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How parents can help foster good sibling relationships

Sibling relationships are the longest relationships in most people’s lives — they begin in early childhood and last into old age. Many factors impact the nature of sibling relationships, including characteristics of the siblings themselves, such as gender and age differences between siblings, and each sibling’s personality and interests. Parents’ behaviors also matter. Here are some tips for parents on how to promote positive sibling relationships:

▪ Set high expectations by telling your children how important it is to you that they treat one another with kindness and courtesy and that they remain close to and supportive of one another throughout their lives.

▪ Praise your children for playing well together and for their thoughtful and helpful behavior to one another. Be specific about behaviors that you appreciate, such as, “It was so nice of you to spend time playing with Pat when you really wanted to go hang out with your friends.”

▪ Provide consistent, positive and developmentally appropriate expectations and rules and follow through with appropriate consequences for rule violations.

▪ Help your children learn to calm down and control their behavior when they become upset with one another, such as by taking deep breaths or going to a quiet place where they can be alone until they are ready to work on solving a problem.

▪ Encourage your children to pay attention to and correctly name their own and their siblings’ feelings. Children should understand that we can’t help how we feel, but that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to behave in response to our feelings.

▪ Establish family norms about how siblings resolve competing interests or desires, such as through a coin toss or a “rock, paper, scissors” match.

▪ Set clear expectations and do not tolerate physical or verbal aggression between siblings. Remember that it often takes two to tango, so avoid taking sides when conflicts occur.

▪ Supervise young siblings’ time together and monitor the shared activities of older siblings.

▪ Set a good example by showing how you control your own temper and resolve disagreements in fair and constructive ways.

Parents also can limit sibling rivalry by being careful not to show favoritism toward one of their children. Some tips to reduce sibling rivalry:

▪ Avoid taking sides in sibling conflicts; focus instead on coaching and monitoring siblings’ efforts to resolve their own problems.

▪ Treating children fairly doesn’t always mean treating them the same. When parents explain their reasons for differential treatment and children see differential treatment as fair, siblings are less likely to experience rivalry.

▪ Spend some individual time with each child, but also plan and participate in activities you and your children can enjoy together.

▪ Talk to each child about their special and unique qualities — and also about the qualities they share with their siblings.

▪ Foster children’s sense of identity with their family.

To learn more, join us for our March 21 Straight Talk session, “Love, Hate, Tolerate: The Puzzles of Sibling Relationships.”

Susan McHale, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of human development and professor of demography at Penn State University.

If you go

What: Straight Talk: “Love, Hate, Tolerate: The Puzzles of Sibling Relationships”

When: 7-8:30 p.m. March 21

Where: Mount Nittany Middle School, 656 Brandywine Drive, State College

Info: 231-1070,