A young girl kisses a baby on the cheek.

A young girl kisses a baby on the cheek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many parents want to know how to foster good sibling relationships. So what factors affect sibling relationships? Some parenting experts suggest that age gap affects sibling relationships. However, psychological studies show that age gap between siblings is not a significant factor in whether siblings get on well or not. An age gap of 18 months to three years is linked with more intense sibling relationships but this can be positive or negative. Sibling relationships are also not affected by family structure such as how large the family is. Gender has some impact but not much. Children tend to be slightly closer to sisters than brothers.

However, the way parents treat their children is a significant factor in sibling rivalry. Siblings are much more likely to fight and resent each other if parents are not equally affectionate and responsive to their children (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987).

Stocker, Dunn and Plomin (1989) observed mothers at home with their children. They found that many mothers directed more affection, control, attention, and responsiveness to younger siblings than to older siblings. You may argue that it is normal for a mother to hug a younger child more or to be more responsive to a younger child. However, children are able to see the difference between their mother meeting the needs of a younger sibling and favouritism. So how can parents treat their children equally? Parents need to be careful in the number of positive versus negative remarks they give to each child and the amount of physical affection they show each child. Parents can also try to give their children similar amounts of attention, for example, by responding to their children’s comments or gestures in equal measure. Sharing each child’s excitement or disappointments is also important. I know that many parents may think that they already try to be as fair as possible but that it can sometimes be an impossible task. However, if parents monitor their own responses, they may be able to reduce sibling rivalry in the family.

By now you may be worried that your children’s fights are all your fault but sibling rivalry is considered a natural instinct according to Freud. It is also important to note that children’s individual characters have an impact on sibling rivalry. Brody and his colleagues (1987) found that highly active, emotionally intense children showed more negative behavior towards their siblings.

So what should parents do when siblings squabble?

The most important thing is for parents not to take sides. A common mistake is for parents to ask the older child to give in but this is not dealing with the situation fairly and can cause resentment. Children can be taught how to disagree with each other without ridiculing or hurting each other.

What should parents do if one child is more academic or sporty than the other?

Parents can reduce sibling rivalry by praising their children’s efforts rather than achievement (see my previous blog on this). Children can also be taught that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, to celebrate other people’s achievements and to win gracefully.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon, Smashwords.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.