The love/hate relationship that young siblings share is common, frustrating and absolutely predictable.
Kids sort out their issues in a protected family environment as a form of relationship practice. The sibling bond is likely the longest one children will have. No one else will know them better or longer than a brother or sister. While bickering is common, parents can implement a few simple techniques to help build a foundation of friendship that can grow as their children do.
Best Friends (Hopefully) First
Amy and Ken Ryan of Olmsted Township have two kids, Nathan, 8, and Emily, 6. Like most young siblings, “It’s a love/hate relationship,” Amy says. “They’re only 19 months apart (but) they actually play really well together.”
“From the start we tried to get them on common interest levels and would play together with them,” she says. For example, she and Ken would cook with them and give each child a task. That sort of teamwork — in the kitchen, or playing games together — helps prevent some of the built-in competition.
The Ryans build in plenty of “together” time while allowing each child to develop his or her own interests. And they also like to assign shared responsibilities, like tidying a room and having the kids sort out which child should do a task.
Ana Novotny and her husband, Karl, of Valley City, also have a daughter, Sydney, and son, Nolan, in elementary school. “As their mother who lives with them every day, I say they fight a lot. But when I hear comments from others, they constantly tell me how well behaved my children are and how well they get along. I guess as parents we are more critical of their behavior and notice the flaws more than anything else,” she says.
Sydney tends to boss her brother around. Nolan, like many younger siblings, enjoys annoying his sister. Yet they often ask for “sleepovers,” which means they want to sleep in each other’s rooms or in the playroom on an inflatable mattress, she said.
Like the Ryan family, Sydney and Nolan also share chores — and it can be a source of squabbling over who emptied wastebaskets last or dusted the handrails and baseboards.
Both sets of parents try to redirect their kids when tensions escalate. And they demand respect. “We teach that when you hurt someone, you’re hurting feelings and it’s important to be nice,” Ryan said.
Novotny said they, too, separate the kids and talk to them about why they need to be respectful. “I try to instill in them that siblings are your first, best friends and while it is okay to disagree, it is not okay to be hurtful toward one another,” she says.
Both sets of parents have hit on key strategies to foster eventual friendships. Combating rivalry is important. According to the Cleveland Clinic’s Children’s Health Team, five practices can go a long way toward managing conflicts: parents should stay calm, quiet and in control; create a cooperative environment; celebrate individuality; plan family time; and treat kids fairly — not equally.
Bickering vs. Meanness
While the Novotny and Ryan kids occasionally bicker and their parents quell any escalation, some of us remember being punched, shoved and generally tormented by our siblings — regardless of gender. Angry outbursts and battering is something that can stick with brothers and sisters through adulthood.
Personalities drive sibling relationships. It’s natural for some kids to get along better with one sibling than another regardless of gender, says Dr. Ray Guarendi, a North Canton clinical psychologist, author and father of 10 (ages 15 to 27).
A proponent of “common sense” parenting, Guarendi says parents must demand that kids treat each other with respect.
“Part of the problem is the experts have convinced parents there’s a natural sibling contention. In fact, what you’re dealing with are two or more partially socialized human beings (living) under the same roof,” he says.
“Siblings will get along much better when their parents take a firm stand against mistreatment. Personalities become more diverse as the kids get older. There’s no formula to make children have an alliance as they get older.
“In any family, especially with three or more kids, some will naturally relate better to others. You don’t get along with everybody. I have 10 kids and I see which ones gravitate toward each other and which ones don’t.”
Siblings who are allowed to hurt each other or call each other names will — over the years — erode the relationship.
Meanness matters; it’s the single biggest destructive factor sabotaging future sibling relationships, Guarendi says. “I would say most kids get along if parents, under threat of discipline, don’t let that happen.”
While raising kids in a “no-meanness” zone doesn’t guarantee long-term friendship as adults, it makes for a peaceful and respectful atmosphere at home.
The Goal of Future Friends
Novotny wants her kids to be friends as they grow into adulthood. “My sister and I are nine years apart — I’m the older one — and growing up, we weren’t really friends. It was too big of an age gap,” she says.
“Now that we are both older, we are friends and talk or text almost daily,” Novotny adds. “We still have very little in common, but being sisters is what keeps us friends, if that makes sense. If my sister and I, who had no commonalities, could be close friends then I expect (and) wish for (my kids) to be friends as adults. I am always slightly heartbroken when I hear about adult siblings that have no relationship or don’t get along.”
Ryan, too, knows that kids raised to respect each other are on the right path to future friendship. “I generally hope that they will be friends,” she says. “I’m extremely lucky; my brother and I are four years apart and we’re very close friends. I hope down the road, since (my kids) are close in age, they’ll look out for each other.”
Just remember that sibling squabbles are natural, and while it’s important to help children work out differences in a protected environment, meanness and physical altercations should never be tolerated. The balance is crucial to helping forge friendships later.
“I remember thinking after Nolan was born that my kids would never fight or argue because I had one of each gender,” Novotny says. “I think the saying goes, ‘I was a perfect parent before I became one.’ There are days that I think I have got these two humans all figured out and then there are days when I think I have lost my mind. But at the end of the day they bring me so much joy.”
A sibling is “something for life and somebody you’ll always look to for support and togetherness and fun,” Ryan adds.