Many parents envision their children getting along, playing nicely together and even lending a helping hand at times. But once baby No. 2 arrives, it’s usually a different reality.
Swiping toys, pushing, screaming and crowding each other’s space comes with the territory of having 2 or more kids. It’s the natural ebb and flow of family life — and a significant part of growing up.
But, there are things parents can do to help their children bond and develop lifelong relationships. In fact, though it may be one of your hardest tasks as parents, it tops the list as one of the most important. Research shows helping your siblings bond is crucial to raising happy, well-adjusted children.
“Research states that positive sibling relationships can encourage empathy, social skills and emotional regulation,” said Dr. Susan Neilan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Also, a positive sibling bond in early childhood is associated with lower risks for depression, and improved well-being and life satisfaction as adults.”
You can encourage sibling bonding from the very start — even before your baby is born. Set aside time for “tummy talk” with your toddler and let him know the baby can hear him from inside mommy’s belly. You can also show him ultrasound pictures and read baby books to help prepare him for his new role as big brother.
“Children as young as 2 can show empathy toward a newborn sibling,” said Dr. Neilan. “One study found the distress of an infant sibling visibly upset the youngest 2-year-old toddlers. As these kids got closer to 3, they attempted expressions of comfort by kissing, patting and getting help from mom.”
Dr. Neilan offers 5 ways you can nurture sibling relationships that hopefully one day will develop into lifelong bonds.
Treat children equally
It’s important to be equally fair to your children and not to play favorites. The parental rules need to apply to everyone, even if they are based on your kids’ different developmental needs and abilities.
“Research shows siblings have better relationships when they feel and believe that they are being treated equally,” said Dr. Neilan.
Also, avoid comparing your kids, even if it’s a positive comparison. Your children are unique individuals with different likes and dislikes. Comparing them will only breed sibling resentment.
Spend scheduled, quality time with each child individually
Carve out bits of time for each child so that no one feels left out. Even if it’s just for a few minutes at bedtime or stopping what you’re doing to really listen to their needs. Also, make sure that each child gets top priority from time to time.
“It’s a good way to make sure each child feels valued as an individual,” said Dr. Neilan. “Also, spending scheduled ‘special time’ with each child can bring consistency and nurture your relationship.”
Participate in activities that both children enjoy
Playing doctor or grocery store, or building block towers together are activities both kids can enjoy, even if they are in different developmental stages. Your older child can be the cashier, while your younger one can pack the groceries in a bag. Be sure to participate with your kids so that you can ensure the environment remains positive, and you can redirect play if it gets heated.
Also, create family traditions, such as family game nights, movie nights or even weekend getaways. It creates memories and a shared history that can help create lasting bonds.
It’s OK for each child to have some things that are off-limits. Allowing your toddler to play with his older brother’s special toy that he could break could cause resentment toward his younger sibling. It gives your kids some control so they feel less competitive with their sibling.
Siblings often feel in competition for your love and affection. Instead, put them in situations where they can be partners. Ask them to clean up their toys together or both can help put the dirty clothes in the washer.
Another good way to foster teamwork is to let your children nurture each other. Ask your older sibling to help your younger one put his shoes or coat on. He can help him learn to ride a tricycle or hop on one foot.
“It encourages trust by letting them help each other,” said Dr. Neilan. “The older sibling will feel important and protective, while the younger one sees him as a gentle, caring person.”