Husband & Wife Articles


Are Your Kids Close?

Sibling relationships can be lifelong

By Mary Rice Hasson

Sibling closeness — does it matter? And if it does, can parents help make it happen?  Or does it grow naturally or not at all?

Mary Rice Hasson

Almost universally, parents expect their children to enjoy close relationships with each other. They envision a family in which children genuinely love each other and get along well, in spite of inevitable conflicts. Even when children bicker and fight their way through childhood or adolescence, parents hope that the kids will get along eventually, because as one mom said to me, “when we’re gone, they won’t have anyone else.”

What parents know intuitively, research now demonstrates: close sibling relationships do matter.

A recent study out of Brigham Young University reported that children on the cusp of adolescence (ages 10-14) are less likely to exhibit fear, depression, and loneliness, or feel unloved, if they have a sister. The positive impact accrued no matter how old the sister was or the age gap between them. According to lead researcher Laura Padilla-Walker, the take-away is “[f]or parents of younger kids…to encourage sibling affection…Once they get to adolescence, it’s going to be a big protective factor.”

The research also showed that a close relationship with any sibling – brother or sister — increased the likelihood that the child would do good deeds or exhibit “charitable attitudes.” Remarkably, the warmth of sibling relationships affected outward kindness twice as much as the effect from warm parent-child relationships. Parental affection helps instill benevolence but sibling affection helps children put kindness into action.

Mary Rice Hasson and Family

Mary Rice Hasson and her husband, Seamus, are shown at Notre Dame graduation of Jim, a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army. Other children are, from left: Brigid, P.J., Mary, John Paul and Patrick. Missing from photo is eldest son Mike.

Other research shows that children with good sibling relationships have better social skills and stronger friendships with peers. They also tune in better to the feelings of others. On the flip side, adults with poor sibling relationships in childhood are more prone to depression in adulthood.

The benefits of warm sibling relationships — like the consequences of poor ones— affect the child’s immediate and long-term happiness.

So here’s the million-dollar question for parents: how do we raise siblings to care deeply about each other?

Begin with “ABC.”

A — Aim High: What’s your family’s goal?

Aim to build strong, close relationships, not merely “get along” or keep the peace. (“If they’ll just stop bickering, I’ll be happy!”)Be purposeful: strong bonds between siblings don’t just happen. Parents must create, foster, and insist on habits that build strong sibling relationships.

Separate rooms, personal electronics, constant activities with friends (but none with siblings) keep the peace, but don’t build sibling relationships. As children mature, help them understand the ingredients of strong love relationships: trust, loyalty, sacrifice, time investment, caring, forgiveness and affection.

B — Be there and be invested. Do your children know what matters to their siblings? Do they “show up” for their siblings’ important events? Or pray for them beforehand and follow up afterwards? Do they empathize with their feelings?

My family has spent years on the sidelines of soccer games. Typically our children are the only sibling-spectators, not because the other players are all only children but because their siblings don’t want to come. And their parents rarely insist.

But, “If it’s important to them, then it’s got to be important to you because it’s important to them.” When parents let children choose to attend their sibling’s event only when it’s intrinsically fun or interesting, they teach them to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, parents should teach them to ask, “What does my sibling need?”

Invest time creatively. With seven kids, logistics — and stress — ruled out having everyone attend every weekend game. We designated instead a “Game of the Week,” (rotating through the kids’ schedules) and everyone prioritized “being there” to cheer on the honored sibling. Now, our younger ones routinely text their out-of-town older sibs with news or prayer requests before games. The older ones follow up – it’s habit. It’s how they relate.

C  — Connect without Criticism. Do Your Kids Really Talk?

It’s hard to love someone you don’t really know. But children won’t share their thoughts if they fear ridicule or indifference. Create an atmosphere of trust. Set ground rules for family discussions: don’t criticize, express interest (comment or ask questions), and keep confidences private. Use questions to prompt dinnertime discussion (our youngest children routinely asked visitors, “So how was your day?”) and let children tell what they learned, did, or found funny.

Finally, parents, persevere in prayer for your children, confident that the God who loves them all will bind them in love for each other.

© 2011 Mary Rice Hasson

Mary Rice Hasson blogs at Words from Cana