Siblings: Are Your Kids BFFs or More Like Frenemies?

Experts say playing together often helps sibling relationships in the long run.

Parker Barry

Siblings can become treasured companions, but sibling rivalry often frustrates kids and parents alike. The good news is that the best ways to nurture positive connections between your kids is also the most fun: Play.

Experts say that brothers and sisters can endure the many scuffles that are natural byproducts of living together as long as they play together more than they fight.

Indeed, siblings between ages 3 and 7 argue or fight an average of 3.5 times every hour, according to a study cited in the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The book mentions the work of sibling expert Dr. Laurie Kramer, who has studied the topic for decades and discovered that high-conflict siblings can have great relationships in the long run if they played together often, while siblings who didn’t fight much but also didn’t play often aren’t as close.

Many parents (myself included) find that our kids’ personalities and stages of development influence how well they get along, and that compatibility ebbs and flows. Still, even if your kids were born many years apart and have wildly different interests, they can enjoy and benefit from shared playtime.

Six ways to support healthy sibling play

  • 1. Facilitate free play. Kids can compensate for age gaps or interest differences with imaginative play. Play that’s kid-directed is often the best sibling play.
  • 2. Encourage teamwork. Competition between siblings is natural, but offer ways for them to be on the same team, too. Building projects and other constructive play that requires kids to work together can become good team-building. Include some cooperative games (everyone wins or everyone loses the game) in your family’s toy repertoire.
  • 3. Understand influence. Birth order impacts play dynamics. “Little ones look up to big ones, wanting to dress like they dress, play with their toys, tussle or chase or chatter just like their powerful older brothers or sisters. Older children often adore their younger siblings, but they rarely copy them or treat them as role models,” writes Lise Eliot, Ph.D. in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
  • 4. How parents talk (and listen) matters. Be nearby to offer support, when requested. Hear all sides of disagreements, acknowledge feelings and practice some skills coaching.
  • 5. How we talk about siblings matters, too. According to the classic book Siblings Without Rivalry, parents should find opportunities to highlight positive interactions (“You two were having so much fun together!”) and let siblings overhear you talking about them positively to their other parent (“Isabel and Sam built a huge fort today!”).
  • 6. Have realistic expectations. Expect arguments. Ensure siblings get breaks from each other by carving solo time for each kid with you and with their own friends.

Your kids may be the best of playmates now, or it may be some time before you see the positive results from turbulent times. Either way, adding more play to their relationship bank can only increase the chances that time will eventually compound into a beautiful, lifelong bond.

Learn about Siblings Day from the Siblings Day Foundation.


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