We asked local experts to weigh in on their tips for encouraging strong sibling bonds.
Trudy Ruminer: Many parents fantasize that their children will have the perfect sibling relationship. In this magical kingdom, their children are loving, kind, compassionate, empathetic, generous and considerate towards each other 24/7. In real life, most parents have likely felt fortunate at times if they were able to just keep the children from permanently maiming each other. Truth be told most families probably run somewhere in the middle and rest assured that all families have good and bad days. The sibling bond is naturally resilient and can be one of the most rewarding, enriching and educational experiences we can ever have. Ideally our sibling relationships help us learn invaluable and enduring relationship skills, such as compromise, giving and receiving constructive criticism, showing empathy towards others, humility, how to give and receive grace and most importantly we master the valuable skill of the bob and weave.
The single most essential ingredient needed to cultivate a healthy sibling relationship is for the primary adults in the children’s lives to consistently model healthy relationships themselves. Healthy ground rules for settling disagreements and teaching the art of compromise are important essential elements to growing strong sibling relationships. Establishing an uncomplicated family relationship motto can be a great place to start. An example might be as simple as, “hurting each other in any way is not okay” or “we help each other stay, safe, happy and healthy.” Once the family motto is agreed upon by all family members, set a zero tolerance policy for all.
Trudy Ruminer is a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director and owner of True North Therapeutic Solutions, an outpatient mental health agency in Oklahoma City. Trudy is mother to four adult children and the proud grandmother to one. She draws her knowledge not only from her own personal parenting experiences, but also from her years of experience working closely with families.
Dr. Anne K. Jacobs: As I write this response, I remember my parents' words of wisdom to my brother and I when we were growing up: "Don't hit each other in the face; braces are expensive." Childhood is a time for youngsters to develop interpersonal skills and what better guinea pigs for practice than siblings. Here is a three-step process to help cultivate sibling relationships. First, teach the skills they need. Sit down with your kids and rehearse how to share and resolve conflicts. Make sure you are modeling these skills yourself. Children are more likely to imitate your actions than merely follow your directions. Second, promote compassion. Let your children know how happy and proud it makes you to see them use their skills and watch out for others' feelings. Often kids get caught up in things being fair. It takes time and patience for them to learn that parents attend to everyone's unique needs. If one kid outgrows his shoes not everyone in the family automatically gets a new pair of shoes. Third, turn them loose on each other, within reason. My daughter, Keegan, says one of the mistakes her father and I make is jumping in too soon while she and her twin sister, Sarah, are resolving a conflict. Adding our frustrations to their interaction can rev up the anger. As long as they are following some basic rules like no name-calling or physical violence, give them space to develop their relationship on their own.
Anne K. Jacobs earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Kansas and enjoys serving children, adolescents and their families. In addition to her private practice in Edmond, she holds an adjunct faculty position at Southern Nazarene University. Her family includes: husband, Noel who is also a child psychologist; twin daughters, Keegan and Sarah; one dog, two cats, and five tarantulas.
Madison Clark: One of the things I desire most for my children is a tight bond of friendship with one another that will last a lifetime. It is sometimes hard to see past the bickering, pushing and name-calling. In “Positive Discipline” by Dr. Jane Nelson, she talks about incorporating weekly family meetings into the schedule. These meetings includes time for compliments, to review successes and failures, to brainstorm solutions and incorporate a fun family activity. The tone of these meetings is always encouraging and helps to give each person a voice as you work through problems as a family. Family team meetings do a great job of teaching conflict resolution skills that carry into the day-to-day interactions between siblings.
It is important to allow kids to learn to work things out on their own and not interfere too much in their arguments if possible. It is also helpful to set expectations with each child on how to interact with their sibling. Children sometimes need developmental expectations spelled out for them to ease some of the frustration. For example, a 7-year-old needs help understanding why her 10-year-old sister doesn’t want to play baby dolls as much anymore. Likewise, a 4-year-old may be playing too rough with their 1-year-old sibling.
Madison Clark is a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist in private practice in Norman. She specializes in working with families with young children, ages 0-6. She has extensive training in play therapy and enjoys watching parents connect with their children through play.
Jim Priest: Some siblings get along naturally and for others it’s more of a struggle. You can’t force siblings to be friends and it is important to let them be individuals. But, our general rule for the minimum accepted behavior toward their sibling was to “treat your brother (or sister) at least as well as you would treat a stranger.” The vast majority of the time they got along well but when they disagreed or had problems, they had to at least be civil.
Jim Priest is the CEO of Sunbeam Family Services, a 109-year-old non-profit that provides a range of social services to support Oklahoma’s most vulnerable people. Jim and his wife, Diane, have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, Amanda and Spencer and are owned by a dog named Jeter.
Tamara Walker: There is nothing quite like the relationship between siblings. Having a strong sibling bond can be the basis for future relationships in your children’s lives. I recommend using my “ABC’s of Helping Your Kids Get Along” to reduce sibling rivalry and to strengthen the family ties between siblings.
A = Attention
Kids will argue or fight with their sibling in order to get attention from their parents. Kids would actually rather have negative attention than to have no attention at all. Catch your children when they are getting along well and praise them for it. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. A comment such as, “It’s really nice to see you both having fun together,” can reinforce positive interaction between kids. Also, your kids will learn that positive behavior gets positive attention.
B = Bonding
Try to catch each child doing something nice for his/her sibling. When one of your kids does something nice for the other, praise that behavior by saying something like, “What a sweet sister you are to your brother” or “What a loving brother you are to your sister.” When they get mad at each other, you may need to remind them of loving things that they have done for each other in the past to reinforce the bond that they share.
C = Comparisons
Making comparisons (such as, “Your brother always cleans up his room, why can’t you?”) usually leads to more competitiveness and rivalry between siblings. It can also lead to accusations of playing favorites. You wouldn’t want your boss to say, “Why can’t you be like so-and-so?” If she did, you might feel some resentment that you aren’t being appreciated as an individual. You might even start to dislike the person you are being compared to by your boss. In the same way, kids are more likely to compete with their siblings if you expect them to be exactly alike. Respect the differences between your children’s personalities. Acknowledge each child’s unique talents and abilities as an individual.
These techniques can help teach your kids how to enjoy their sibling relationships and hopefully reduce sibling rivalry.
Tamara Walker, R.N. shares her family expertise at MomRN.com and Ask MomRN Show, a weekly online talk show featuring family/parenting, health and family entertainment topics with well-known experts, authors, and celebrity guests. Tamara is a mom of two young adults. She lives with her husband in Edmond.
Greg Gunn: Siblings need to treat each other better than they treat their best friends. This sounds radical, but the sibling relationship is the best training ground for marriage. All friendships outside the home are dependent on and subject to the quality of the sibling relationships. Establish a family policy that prohibits unkind behavior to one another. Resolve conflicts immediately and completely that should require restoration through genuine apologies and verbal forgiveness.
Greg Gunn, founder of Family-iD, is a life coach, pastor, author and speaker from Oklahoma City. Married for 30 years, Greg is a father of seven kids, a father-in-law and a grandfather of two. For 17 years, Greg has led Family Vision Ministries, a ministry that helps families put their purpose on paper and pass it on to future generations.
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta: Developing a family identity goes a long way in cultivating healthy sibling connection. My brother and I are 11 years apart. In addition to the wide age gap, we have very different personalities and interests. I am so grateful our parents created ways to bridge the gap by building traditions for us to make memories together. In addition to meals, birthdays and holidays, our family went to all the “Star Wars” movies and planned a yearly car trip. My brother and I still laugh about the misadventures of family vacations- and Star Wars is still a strong force in our sibling bond.
Family identity takes parental leadership. Consider what traditions are meaningful and sustainable for your particular family group. Find activities that are inclusive and cooperative. Some families rally around volunteerism, game nights, music, meal preparation or the fourth of July. Whatever traditions you develop, be consistent and creative. It is worth the effort in providing shared experiences for your children’s relationship now and later.
May the Force be with you!
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta is celebrating 22 years of private practice. She is a clinical psychologist in Edmond with a special heart for women, children and families. Dr. Marotta enjoys writing, public speaking and blogging. She and her husband Sal have two young adult daughters.