Siblings: a complex, ever-evolving relationship

Managing sibling relationships is hard. Relationships are complex and evolving and time, especially in larger families, is not infinite.

Arguing Children


Some research came out this week on sibling relationships. The US and China study of secondary schoolchildren found children from larger families had slightly poorer mental health than those from smaller families, with those most affected being siblings with small age gaps between them. The suggestion was that parents don’t have enough time for them – and, of course, it’s true that if time was a cake, the more children you have the less time you would have with each of them, at least individually. But families are complex things and the difference is only slight.

Still, if you have a larger than average family the thought that tends to linger at the back of your mind is whether you are giving each enough attention. I certainly questioned this often. At one point I decided that I needed to spend regular one to one time with each child. I recall going to a lot of cafes for a brief period before the chaos of life took over and it was really hard to fit going out time into all the other things like swimming lessons, dance classes, dropping people at parties, sickness, school-related events and the like. Instead, I figured, I would continue to have one to one conversations with each child individually during the day and at bedtime in amongst all the other family activity. Except someone always interrupts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Time is such an important thing and there often isn’t enough of it. Children require different things from their parents at different ages and it can be hard when you are dealing with squabbling primary-aged kids to take enough time to talk to the deep-thinking child who has just started secondary school, although I know that I did have lots of conversations with her over the years. She always seemed to have time for me.

But I think there are so many things that you get from siblings too and that also changes over time. While you may be enraged by them as a toddler when they take your toys or boss you around, you might also know that they will be in your corner at school if you get bullied or will be there to babysit your kids when you are older. Daughters two and three are the closest in age. I remember daughter three being absolutely apoplectic on many occasions with daughter two who would delight in being the leader in all things and not letting daughter three have a voice. That meant roping her into all sorts of amazing activities, though – swimming to Atlantis, synchronised swimming routines in the paddling pool and shows…That same older sister defended her to the hilt when she was being bullied and the two have just been on holiday together. I often see them lying on the sofa, with one of their heads on the other’s lap. They are very separate, very different people, but they absolutely have each other’s backs in a crisis.

When we go on holiday only son is in the middle of them all, arms linked. He may feel a bit excluded from some of what they talk about, but he can more than hold his own when it comes to music. I hope that we have built a sense of a team, whose members will be there for each other well after we parents have left the scene, but as parents you can only guide not control the future.

It’s perhaps more of a longer term picture than the research on sibling relationships, but there is so much you get from having siblings, depending on your relationship with them. Some of it can be negotiating tricky power play situations or learning how to accommodate different people’s interests, some of it can push you to the limits of your patience [I recall daughter one saying on numerous occasions about daughter two ‘she just wants to be me’], but most of it can be positive, often under careful adult guidance in the early days. And you know you’ve done a good job as a parent when every single one of them thinks your favourite is a different child, but clearly not them.

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