When you are your parent’s first child life is generally pretty wonderful. The whole world literally revolves around you. Every adult seems to respond to your beck and call, every toy and book in the household is yours and every mealtime is based around your culinary and dietary requirements.
And then you have a sibling.
For many people they never get to experience the privilege of being a first born. Those first few years of life when you have a monopoly on everything and the whole concept of sharing is foreign to you. And while those few years of being the centre of your known universe are sweet while they last, the benefits of having a sibling far outweigh this short period of life that firstborns enjoy.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development found that a healthy relationship with a sibling in your early years is often associated with better health later in life and lower rates of depression in adulthood. Research around the globe has highlighted the significant the role that siblings play in developing our conflict resolution skills, developing our ability to regulate our emotions, encourage or protect against risky behaviours, educate us about the opposite sex and shape our self-concept and choices in life.
None of this should be too surprising. Siblings are often our most enduring and personal relationships. Like it or not your siblings know a lot about you and in your early years of development have a significant impact on our development.
As parents I believe that our responsibility is primarily twofold when it comes to sibling relationships. Firstly, we should do all that we can to promote positive interactions between our children. Secondly, we should endeavour to protect our children from deliberately hurting each other and damaging the strength of their relationships together.
Encouraging play together that each child can enjoy is one way to do this. This often means creating opportunities that tailor to the youngest child. An example of this would be the game “Godzilla” where both children build a city together out of blocks or Duplo before destroying it together, or simple roleplay games with set roles and clear turn taking. Breaking siblings up into different combinations on occasions helps to promote good relationships between all of our children, and minimise the chances of exclusive behaviour going unchecked amongst our own children. Rewarding sharing and putting others first should also be a high priority at home. Encouraging healthy conflict resolution for minor disputes can also be very helpful.
In terms of protecting the sibling relationship there are two main threats which seem to pop up time and again. These are comparison and competition. While some level of each is to be expected amongst siblings, excesses in these areas can have negative, lifelong effects. Competition that leads to regular, demeaning putdowns by a brother or sister, can knock the confidence out of children for years. Similarly, comparison that belittles a child’s ability or efforts can push children into particular identities and roles that limit their endeavours and again, flatten confidence.
One last practical way to promote healthy relationships amongst our children – look to strengthen your own sibling relationships. While this can be difficult, not only is this helpful for our children to see, it’s also good for our health.