Reach Out for Help

 

Sibling relationships are complex and layered, and sometimes they can be really challenging to navigate. If you find yourself struggling with how to best support your children in developing a healthy sibling relationship and are unsure of what your next steps may be, consider seeking professional help. Relationships are hard, and we all need help at times to best support our own relationships, as well as the relationships of our loved ones. Professional counselors and therapists can help your family develop skills and gain insights that support healthy relationships. Though it can feel scary to reach out for professional help, know that it takes a lot of bravery and courage to take this step! 

For more information about reaching out for professional help check out our blog post on “How to Find a Counselor to Help with Relationship and Family Challenges.”

Parentification

 

Parentification occurs when one child takes on a parenting role to take care of another sibling, or in some cases, a parent. This may look like making lunches or cooking dinner for the family, cleaning the home, paying the bills, or dressing and/or caring for younger siblings. While some of these tasks may look like chores normally assigned to a child to teach responsibility, parentification is much different. Parentification places adult responsibilities, such as the role of caretaker, onto a child, and the child usually fills this role to try and maintain functioning within the family. However, these responsibilities don’t always look like chores or physical caretaking. In some cases, a parentified child may become a parent’s main emotional support, listening to their challenges and giving them comfort or advice. This level of responsibility often also carries a large amount of pressure, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and isolation. 

There are many different situations that may lead to the parentification of a child within a family. Some examples include: when one parent passes away, when there is substance abuse within the home, or when parents have to work long hours to support the family. When big transitions, changes, or life challenges, such as the above examples, occur, family members often adjust their roles to accommodate these changes/challenges and maintain a certain level of functioning within the family. It’s important to recognize that many times, when parentification takes place within a family, it is a response to stressors or challenging life events, and family members are often trying their best to survive and maintain family functioning. 

Parentification can lead to adverse outcomes for children and cause strained relationships within the family. It can place stress on both the parent-child and sibling relationships within the family, becoming a barrier to deeper connection. Many times these children are not able to fully experience their childhood because of the adult role they take on at an early age. The child experiencing parentification may feel isolated from their sibling(s) or other children their age because they are not able to engage in the same activities or interests due to their increased responsibilities within the family. They may also feel resentful toward their parent(s) later in life for expecting them to take care of adult responsibilities as a child. 

Not only can parentification pose challenges within the family, but it can also lead to mistrust of others and difficulty building healthy relationships outside of the family. Children who have experienced parentification may not have been able to rely on their parents or guardians to take care of them, and instead, they were relied on by others. Because of this experience, when these children grow up, they often feel like they cannot rely on others, as they have only been able to rely on themselves up until this point. This can create challenges in future relationships and lead to similar patterns where the individual who was parentified as a child partners with someone who is dependent on them within the relationship. 

Parents can prevent parentification from occuring by increasing their awareness about the topic of parentification, as well as recognizing appropriate roles for each member of the family. When facing life events that prompt changes or challenges the family must adjust to, it’s important for parents to try their best to maintain boundaries between the parent-child roles within the family. Here are some tips that parents can use to maintain their role as parent and avoid potential parentification of their children:

  1. Give your child age appropriate responsibilities. Allowing your kids to help with chores around the home is a great way to teach them responsibility; however, be sure to avoid giving them too many tasks or tasks that are meant for the adults in the home. Some examples of age appropriate responsibilities for younger children may include helping you cook dinner, cleaning their room, making their bed, or feeding the pets. As children get older these responsibilities can change to be more developmentally appropriate for pre-teens or teenagers. Some examples of age appropriate responsibilities for older children may look like babysitting a younger sibling, helping a parent cook dinner, or doing the dishes. 
  2. Maintain the hierarchy within the family. This means taking charge of responsibilities such as finances, caretaking, and making family decisions. As the parent/guardian, it’s important to try your best to establish a sense of safety and security, especially during times of uncertainty or transition. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek help or support during challenging times. There are often circumstances that are out of our control and create barriers to security and stability within the family. When these challenges occur, recognize that it’s okay to reach out for help from family members, friends, or community supports. 
  3. Establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Creating healthy boundaries with your kids is a key aspect of preventing parentification. Healthy boundaries may include being mindful of what and/or how much you share with your children. Try your best to refrain from leaning on your child as an emotional support during challenging times, as this can create a high levels of stress and pressure for your child. This may look like refraining from discussing certain topics that may lead to your child becoming an emotional support in a way that isn’t healthy for the parent-child relationship. For example, during a separation or divorce, it’s important for parents to avoid talking about the other parent in a negative way, as this can damage the child’s relationship with that parent. 

We hope this information has helped you develop awareness surrounding the topic of parentification and will help you navigate challenging situations and boundaries with your kids in the future!

One-on-one Time

 

A great way to support healthy sibling relationships is to spend individual time with each child! Finding the time to plan individual activities with each child can be challenging when you’re juggling a busy schedule; however, it can make a big difference in your children’s lives. Spending one-on-one time with your kids helps each sibling feel important and loved, strengthening their self-esteem and creating a stronger bond between you and your children. When your children feel confident in their relationship with you and trust that they are loved and cared for, the level of jealousy and attention-seeking behaviors between siblings is likely to decrease. This doesn’t mean your kids won’t still fight for your attention. Instead, the arguments may be less frequent. 

Because schedules are often hectic and time is limited, one-on-one activities with your children don’t have to be extravagant or extremely time consuming. Spending time with your child can be as simple as reading to them at night or taking them to the park while their sibling(s) is at a friend’s house. 

Encourage Sibling Bonding & Respect Boundaries

Encouraging sibling bonding time is also a great way to promote healthy interactions and foster a strong relationship between your kids. This ensures that, even when schedules get hectic and life feels chaotic, your kids can count on having time to spend together to relax and have fun! They can work together to come up with activities for the family to do, helping them learn to understand one another’s differences and work towards win-win solutions when they disagree. 

Though it’s important for your kids to spend quality time together, a key part of encouraging healthy sibling relationships is honoring their boundaries when they want to be alone. When you respect your kids’ feelings and listen to them when they feel like they can’t be around their sibling(s), you are modeling how to honor other people’s boundaries. This also shows your children that you respect their individuality, and that they are able to determine their own boundaries. 

The line between encouraging sibling bonding and respecting each child’s boundaries can be challenging to navigate. Try your best to listen to your kids’ needs and encourage communication to establish healthy boundaries for each child!

Disagreeing Respectfully

If you’re a parent of siblings, you’re probably well acquainted with bickering and have had to intervene in your fair share of disagreements between your kids. As challenging and frustrating as it can be for parents, it’s completely normal for siblings to argue. In fact, sibling disagreements create opportunities for kids to learn how to overcome differences and resolve conflict in a healthy way! Because kids are still learning how to communicate respectfully and effectively, they will need your help to learn how to navigate conflict on their own. 

How can you, as a parent, help your kids learn how to disagree respectfully and resolve conflict effectively? When your kids argue, try guiding them through the process of effective conflict resolution. By helping them work through their disagreements in a healthy and respectful way, they will learn how to solve problems and work through conflict without your help in the future. We have provided a step-by-step process for you to walk through with your kids when they’re experiencing a disagreement or argument. 

Step 1: If they’re feeling upset and are emotionally dysregulated, encourage them to take a break and calm down. This is an important skill to learn when addressing conflict, as it is much more effective to communicate and work toward a win-win solution when both people feel calm. 

Step 2: Once both kids have calmed down, have them both explain their perspective and what they want the outcome to be. Remind them to listen without interrupting to make sure they are really hearing what each other has to say. This will help them learn important active listening skills and avoid potential miscommunication.

Step 3: When each child has had a chance to express their perspective and wants, encourage them to work together to come up with a solution that they can both agree on. It’s important to try to step back and let them practice problem-solving on their own, instead of providing a solution for them. This will help them learn how to compromise and work toward win-win solutions in future disagreements. 

Step 4: Check-in with both children after the conflict has been resolved to debrief what that interaction was like for them and how they’re feeling. This will help them learn how to process their feelings and reflect on ways they can resolve conflict in the future. 

Remember, learning how to resolve conflict and disagree respectfully will take time, so try your best to be patient with your kids as they explore this process. We hope these steps will help your family overcome conflict in a healthy way!

Avoid Comparing & Embrace Differences

Part of fostering healthy sibling relationships means celebrating each child’s individuality and trying your best to refrain from comparing your children to one another.

Sibling comparisons may look like saying things such as, “Your brother comes home from school and does his homework right away. Why can’t you be more like him?” This can lower self-esteem and lead to feelings of shame and guilt for the child who is being compared to their sibling. Comparing siblings can also lead to sibling rivalry, spark feelings of resentment between siblings, and create a rift in the relationship. If you’ve compared your children in the past or catch yourself doing it in the future, know that you’re not the only parent finding yourself in this situation. Parenting is hard and making mistakes comes with the territory of having kids. What matters is how you handle your mistakes and what choices you make moving forward. Acknowledge the times you have compared your children and offer an apology. Not only is this a great opportunity for healing, but it’s also an opportunity to model to your kids how to take responsibility and apologize for their mistakes. 

You can also support a healthy relationship between your kids by encouraging them to embrace and appreciate one another’s differences. Siblings have different interests, personalities, talents, and abilities, and sometimes, it can be hard for them to understand these differences. This can lead to potential conflict, especially when siblings aren’t interested in the same things or approach situations differently due to their unique personalities and temperaments. As a parent, you can have conversations with your children about the importance of respecting one another’s differences, even if they don’t always make sense. When you teach your kids to love and respect one another despite their differences, you are helping them develop lifelong skills to not only strengthen their relationship with one another, but to also build healthy relationships of all kinds in the future! 

A Positive & Nurturing Relationship

Building healthy sibling relationships starts early! As a parent, you can encourage a positive, nurturing relationship between siblings from an early age. When you teach your kids that they can count on one another for support and encouragement, they will receive the message that their relationship is grounded in love, respect, and trust. 

What can you do to encourage a positive, nurturing relationship between your children? Encourage them to look out and stick up for one another, especially in moments when you can’t be there with them. This may be an older sibling helping their younger sibling(s) adjust to a new grade at school or sticking up for them if they’re being bullied. These types of supportive and loving interactions build a foundation of trust, respect, and kindness for your children to build a healthy relationship over time. 

Another way you can promote a healthy relationship between your kids starting at an early age is to encourage empathy and focus on feelings, especially when working through disagreements. This may look like teaching kids to use “I” statements to verbalize their feelings and promote understanding during conflict, or it may involve asking them to put themselves in each other’s shoes to better understand one another’s perspectives. With younger children, it’s important to use developmentally appropriate language and to remember that it may take them time to understand more difficult concepts like empathy. 

Promoting Healthy Sibling Relationships

Sibling relationships are often some of our longest relationships, and while they can be complex and at times challenging, they can also be a source of deep connection and happiness. Our first opportunities to practice social skills and learn how to develop healthy relationships are often with our siblings. In healthy sibling relationships, we are able to learn valuable skills like compromise, conflict resolution, listening, communication, and emotion regulation. Our siblings can also be a source of support and encouragement both when we are young and well into later life. Research indicates that people who have strong emotional connections with their sibling(s) have increased life satisfaction and lower rates of depression during early adulthood (Milevsky, 2005). Additionally, a 30-year study by Waldinger, Vaillant, & Orav (2007) suggests that sibling relationships during childhood are a predictor of mental health during later life. 

It’s clear that sibling relationships are important for our social, emotional, and psychological development and can lead to many positive outcomes. However, it’s also true that these relationships are tricky and can have a lot of ups and downs. Many of us may be able to think back to our childhood experiences with our siblings and recall disagreements, teasing, or periods where you just didn’t seem to get along. Maybe you had an older sibling who wouldn’t let you hang out with their friends or a younger sibling who didn’t listen when you asked them to stay out of your room. Or, maybe you’re a parent of siblings who can relate to long car rides with endless bickering in the back seat. While these experiences are unpleasant and stressful, sibling conflict and rivalry are quite common and can even create opportunities to learn important relationship building skills, such as compromise and conflict resolution. 

How can you promote healthy sibling relationships and help your kids develop important relationship building skills? As a parent, there are many things you can do to help your kids build a healthy relationship with one another. Though this doesn’t mean there won’t be arguments or conflict, you will be able to use these moments to help guide your children through positive ways to work through differences or difficult feelings. Throughout the rest of this week, HRI will be sharing tips to help you foster healthy sibling relationships in your family. We will also be sharing information about the impact of parentification, or when one sibling takes on a parenting role, on sibling relationships. Stay tuned for more information!

 

References

Milevsky, A. (2005). Compensatory patterns of sibling support in emerging adulthood: Variations in lonliness, self-esteem, depression, and life satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(6), 743-755. doi: 10.1177/0265407505056447

Waldinger, R. J., Vaillant, G. E., & Orav, E.J. (2007). Childhood sibling relationships as a predictor of major depression in adulthood: a 30-year prospective study. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(6), 949-954.