How to increase the joy in sibling relationships

By KJ Dell’Antonia

Addressing the conflict is only part of increasing your family happiness when it comes to siblings. We don’t just want them to be able to fight fair (and ideally fight less). We also want them to grow up as close and loving as their personalities allow. Some of that comes naturally, just with proximity and familiarity. All their lives, your siblings will share experiences no one else has (among other things, being raised by you). They’ll have a history and a bond that’s unique. But we don’t want to rely on happenstance to build that into a strong lifelong relationship. How can we actively encourage the good times that really count?


Ironically enough, feeling happier about your children’s relationship means accepting some of the bad—in particular, their negative thoughts and words about one another. New big brothers and big sisters will often say they “hate” the baby. Older siblings will “hate” one another. They have entire dossiers of why their sibling stinks, including every crime ever committed by the one against the other and a whole lot more besides.

“Accept the feelings, but not the behaviors,” says Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids. “Don’t be scared of the jealousy and the fear and the desires. If we’re honest, adults feel those things, too, especially about new babies. Accept the emotion—and don’t say, ‘Oh, I know deep down you love the baby’—and they’ll grow to like and love each other a lot faster.”

Accepting the negative emotions, and allowing your child to express them to you without registering shock and horror, also defuses them. Resenting a new sister, or furious anger at an older brother, can be big feelings for small people. If your child can say “I hate him!” to you and not be kicked out of the family—or even get a response like “It’s so hard when the baby needs me and you want me, too,” or “I know, my brother used to leave me out when he had a friend over, and it made me so mad”—that means it’s okay to have those thoughts, and it’s possible to get past them.


People, even children, change. My daughters were having a lot of negative feelings about each other (to say the least). I needed to learn to let them have and express those feelings without making things worse. When I left them to work out as much as they could together, I also helped them see that the feelings were both okay and transient.


Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, suggests we actively establish a measurable goal for good times. “Positive interactions between siblings need to outnumber negative ones by about five to one,” she writes. She bases her theory on our human tendency to remember negative experiences more readily than positive ones, and on research into marriages and high- performance work teams that shows that when positive actions and words outweigh negative ones at about that ratio all kinds of partnerships are more successful.

So without adding things to your schedule, do try to ensure that your days and weeks include plenty of time for siblings, no matter what the age gap, to enjoy one another. Offer them extra time with something they like to do together that you usually limit (in our case, that’s video games). Make sure there isn’t always a friend over when all siblings are free. Instead of bedtime, establish “kidtime,” when all siblings need to be in shared bedrooms, upstairs, or however your house divides into kid and adult territory, and leave them to it for half an hour or so before starting the nightly routine or telling older kids to turn the lights out.

Encourage the kind of family storytelling that turns bad times into funny memories. My oldest son once accidentally swung his tiny sister’s face into the corner of a bathroom cabinet, resulting in a fantastically colorful black eye that started out as a lump the size of a Ping-Pong ball. He was eight years old at the time, and he thought he had dislocated her entire eyeball. We still laugh about it. Vacation disasters, very silly arguments, the time one child was accidentally left at the grocery store—those can all become family lore. I suspect “the hockey tournament where we almost killed each other” will end up on that list, too, eventually. It doesn’t necessarily have to have felt good at the time to become a good memory later.


Make sure your children have time together without you. Encourage their collective independence. Send them in pairs on “missions” in the grocery store or as a pack to the movies. Drop them off at mini-golf or the library. On vacation or at an airport challenge them to try something with each other, but without you. Remind them to look out for each other, and not just older after younger, either. Make sure they’re all in this together and, as they grow up, support any effort they make to stay that way.

On their Happier podcast, sisters Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft often talk about how their parents financially supported their relationship by paying for them to visit one another once Gretchen and then Elizabeth (who is five years younger) had moved out of the house. They credit the plane and train tickets they couldn’t easily afford with helping them develop a close relationship as young adults and, later, as adults.


Our children don’t have to be happy to be together every minute of every day for things to be pretty good. If children spend on average ten minutes of every hour together fighting, that still leaves fifty other minutes. That’s not too bad, really. When you stop looking at the ten minutes (the trees), you can see the rest of the hour (the forest). Your job is to appreciate the forest even though your inclination is just to cut down that one tree.


Just sit and watch and absorb while your kids are making brownies together. When your younger child asks the older for advice about a school activity, relish their ability to help one another. Even if they’ve ganged up against you, appreciate it. They’ve got each other’s backs. That’s what you wanted. Revel in it.

Reprinted from How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute by arrangement with Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018, KJ Dell’Antonia.

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter