Sibling conflict can impact on the whole family, particularly when combined with extended periods of lockdown. That’s why I’ve invited Dr. Cara Damiano Goodwin, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, and founder of www.parentingtranslator.com, @parentingtranslator to share here opinions and advice on siblings and how to minimise sibling conflict!
Why are siblings important?
82% of children in the United States live with at least one sibling (King et al., 2010). This percentage is higher than the percentage of children who live with a father or father figure in the US (78%). Children also spend more free time with their siblings than anyone else in their lives (McHale & Crouter, 1996).
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having siblings?
Children develop many important skills through playing and interacting with their siblings, including perspective taking, understanding emotions, problem solving, and negotiation (Brown, Donelan-McCall, & Dunn, 1996; Dunn, 2007; Howe, Rinaldi, Jennings, & Petrakos, 2002). They then generalize the skills they’ve learned with their siblings to friends and other children their age (Stormshak et al., 1996; Updegraff; McHale, & Crouter, 2002; Youngblade & Dunn, 1995).
When siblings have a good relationship, they can have many positive influences on each other, including improved empathy (the ability to understand and feel the emotions of others) (Tucker, Updegraff, McHale, & Crouter, 1999), more advanced social skills (Bank, Burraston, & Snyder, 2004; Stormshak, Bellanti, & Bierman, 1996), and greater interest and engagement in school (Bouchey, Shoulberg, Jodl, & Eccles, 2010).
However, when siblings have a more negative relationship, they can negatively impact each other’s development. For example, sibling conflict in childhood is associated with school problems, substance use, and symptoms of anxiety and depression (Bank, Burraston, & Snyder, 2004; Stocker, Burwell, & Briggs, 2002).
Does birth order matter?
A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences combined data from over 20,000 people to address this question. The researchers found NO impact of birth order on any measure of personality (Rohrer, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2015). The only impact of birth order they found was that first-born children scored higher on measures of intelligence and also reported their intelligence to be higher. In other words, first born children are smarter and they know it. In addition, birth order also seems to impact education with children later in birth order having less education Black, Devereux, & Salvanes, 2005).
What about age spacing between siblings?
Parents interact with and read more to children when there is a larger age gap, which translates into higher test scores for more widely spaced siblings (in particular, greater than two years) (Buckles & Munnich, 2012; Price, 2010). Age spacing also seems to impact education. Closely spaced siblings are less likely to complete high school and attend college (Powell & Steelman, 1993, 1995; Petterson-Lidbom, Skogman & Thoursie, 2009).
What about the quality of the sibling relationship? Wider age gaps seem to be related to less conflict, while smaller age gaps are related to a closer sibling relationship (Newman, 1996). Siblings aged 4 or more years apart may also show greater affection, prosocial behavior, and admiration towards one another, while siblings aged less than 4 years apart are more likely to be close (Buhrmester & Furman, 1990; Minnett, Vandell, & Santrock, 1983). Research also finds that greater conflict among siblings closer in age persists into adulthood (Stocker et al., 1997).
What can parents do to address sibling conflict?
Many parents identify sibling conflict as the most common problem in their families (Brody & Stoneman, 1987; Prochaska & Prochaska, 1985), yet are unclear about how to best address this problem.
Research has found that siblings fight up to EIGHT TIMES per hour (Berndt & Bulleit, 1985; Dunn & Munn, 1986). Furthermore, 70% of families report physical violence between siblings (Steinmetz, Straus, & Gelles, 1981) and sibling violence is the most common form of violence in a family (Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005).
Research has found that the following strategies may be used to improve your children’s relationship and minimise sibling conflict:
- Stay as calm and as neutral as possible. Research indicates that mothers who favor the younger child have children that interact with each other less frequently (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987).
- Help children to regulate their negative emotions during a conflict with siblings (Kennedy & Kramer, 2008). Teach your children how to identify their own emotions and the emotions of their siblings and then develop coping strategies for regulating their emotions (deep breathing, going to “calm down” space, asking a parent for help, etc.)
- Teach social skills to help siblings play together effectively (Kennedy & Kramer, 2008; Kramer & Radey, 1998). Specifically, teach them how to ask their sibling to play, how to accept or decline a sibling’s offer to play, and how to see the situation from their sibling’s perspective).
- Mediate sibling conflict to help them listen to each other’s perspectives and resolve conflict on their own (Siddiqui & Ross, 2004; Smith & Ross,2007). Teach them how to explain their own perspective, problem-solve, and compromise. Research shows that children are more likely to resolve conflict when parents intervene. When left to their own devices, the older sibling tends to “win” without either child learning how to compromise (Perlman and Ross (1997)
- Avoid simply solving the problem in your children’s conflict and involve children in the process of resolving it (Thomas & Roberts, 2009). Research shows that, when both parents and children are involved in solving the problem, children gain important skills that will enable them to resolve their own conflicts in the future (Perlman & Ross, 1997; Siddiqui & Ross, 1999)
- Praise your children when they are playing nicely rather than punishing them for fighting or becoming aggressive with each other. Research shows that praise for opposite behavior (that is, playing nicely with each other) is very effective in reducing sibling conflict (Leitenberg al., 1977)
- Model healthy ways of resolving conflict in your own disagreements with your partner and children. Research shows that marital conflict and hostility of a parent towards a child has a negative impact on sibling relationships (Stocker & Youngblade, 1999).
About Dr. Cara Damiano Goodwin, PhD
Dr. Cara Damiano Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a mother to three children. She received a PhD in child clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master’s in Developmental Psychiatry from Cambridge University, and a Master’s in Child Psychology from Vanderbilt University, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University.
She specializes in child development and has spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience and providing therapy and clinical services for children of all ages. She has published 18 research articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, written two book chapters, and completed numerous conference presentations. Dr. Goodwin translates recent scientific research into information parents can access and implement in their everyday lives through her Instagram account @parentingtranslator and her website: www.ParentingTranslator.com. Check out her website for more free parenting resources!
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Check out the guest post Dr Cara previously wrote on how to handle toddler aggression.