Our family (like others throughout the world) has been spending a lot of time together for the last several weeks. At first, it felt relatively normal—like a long holiday. After a couple weeks, however, things changed. Our days became reminiscent of the 90s classic movie Groundhog Day, where each day began and ended much the same as the day before: in a nauseating loop of banality. My three sons grew increasingly agitated and short with one another as cabin fever set in.
Then, a new normal set in. I watched with amazement as they began to bond in a deeper way. I witnessed how, without the distractions of friends and activities away from home, my sons found innovative ways to spend their time together. As it turns out, my kids just needed downtime to strengthen their sibling relationships.
Unscheduled family time is important for building strong sibling relationships.
We live in a fast-paced and competitive society. Americans tend to equate busyness with success. But according to the American College of Pediatrics, “Overscheduling can weaken family relationships.” Families benefit from spending time together, without distractions. And this time doesn’t need to be penciled in on a calendar. One study, led by Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, found that “everyday activities serve important relationship-building functions.” This can be especially true for sibling bonds.
Every day our family takes a long jaunt around the neighborhood. And my boys have come up with a game on their own (involving roller blades and our dog) where they each have a role to play. My oldest son, who is almost a teenager, recently told me (much to my surprise) that this simple family activity is the best part of his day.
Sometimes, parents can help facilitate activities that will be fun for everyone no matter the age or interest gap. At other times, perhaps we just need to take a step back.
When it comes to family activities, choose oxytocin-inducing activities that will appeal to everyone.
My sons are not close in age and have varied interests. Yet there are some activities they consistently enjoy doing together, like roughhousing, outdoor play, and watching a funny movie. According to Psychology Today, these sibling activities all work toward strengthening bonds because they induce oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.
Family traditions are also important in the process of nurturing bonds between siblings. Our family tries to have a pizza and movie night once a week (although there is some arguing when it comes to picking which movie). We also try to take a trip every summer to an amusement park that accommodates all ages. According to the Institute for Family Studies, “Family traditions help children feel as though they fit in somewhere. And in time, the traditions come to define who each person in the family is, countering alienation, and offering steadiness and certainty.”
When choosing a family activity or tradition, let the kids lead the way! Allowing siblings to come up with activities independently is often the best way to ensure that it'll be something they'll all enjoy doing. If there is a large age gap between your children, bonding experiences such as having an older child read to a younger one can strengthen sibling relationships.
Positive interactions between siblings can help to negate the negative moments that they will inevitably have with one another. So, what should parents do when the oxytocin is no longer flowing and siblings are at each other’s throats? As a general rule, less is more.
Allow siblings to resolve their own conflicts. It teaches them negotiation and conflict-resolution skills.
I have a rule: If my kids are playing happily together, I do my best not to disrupt the situation. The longer the play goes on, however, the more likely it is that an argument will ensue. “The sibling relationship is where you learn how to fight,” says Corinna Tucker, professor of human development and family studies at the University of New Hampshire. This is why it is important that parents encourage mediation. Strengthening sibling relationships means teaching kids how to compromise and handle conflicts in a constructive way.
Parents' involvement in sibling scuffles should be more like coaching than refereeing. Doing that leads kids to finding their own solutions rather than parents taking sides or offering a quick-fix resolution. It’s also important to encourage siblings to set ground rules (no name-calling, no interrupting, no yelling, etc.). They should also learn to take turns stating their viewpoint and considering their siblings' perspective. Of course, this is easier with older children. But experts recommend beginning to teach kids these skills around age 4 or 5.
Strong sibling relationships can last into adulthood.
According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which followed 300 men for 75 years and is considered to be one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, “93 percent of the men who were thriving at 65 had been close to a sibling in their early life.” The study also demonstrated that poor relationships between siblings before age 20 could be a predictor of depression later in life.
Sibling relationships are often the longest family relationships we have in our lives and can be influential to our development. Parents can foster strong sibling bonds by allowing for plenty of family time, developing traditions where everyone feels included, and by teaching kids to resolve sibling conflicts independently. All of these actions help to foster the kind of positive sibling relationships that can remain close well into adulthood.