Siblings: Joys and Challenges

“It’s not fair, he got more than me!” Sound familiar? Life at home is always easier when there is peace and tranquility—adults strive for this— but children can quickly alter the dynamic. And, once a sibling arrives, the atmosphere at home can often change dramatically. Finding the balance of responding to one child’s needs while not neglecting the needs of the others is an intricate dance.

We want our children to love and trust their brothers and sisters. We hope that siblings will be loyal companions and enjoy each other’s company. And, looking far out into the future, siblings will likely have a longer shared history with each other than with anyone else. As parents we hope they will mature into adults who are emotionally close and have each other to turn to when we are no longer alive.

But when we look back at our own childhood experiences with siblings, we will probably recall a range of feelings extending from jealousy, irritation, and wishing they were never born, to protectiveness, admiration, and love. These feelings can shift within minutes. Harmonious or difficult, sibling relationships are part of the day-to-day life of most families. Sibling interactions—with their ups and downs—are an inevitable, normal, and healthy part of family life and provide learning for future relationships.

With preparation, most young children can proudly welcome a baby into the family and enjoy the role of big brother or big sister. But the excitement of the new arrival begins to wear off as the older sibling realizes that this is not a play date and the baby is here to stay. For a young child, accepting a new baby means learning to share parental time, love, and attention.

With each milestone the baby achieves, the older child can show signs of needing more attention for himself. This is a normal and expectable part of healthy development! Since young children are ego-centric, it can be particularly difficult to wait for one’s turn and share parental attention.

Children older than three years are better able to identify with the parents and helping to care for the baby can be a pleasurable experience. With a sturdier sense of their own identity, older children are less likely to regress to the level of the younger sibling. In school settings they learn that their needs can be met by teachers as well as by friends. Sharing attention and waiting for their turn becomes part of their everyday life.

Your child’s temperament will also play a role in how he interacts with siblings. Some children have a temperamental style that makes them “hungrier” emotionally. They simply require more parental involvement than a more “easy-going” child and find it harder to share attention. Children who are easily frustrated can provoke their siblings when things don’t go their way. And those who lack good impulse control will be more likely to lash out and cause a reaction with a sibling when immediate “wants” are not met.

Since the arrival of a sibling changes the equilibrium of the household, parents who are able to tolerate a lack of sleep and increased noise and mess will have an easier adjustment to a new baby than those parents who thrive on order and have less ability to be flexible. When your needs are not being met as a parent you will have a more difficult time being emotionally and physically available for your children.

Creating a home environment that will foster positive sibling relationships begins with the parents. Parents who bicker and argue will teach their children that these are acceptable methods of dealing with people. Parents who communicate respectfully and model negotiating and listening will teach their children the art of getting their needs met in a positive way. You are your child’s first and most important role model!

As a parent, how can I help siblings get along?

  • Give positive reinforcement when you “catch” siblings being considerate with each other
  • Establish rules that do not allow physical aggression and name calling. Be there to stop it when you see it happen
  • Avoid getting caught up in the fairness trap: different children have different needs
  • Find a daily opportunity for siblings to work together
  • Avoid comparing siblings…this can help to reduce feelings of jealousy and envy
  • Validate each child’s feelings; help them express emotions in socially and developmentally appropriate ways when rivalry occurs
  • Avoid placing blame…it takes two to fight
  • Involve older children in creating rules that make everyone feel safe
  • Give privileges to older children in exchange for being accommodating to younger siblings
  • Provide older children with a private space in which to keep their most valuable possessions safe
  • Teach older children to find solutions that do not require the parent to be a referee
  • Find time to spend alone with each of your children
  • Remember, the best recipe for treating children unfairly, is to treat them all the same!

Books to Read with Siblings 

Learning to Say "Goodbye": Bridging the Gap Between Home and School

Minimizing Power Struggles