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The Importance of Siblings

Those of us who work with children can sometimes forget how important sibling relationships are to the healthy development of children and teenagers. We tend to focus more on parent relationships, which while incredibly important, are only a party of the family system. Yet 82 percent of children live with a sibling, and relationships with our siblings may be the longest of our lives.

Siblings are important for many reasons. First, given their closeness in age, kids may be more likely to tell their siblings things that they might not tell their parents. This might include typical topics such as friendships, relationships and school – but it may also include more worrisome topics, such as abuse, drug use, pregnancy, self-harming behavior or suicidal thoughts.

Second, given that children and teenagers are more likely to confide in their siblings, they may also turn more readily to their siblings as a source of support. This piece is critical, because we know that one of the biggest risk factors for developing youth is suffering in isolation. The ability for young people to express their feelings to anyone – sibling, parent, or friend – can be highly therapeutic and can prevent a worsening of depressed mood or anxiety. Finally, siblings can serve as a sounding board for one another before trying things out in social settings. There is evidence to suggest that healthy sibling relationships promote empathy, prosocial behavior and academic achievement.

While healthy sibling relationships can be an incredible source of support, unhealthy and toxic sibling relationships may be equally devastating and destabilizing. Siblings sometimes say things to one another that parents would never say to their child (termed “sibling bullying”), and thus siblings can be even more emotionally abusive to one another than adults typically are to children.

Another source of stress can be when adults compare one sibling to another. This has the dual effect of shattering the self-esteem of the sibling who feels judged, while driving a wedge between the siblings and pushing them further apart. Also, when one sibling is suffering medically or emotionally, it can be a considerable stressor for the entire household including other siblings.

A sibling who is engaging in unhealthy behavior could model this behavior to other, typically younger, siblings who follow suit. For example, teenager girls are more likely to engage in sexual activity at an earlier age or get pregnant in high school if they’ve had an older sibling who has done the same. Toxic sibling relationships have been linked to increased substance use, depression, self-harming behavior and psychotic experiences such as hallucinations and delusions in adolescence.

To get the most out of sibling relationships, parents and child professionals can do the following:

  1. Both parents and child professionals should ask about how sibling relationships are going, ways that they are healthy and also ways that they could be improved.
  2. Celebrate sibling differences and avoid comparing siblings. This will promote self-esteem and prevent wedges from being formed between siblings.
  3. Encourage siblings to work together and support one another.
  4. Have both siblings earn rewards for cooperating with one another, but have neither of them receive this reward when they are not cooperating with one another. This will create an external incentive for them to work with one another until they are old enough that it becomes second nature.
  5. When one child is suffering from a medical, developmental or emotional problem, try to ensure that other siblings also receive enough attention even thought his may be difficult. It is very common for children to develop their own emotional difficulties when their siblings are struggling.
  6. In cases of sibling conflict where parents feel stuck, encourage families to seek out family counseling or family therapy in which a professional can help siblings to get on the same page with one another.

The power of sibling relationships can be life-changing in a positive way, and a little bit of maintenance can go a long way in ensuring that these relationships stay healthy in the long run.

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