacing between siblings to minimize rivalry? Do children who are 4 or 5 years apart in age bicker less than those who are 1 or 2 years apart, for example?

Answer:Kids who are closer in age are somewhat more likely to spend time together and to share toys and friends and interests, so there is more opportunity for conflict and rivalry to occur. Brothers and sisters who are of similar ages also tend to be closer to one another than those who are farther apart in age. It is important to realize, however, that there are many other factors that influence levels of sibling rivalry and closeness such as parenting strategies and children’s personalities and gender; waiting a specific number of years between children will certainly not insure a particular type of sibling relationship.

What are some useful approaches to helping step-siblings get along well with each other?

Answer:The melding of two families can turn kids who barely know each other into step-brothers and sisters. Many get along very well, while others carry disparate loyalties and resentments into these new relationships. You cannot force step-siblings to form close family bonds and should give them time and space to get to know each other. However, there are some things you can do to help them get along. Explain to the kids that they are part of a new family and that they cannot expect things to be exactly as they were before; arguments such as “that’s the way we’ve always done things in our family” won’t fly. Tell them that new schedules, chores, rules, and traditions may have to be developed. Have family meetings in which everyone is able to express his or her concerns and ideas. Also be available for your kids if they want to talk, and be sure to be understanding and accepting of their feelings. Try not to take sides with your kids in arguments with their step-siblings because this may encourage “us” against “them” feelings. Organizing fun family events with all the kids is a good way for them to enjoy their time together as a new family.

Is it better for a parent to avoid getting involved with sibling conflicts—to expect the children to work out their own problems? That approach seems unfair to a smaller or less assertive child, yet I hate having to act as judge or to try to figure out who did what to whom.

Answer:Trying to figure out who did what to whom and provide a fair solution can be a thankless job for a parent. Not only are you stuck in the middle of your kids’ battle, your children aren’t learning how to work things out on their own. In general, it’s a good idea to stay out of your kids’ conflicts, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. When kids are too young to possess the skills they need to manage conflicts on their own, you can help them with a process called collaborative problem solving. In collaborative problem solving, parents encourage children to tell each other what they need in the situation or what they want to have happen. Then parents can help them brainstorm a set of solutions to the problem that they can both live with. Ideally, it’s a win-win solution because the parent does not have to take sides and the kids are learning problem-solving skills.

As children get better able to handle conflicts on their own, a positive intervention strategy is to acknowledge each child’s side of the story, tell them you are confident that they can come up with a solution, and then leave them to it. For example, if your kids are fighting over a toy, listen to each side and say: “I see two very angry boys who want to use the same block. Jack wants it for his car and Owen wants it for his house. I know that you two can stop fighting and work something out. What are some ideas?” Then leave. If the children are unable to come up with a solution, you should remove the toy or separate them. Always intervene if children’s fighting could lead to one or both of them getting hurt.

I have four children (both boys and girls, 6 years old to 14 years old). At times they get along, but SO often they are at each other and arguing and fighting. “She looked at me…, he touched me…” I think pretty typical stuff, but it really bothers me because I sometimes wonder if they really do love each other, would they stick up for each other, and help each other if they really needed to. I know siblings will fight, but how do you promote more positive feelings and peace between them?

Answer:In general, sibling relationships are characterized by many different and complex emotions such as love, conflict, protectiveness, envy, warmth, anger, rivalry, and fun—all at the same time! One boy I knew protected his sister by beating up a classmate who threatened her, saying, “I’m the only one who’s allowed to hit my sister!” Although some fighting is common in sibling relationships because siblings spend so much time together and share so many things (particularly parental attention), these relationships also provide children and adults with emotional and physical support, friendship, information, love, and enjoyment. So the bickering you describe certainly does not mean that your kids don’t love each other very much and will not support each other throughout life—even if they drive each other crazy in the back of the car now.

There are many things that parents can do to help their kids get along. One way to promote positive interactions between them is to be sure to notice and praise the times they act in ways you want them to. Often, as parents, we only respond to the kids’ interactions when they are negative or annoying. When the kids are quiet and get along, we tend to breathe a sigh of relief and leave them alone. In doing so, we are missing great opportunities for rewarding kids when they engage in sibling interactions that we value and want them to continue. Attending only to sibling conflict may actually increase the conflict because they may fight each other in order to get you to intervene and get your attention, even if it’s negative.

It seems that families are having fewer children today than when I was growing up. What is the impact on a child who has no siblings or only one sibling compared to a child who has three, four, or five siblings?

Answer:Every family is unique, so it is difficult to make generalizations about all small families or families with many children. However, it is probable that in families with a lot of kids the children are more likely to spend time with each other and care for each other, and they are less likely to spend time alone with their parents, than are kids in smaller families.

There are positive and negative aspects to these differences. When children have more sibling caretakers, they may have an easier time making the transition to caretakers outside of the home (e.g., child care workers, teachers), and the siblings who engage in caretaking may feel more prepared for parenthood (although we know that’s not a criterion for parenting). On the other hand, moms and dads are generally children’s best caretakers. In addition, only children and first-born children who spend more time alone with their parents tend to be more adult focused and achievement oriented, and they tend to do a bit better in school. Kids who spend more time with siblings tend to be more focused on their peers and to be more socially skilled.

It’s certainly not true that only children are selfish, more self-centered, and unable to share. In reality, only children are just as well adjusted as their peers with one or more siblings. I want to be sure to emphasize that characteristics such as birth order and family size do not pigeonhole children. Parenting, personality, and intelligence are a few among many factors that play much more powerful roles in making us who we are.

I work with a young child whose brother shows some troubling and maybe risky behaviors. What can I do for the child when he expresses feeling upset by something his brother has done?

Answer:One of the most important things you can do, which you are already doing, is listen to him. Brothers and sisters of children with behavior problems, as well as those with an illness or disability, often have intense feelings of guilt, anger, worry, and envy concerning their siblings. Clearly, the siblings of children with behavior problems may have the constant worry that their brother or sister will hurt himself or herself or get into serious trouble. These children may also be jealous of the attention and time their parents are giving to the child with behavior problems, and angry at their sibling for causing so much trouble and making the parents worry. Siblings of children with behavior problems may also experience the burden of feeling they must be the “golden child” or the good kid that their parents can count on. Because they love their siblings and parents, children who have a sibling with behavior problems may feel very guilty that they are experiencing these negative emotions. In these families, the parents may be not be emotionally available to the children without behavior problems because they are so busy with their other child, or the child without problems may simply not want to burden their parents further. In these cases, allowing a child to talk about all his feelings in a supportive and nonjudgmental way can help him a great deal.
One of our children seems to excel at everything, from schoolwork to sports to popularity. The other struggles and constantly tests the rules. They’re so different: is there any way to promote a good relationship between them?

Answer:There’s no way to get around it—siblings in the same family are often very different, with different skills, interests, personalities, and temperaments. Some of these differences they were born with, some developed from their different life experiences, and some were carefully developed by brothers and sisters who chose to excel at different things. However, they do have one of the most important things in the world in common—their family.

Even if your kids aren’t inclined to be bosom buddies at this point in their lives, you can draw them into each others lives by making sure they do things with you as a family. Requiring that the television is off during dinner and that everyone talks about his or her day makes dinner an important time for families to check in with each other. Mandatory family game or movie nights during which you spend some relaxed time together without daily pressure can go a long way (and if your kids are grumpy about staying in, at least they can commiserate with each other and create a healthy “us” against “them” bond!). Make sure they support each other by asking for family attendance at, or enthusiasm for, some of the events or achievements of both the kids. It sounds like it would be easy for the family to attend your one child’s many sporting events or celebrate his or her grades. You may have to be more creative find ways for the family to show pride in the achievements of your other child without making him or her feel “second-best.” Family trips, special family traditions, and celebrations are also ways to enhance the bond between your children.

Although this is not necessarily part of your question, the issue of how different siblings are makes me think about how easy it is for parents to highlight these differences—something we need to try and avoid. Although it may seem natural to compare very different children, such comparisons can be hard for children and can harm the sibling relationship. For example, comments like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” can make children feel resentful or angry at a sibling. They can also make children feel that their parents love them less than their brothers or sisters and can cause jealousy. Comparisons that put one child in a better light than a sibling—for example, “You are so much more athletic than your sister”—can make a child feel guilty about, or sorry for, a sibling. You can avoid making comparisons by simply identifying and describing a child’s particular behavior or personality—without making reference to a sibling. For example, instead of saying, “Why are you so sloppy when your sister is so neat?”, you can say, “You look pretty sloppy; I think you should tuck your shirt in.”

When children are very different, it can seem natural to give them labels such as the “smart one” or the “artist” or the “wild child.” However, these labels can heighten differences and emotional distance between siblings and cause negative feelings such as resentment and jealousy. If Joe is the “talented one” who excels musically and Bob gets in trouble more and is labeled the “troublemaker,” Bob may resent what he perceives to be Joe’s favored status in the family, and his jealousy can harm the sibling relationship. Even positive labels can be problematic because children may feel pressure to meet their parents’ expectations, and they often feel guilty that their parents seem to like them more than a brother or sister. Labels may also serve to increase negative behaviors; the “wild child” may think that he or she might as well continue to do crazy things because parents expect it.

To avoid labels, remember that each child is unique and has the ability to do many things and act in many different ways. If a child engages in one type of behavior for a while (e.g., sports, getting into trouble, art) it doesn’t mean he or she will continue to do so forever. Encourage children when they do something positive unexpectedly. For example, if your child, who always seems to be running late, gets to the dinner table on time, be sure to praise him for being on time. Encourage children to try things they are interested in, even if a sibling is more talented. Realize that children may be born with certain personality traits, but as a parent, you can influence them to behave and act differently and not lock them into particular roles—or stop them from locking themselves into roles.

I have two daughters. The older one is 6 and the younger one is 18 months old. My 6-year-old has Attention Deficit, and I find that she has difficulty interacting with her younger sister. My older daughter often gets rough, takes her sister’s toys away, or tries to force an interaction when her sister isn’t interested. What are some suggestions that you could give me to help enhance their relationship and to reduce the sibling rivalry?

Answer:Many of us worry about how our older children interact with our younger children and are frustrated when they engage in the behaviors your 6-year-old displays. These undesirable behaviors can be caused in part by feelings of rivalry and anger at having to share parental attention and love. It is also true that children simply may not be developmentally able to adjust their play to a baby’s or toddler’s needs. It takes relatively advanced mental and emotional abilities to recognize (and care) when someone is tired of a game or to understand that you can be rougher with a 4-year-old than with an 18-month-old.

Although your 18-month-old is not a newborn, your older girl is still adjusting to sharing your time and attention, and it can be difficult for her to watch the hands-on care that her younger sister gets from you. One way to address feelings of jealousy toward a younger sibling is to emphasize how great it is to be the older one. Make sure that you are spending some special time alone with the 6-year-old, doing things that only “big” girls can do. Make your older child proud of her big sister role by finding ways to engage in her caretaking activities: Can she pick out clothes for her younger sister? Help in meal preparation? Put her socks on? Talk about how much you think your younger child looks forward to being able to do things like your 6-year-old, such as reading and riding a bike and running.

When you are with them and you can tell that your older daughter wants to start an interaction, suggest (strongly) that she entertain her without touching her: “I’ll bet your sister would love it if you’d sing her a song/read her a book/show her how to do a somersault.”

Be sure to point out and praise instances when your older daughter gets it right: “That’s great, you made her smile!” “Hey, she started looking grumpy and you stopped tickling her—good job.” Keep in mind that the social skills she is learning in her sibling relationship, about empathy and picking up on emotional cues, will serve her well outside the home too.

There is a family that compares the development of a 33-month-old child with her older sister who is 7 years old. They want the younger child to reach the same level of academic achievement that her older sister had at her age. The younger child is meeting the typical developmental milestones for her age. What are ways to approach parents to help them to understand and accept each child as an individual?

Answer:All children deserve to be loved and valued for who they are and for their own unique gifts. As discussed in answer to a previous question, comparing children can cause problems in the sibling relationship. In this case, the parents are potentially harming their own goal—that of strong academic achievement for both girls. The younger daughter, if she is not as academically inclined as her sister, may simply give up. Why should she work to do her best in school if she can never do as well as her sister and her parents won’t value her achievements? It’s also possible that the older daughter will feel ashamed of her academic prowess because it makes her sister look bad, and she will degrade or even sabotage her own success.

Commenting on people’s parenting can be tricky. Ultimately, how you talk to them will depend on your relationship with them—what they are like, how you know them, and what your interaction with them is like. One way to approach the topic may be to relate their daughters’ differences to how the parents differ from each other. Which one of them takes care of the checking account? The car? The laundry? Who makes medical appointments for their children? Why is it the case that one of them handles some of these tasks rather than the other? (Hopefully they will see that it’s not that one is smarter or better than the other, but that they are different people with different talents, needs, interests, etc.—just as their children are.) It may be helpful to point out that, from a genetic perspective, unless their children are identical twins, they share only 50% of genetic material, on average. So, there’s a biological/genetic reason that the children will be different from one another and develop at different paces and in different ways.

You could also go out of your way to lavish praise on the younger daughter: "Wow, Natalie has such a sunny disposition! You are lucky to have such a happy child.” Ideally, by emphasizing the wonderful characteristics of the younger child, the parents may begin to appreciate her uniqueness.

Is there a relationship between how siblings get along as young children and how they get along as adolescents or young adults?

Answer:This question speaks to how unique the sibling relationship is. The simple answer is—yes. Children who have better-quality sibling relationships in childhood generally have more positive sibling interactions in adolescence and young adulthood. Children who are not close and who experience very high levels of conflict in childhood generally do not have good-quality sibling relationships in adolescence or young adulthood, and many carry their resentments and anger to old age. (Of course, it is certainly possible for negative childhood sibling relationships to improve with interventions that help the children interact more positively.) So there is a relationship between how siblings get along across their lifetimes. However, what “good” sibling relationships look like generally differs quite a bit in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

In childhood, siblings are thrown together a lot without much say in the matter. They spend quite a bit of time together and are expected to share many things—toys, rooms, moms and dads (when parents are the most important things in the world), backseats, friends, etc. As a result, in childhood, good sibling relationships often have a lot of both fighting and playing. In adolescence, children spend more and more time outside of the home with peers, at school, and doing other activities. Siblings will still spend time together with the family and will probably still choose to “hang out” (often the older sibling serves as a teacher to the younger about social issues). Squabbles will occur, but their interactions tend to be less frequent than in childhood. In adulthood, unlike when we were children, we have a lot of choice about how much time we want to spend with our siblings. Because of this, conflict tends to decrease dramatically, and we are generally able to create relationships with our brothers and sisters that work for us. Some siblings may choose to room together at college, others may simply chat on the phone once a week, still others may simply enjoy seeing each other during the holidays. All of these young adults may consider themselves to have good sibling relationships. Later in adulthood, many siblings are active in each others’ lives. However, for many others, their relationships with their siblings are valuable simply because it is important to have family they can always count on and someone with whom they share a past—even if they rarely have contact with their siblings.

One of our children has chronic health problems that demand a great deal of our time and attention. How can we avoid letting this cause resentment among our other children?

Answer:Children can have a lot of mixed, intense, and confusing emotions surrounding a sibling with a chronic illness, as I mentioned in answer to a previous question. It’s important to let your children know that it’s okay to have these feelings and to let them talk about them. You may even give them cues to show that you understand that it can be hard for them: “I’m sorry we had to miss your soccer game because we had to take Suzy to the doctor again. I’ll bet it’s frustrating for you when we can’t always do the things we’ve planned.” It may be a tall order if you’re already feeling stretched to the limit, but try to find a way to spend time alone with each of your children each week so they can count on your full attention for a period of time.

Here’s the good news—it’s very possible that your children won’t experience much resentment at all. What the literature suggests is that when children believe their parents pay more attention to a sibling because that sibling needs the attention, they generally have positive feelings about their sibling and parents. It’s when children don’t see a sibling’s need (but rather their gender or personality, etc.) as the reason behind parental differential treatment that they are more likely to experience negative emotions such as resentment. Because children who are chronically ill or disabled are so clearly in need of parental attention, siblings of children with disabilities or illnesses tend to be more accepting of parental differential treatment. To reinforce this idea to your children, when the topic comes up, explain to them that you love them all and work to give them each what they need—and that they each need different things from you.

I have two daughters, ages 10 and 14, who fight constantly. They tend to hurt each other with unacceptable words, and when I try to redirect them, they both say I’m taking the other one’s side. As a single parent, it’s exhausting to struggle with this issue on a daily basis.

Answer:You certainly shouldn’t have to be in the middle of their fights, particularly if they are using your intervention as fuel for their arguments. Your children are old enough to be working things out on their own, and they should be. If they need you to help them solve their problems for a while, I suggest the strategy outlined in a previous question: describe what you see, tell them you trust that they can figure it out, and then leave. I also suggest a more comprehensive approach. Sit down with the girls and talk to them about how you’re feeling about the situation in general. Try to avoid being angry and blaming, but tell them something like (and I’m guessing how you may be feeling): “I love you both so much, and it is painful to me to see you hurting each other every day. I work very hard for this family, and it would mean a lot to me if I could come home and have us all get along. How can we make this happen?” Try getting them to brainstorm solutions for their conflict in general and for specific arguments they may be having. Your job should be to facilitate their discussion, not to judge or evaluate what they say. You want them to solve their problems together, not to drag you into their conflicts.

I also strongly suggest you get the book Siblings without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish, which I think you may find useful. Finally, your girls are at an age when they should have the skills necessary to resolve conflicts on their own. However, if you have reason to believe that they don’t have these skills, that they really can’t solve their problems by themselves, then you should make sure they learn–either by explicitly teaching them conflict strategies yourself or by making sure they receive training outside of the home.

Are there any special things that parents or grandparents should keep in mind about sibling relationships when the family is going through a divorce? The children I’m referring to are all under the age of 5.

Answer: Sibling conflict often increases during the divorce process for many reasons. Kids can be anxious, confused, and upset by the changes and emotions they perceive in their home–a result can be short tempers and increased fighting. Parents are often emotionally caught up in the divorce and physically less available because one parent may have moved out, so they may be less able to engage in sensitive parenting and less likely to intervene successfully in sibling conflict. In addition, during a divorce, children are often particularly in need of parental attention and support. With parents less accessible, increased sibling conflict may be the result of children fighting to get the decreased parental attention that is available to them. Further, children may feel anger at their parents for changing their family circumstances but be unwilling to reveal all this anger to the parents (because the parents are already so sad or because they may worry that revealing their anger will cause parents to be even less accessible) so they may take their anger out on a sibling.

But wait, there’s good news. Kids are very resilient, and good parenting (and grandparenting) is the most important thing that can be done to help them weather the divorce process. Understanding that increased sibling conflict during a divorce is generally caused by children’s confusion about the divorce (and not, say, to a desire to drive parents crazy when they already feel emotionally tapped) may help you decide how to respond to them. Being sensitive to, and available for, the children as much as possible may be key to lessening some of the conflict. Grandparents can play a key role by being accessible and loving and consistent; things are changing rapidly for the children in their homes, so knowing that their relationship with their grandparents remains the same is important.

Even though sibling conflict may increase during a divorce, it is not the case that relationships between brothers and sisters necessarily become more negative overall. Experiencing their parents’ divorce can strengthen the sibling bond and provide children with a sense of support and security at a time when other family relationships are confusing. Children often look to each other to understand the divorce, and older siblings can explain what’s happening to younger siblings. Even increased conflict is a sign of the strength of the sibling relationship. Children may be worried about expressing anger to parents but not to a sibling. Why? Because they know that a sibling is going to be there no matter what. That knowledge is particularly meaningful to children when other relationships in their family are changing and may seem uncertain.

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