Lesson 6 of 7 - Learn how to parent effectively

Options for Parenting
Siblings Effectively

Their relationship is unique

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/parent/siblings.htm

Updated 04/12/2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-6 articles on how to parent (nurture) minor kids effectively over two decades while filling your own needs well enough. This article proposes options for managing relations between siblings in typical biological, foster, adoptive, and step families.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • The intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • Self-study lessons 1 thru 6 (or 7 if you're a stepfamily) 

  • Typical kids' developmental and adjustment needs

  • Q&A on effective parenting

  • This memo from and about your kids

Perspective on Sibling Relationships

     Sibling comes from the Middle English word sibb, which referred to "brotherly love." Sibling now refers to two or more people who have at least one parent in common.

      To parent effectively, family adults need to understand the factors that affect how young siblings relate and behave. The overarching factor is where their multi-generational ("extended") family fits on the continuum between very healthy (functional, or high nurturance) and very unhealthy (dysfunctional, or low nurturance).

      A related factor is the type of family siblings grow up in - e.g. intact biofamily; divorced, absent-parent, same-gender, and/or mixed-race parents;  matriarchal or patriarchal family structure, poor or wealthy parents, etc. Each of these types causes unique childhood environments and parenting challenges.  

      Unlike other relationships, typical biological sibs share the same ancestors, parents, genes, and last name. Depending on their age difference, they usually share many childhood experiences, customs, and rituals, and are taught common values by their adults.

      Birth order: There can be a significant environmental difference between the oldest child, son, or daughter and younger siblings. The parents were new at nurturing, and may not yet have stabilized their own relationship. They're more knowledgeable for the second and third kids, and may give them more balanced nurturing than their first-born. Even so, each child's unique personality and the parent's evolving situation socially and financially guarantee that nurturing will differ between one sibling and the next - except, perhaps, for twins.

      Grandparents may treat their first grandson or granddaughter with special attention. Seniors' influence on grandkids' development can range from nurturing to toxic (psychologically damaging). 

      The age difference between siblings can significantly affect the degree of bonding between them. For example, if parents have a baby when their first child is in high school, the bond between  the kids may be weaker than if they were only a few years apart.

      Siblings' gender may cause minor to major stress in some extended families. Many cultural traditions still favor sons over daughters, which can promote rivalries, hurt, resentment, and divisive us-vs.-them alliances within and between related homes.

      Favoritism may occur regardless of gender if a parent or grandparent develops a special bond with one child ("she's Daddy's little girl"). A related "family ranking" factor is whether each sibling was a mutually-wanted conception (preferred) vs. "an accident." The latter can promote shame, guilt, and regret that may weaken the parent-child bond and taint the child's self-image. 

      Relationships between step, adopted, and foster siblings are often significantly more complex and conflictual than between average biosibs. This is also true of half-brothers and half-sisters, who share only one bioparent with their sibling/s.

      These are some key family-system and environmental factors which affect sibling relationships. Despite these factors, every young child depends on their adults to reliably fill common developmental needs.

 Typical Parenting Problems with Siblings

      There are common challenges for multi-child family adults and kids. They range from normal to excessive. Problems become excessive when they cause too much stress too often, in someone's opinion.

  • rivalry - siblings compete for adult attention and approval.

  • aggression - one sibling bullies, manipulates, or abuses another.

  • boundary violations - one sibling intrudes on another's space and/or takes their possessions.

  • one sibling disrespects, dislikes, resents, fears, and/or scorns another.

  • exclusion and rejection - one sibling ignores or "keeps secrets" from another

  • "fairness" - one sibling feels another gets more parental freedoms and permissions.

  • blaming - one sibling complains another's actions "make them" act out ("It's not my fault!")

  • alliances - two or more sibs may "gang up" on a brother or sister.

  • "fighting" - sibs may constantly argue over many things - loudly.

These stressors are concurrent with minor kids' normal testing to see if they're safe, what rank they have in the family, how much power they have, and who's in charge.

      Is there a "best way" to manage a mix of these common sibling stressors and keep the family's nurturance level stable and high?

 Parenting Options

      Every family adult evolves their own unique parenting values, style, and goals, so there is no "right way" to manage problems with and between biological, adopted, foster, and step siblings. There are steps adults can take to help minor kids toward responsible young adulthood. Most steps also apply to adult siblings.

  • Adopt a long-range view, and evolve a thoughtful family mission statement so you all know what you're trying to achieve. Otherwise, the title of David Campbell's useful book will apply "If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Probably End up Somewhere Else."

  • KEY: each family adult take responsibility for helping each other assess and reduce psychological wounds (Lesson 1). This is essential to evolve a high-nurturance family and guard vulnerable minor kids from inheriting the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

  • Family adults work together to sharpen your communication effectiveness with each other and with minor kids. As you do, intentionally help your kids learn to think, communicate, and problem-solve effectively (Lesson 2).

  • Work together to evolve an effective style of child-discipline to teach, rather than punish.

  • All your adults give priority to understanding your kids' developmental  needs, and strategize how to monitor and fill them as the kids mature. Balance filling kids' needs with your own.

  • All your adults study and discuss how to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems. Pay special attention to these three common stressors. Then model these skills and teach them to your kids.

  • Help all family adults and kids learn how to spot and complete unfinished grief, and evolve an effective family "good grief" policy (Lesson 3).

  • If siblings exhibit above-normal rivalry, see these options.

  • If one sibling "dislikes" another, see this.

  • If one sib violates the boundaries of another sib, see these options.

  • If a sibling is dubbed a "problem child," see these options.

  • If a child is a half-sibling, see this perspective.

  • If one or more siblings may be addicted, see this.

  • If one or more siblings is a bully, see this.

  • If you're foster and/or adoptive family adults, see and discuss this

  • If your kids are in a multi-home divorcing family or stepfamily, they have special needs to fill, and are more prone to relationship problems with each other than typical intact-biofamily siblings. In addition to the options above, study Lesson 7, If you think you don't need to, try this quiz and review these stepfamily Q&A items.

      If family adults have trouble managing sibling problems like these, they should seek a veteran family-systems therapist, rather than an individual counselor. The problem is the family, not the child!


      This article for family adults summarizes how relations between siblings differ from other relationships. It also summarizes typical problems between siblings in traditional and nontraditional families, The article closes with  parenting options for managing these problems effectively.

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