Parents of multiple children may feel they spend far too much of their time heading off seemingly constant bickering, bullying and fighting between their progeny. If this describes you, perhaps you have wondered whether to shrug it off as normal sibling rivalry—something that must simply be waited out. On the other hand, perhaps you've worried about whether your kids exhibit the same kind of behavior toward other children at school or elsewhere? (See "Dating Violence Overlaps with Peer and Sibling Violence.")
While it's true that sibling relationships do change and grow across the lifespan, current research underscores that it is perfectly appropriate for parents to be concerned when they see a pattern of negative interactions between their children. Interestingly, both the bullied as well as the bullying siblings may potentially act out among their peers. The good news, according to sibling researchers such as Dr. Laurie Kramer, is that parents can have an important influence on whether and how well their children get along with one another.
One way parents can influence their children's relationships is by guarding against preferential treatment, or favoritism. While it may be very difficult for parents to recognize that some of their well-meaning actions reflect bias, self-honesty about this destructive influence could mean the difference between a lifetime of camaraderie between their children and a lifetime of suspicion and resentment.
Even beyond simple day-to-day actions that could be construed as favoritism, the fundamental quality of each parent-child bond is also an important factor. When two siblings each have secure attachment to their caregivers, they are also more likely to have secure, positive relationships with one another (Whiteman, McHale, and Soli, 2011).
This kind of relationship is one of the best gifts parents can offer their children: one that will outlast a parents' own lifetime, and will certainly persist long after the siblings leave home. While some assume that sibling relationships change permanently when children marry and establish their own families, studies find that these life changes present only temporary distancing as siblings focus on new life stages. According to Shawn Whiteman of Purdue University and his colleagues Susan McHale and Anna Soli of Pennsylvania State University, "In middle and later adulthood, contact between siblings stabiizes and most siblings maintain contact with one another throughout the life course." More than half of siblings studied in a U.S. sample of more than 7,700 adult siblings in 1992 remained close, contacting one another at least once a month. "Moreover," adds Whiteman and his colleagues, "because computer-mediated communications such as e-mail, blogs, and Facebook have made it easier for individuals and family members to stay connected and because older adults are using these technologies at greater rates than in the past, it is likely that adult siblings are more involved and informed than in recent memory." (See Social Networking Sites and Our Lives, Pew Research Center, June 2011.)
Considering the importance of these relationships throughout the lifespan, sibling bullying, bickering, and fighting should not be taken lightly. Fortunately, researchers are now focusing on this research area, catching up wtih parents, who have always had a stake in working at building healthy sibling relationships.
Bullying: The Family Connection