Surprising New Research on How Parents Impact Sibling Relationships

sibling relationships"
sibling relationships
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

My husband and I struggled with the decision of whether to have a second child. One of the reasons we took the plunge was so our oldest child could have a sibling and (hopefully) develop a close family bond with someone other than us. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure my kids get along, both now and later in life. 

Now that we’re a family of four, we try to be purposeful in nurturing the relationship between our two boys, though sometimes it’s hard to know how best to do this. Which is why I was so excited to read a new study about what parents can do to positively impact how their kids get along.

Participants in the study were from a mix of two and one-parent households, including stepparents and adoptive parents. According to the research, here are the things that matter most when it comes to how parents impact sibling relationships.

The strength of your family’s bond

Unsurprisingly, stronger emotional family bonds are associated with more affection between siblings and less fighting. So those family dinners and outings you’re up way past your bedtime planning? They may actually be paying off. 

However, a strong family bond isn’t the only key ingredient when it comes to encouraging sibling relationships. Research finds that those relationships can weaken if families don’t treat siblings equally—which leads to the next important consideration when it comes to ensuring your kids develop closeness.

Equal (enough) treatment

It turns out sibling relationships are stronger when strong family bonds exist AND when parents treat their kids equally in two important ways. First in terms of “control,” meaning parents have the same rules and methods of discipline for each child. And second, in terms of “affection,” meaning parents show the same level of care and love to each child.

Sadly, siblings who felt like their parents treated them differently when it came to rules and discipline fought more and felt less affection towards each other. And while it’s easy to believe we have consistent rules for our children, even with the best intentions this might not actually be the case. Older children, for example, are often subject to much more stringent rules, which relax by the time another child comes along. And sometimes there are other things that force us to extend different rules and discipline, like disabilities or other unique situations.

In the case of affection, many of us have experienced what it’s like to have one “difficult” child, whose personality, quirks, or medical diagnosis might sometimes make it feel more burdensome to care for them. But working to ensure each child feels the same level of love from us regardless of their struggles is important. 

Dads can have an outsized impact on sibling bonding

Interestingly, fathers had more of an impact than mothers on sibling relationships in one important way. When fathers had different rules and discipline for different children, siblings weren’t as close—even when the overall family bond was strong. This suggests that it’s really important for dads to apply rules consistently to all kids, and to ensure siblings are being disciplined in the same ways. 

sibling relationships
Source: Canva

Putting the research into action

First, this is a correlational study, which is a fancy way of saying that while we can’t know for sure whether family bonds and equal parental treatment cause good or bad sibling relationships, we do know they’re strongly related.

Regardless of this, though, for parents looking to nurture the bond between their kids, the research offers several main tips:

Work to develop a strong family bond.

Engaging in routines, rituals, and traditions together can create a strong feeling of family togetherness. Spending positive quality time together as a family and talking about and modeling shared values also goes a long way toward deepening family ties. Finally, creating a culture of gratitude and appreciation for one another within your family is an excellent way to develop a strong family bond.

Try to treat your children as equally as possible.

Try to provide similar levels of attention, affection, warmth, and care to your kids. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean equal time–we all know babies and toddlers can be much more time intensive than older kids. Instead, make the time you spend with each child meaningful, as well as the affection you offer.

Have consistent rules and discipline methods for siblings.

When this isn’t possible because of unique circumstances, take the time to explain to your kids why they’re being treated differently. And dads, in particular, should make an effort to have the same rules and discipline methods for all children.

Explain to children any differences in treatment.

It’s not possible—and sometimes not even good—to treat siblings exactly the same. Every child has different needs and your job as a parent is to meet those needs. Do your best, though, to explain any differences in treatment. For example, if one child is sick and needs more attention, explain this to siblings. Saying, “I know we haven’t been able to spend as much time together lately because of X or Y,  but I love you and am looking forward to getting back to our normal routine soon,” takes the guesswork out of situations, especially for young children, and let’s them know they are loved and valued.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that siblings will end up as friends, and the road there can be a long one. It took my kids a long time to find their groove together, and still, they can only play together for 20 minutes before someone ends up in tears. But having some proven tips for encouraging their bond makes me feel all the more confident that as they grow older, they’ll have the closeness I’ve always wanted for them.