Michelle McIvor can’t remember a time when she wasn’t playmates or friends with her brother. Growing up in Edmonton, the siblings, who are three years apart, spent weekends in their backyard jungle gym, played tag in the local park and made up songs together while walking to school.
“We were always really close,” says McIvor, now a mom of two, living in Calgary. “My parents did a lot of that by design. They didn’t overschedule us. Whether we were in our backyard or on vacation, we were always each other’s playmates.”
The pair is still close as adults, even though her brother lives across the country in Toronto. They call and visit each other regularly, and her bro was her “man of honour” at her wedding in 2015. McIvor hopes that her three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter will grow up to be buddies, too. To make this a reality, she and her husband are parenting them with friendship as a goal.
Talk to any parent of more than one child and this is a common desire. When our kids are little, we want them to get along to save our sanity from constant tiffs, teasing and tears. And most of us hope that, as they mature, the relationship will evolve from sometimes-playmates into friends and confidants. We also realize that we won’t always be here, and after we’re gone, it’s comforting to know our kids will still have each other to lean on. After all, the sibling relationship is the longest intimate relationship they will have, outlasting parents and predating spouses.
Predicting the quality of adult sibling relationships is difficult, however. There are no guarantees they’ll be besties—sometimes sibling rivalry and dislike lasts for life. But how siblings get along as children is indicative of how they’ll get along as adults, says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and co-author of Adult Sibling Relationships. Greif looked at case studies of more than 260 siblings over the age of 40 and found that children who had a lousy relationship with their siblings were more likely to continue the poor relationship into adulthood.
“You’re better off having a good relationship when you’re young, so you don’t have to learn how to do it when you’re older. And if you have it when you’re young and you get into trouble when you’re old, then you’ve got a better history to fall back on,” says Greif.
Veronica Teller’s* childhood with three younger siblings played out like an episode of Survivor, complete with shifting alliances, a lack of trust and even blackmail. The Toronto mom is finally starting to get along with her sister, but she’s still not particularly close with her brothers.
“I had other friends that, as we got older, I saw how close they were with their siblings. They had each other’s backs,” recalls Teller, who’s determined to raise her two daughters in a way that promotes friendship. “My siblings, we couldn’t trust each other for sure. But my parents wanted us to get along. I often reflect back on that—what could they have done?”
Turns out, expert say there are quite a few things parents can do to lay the foundation for their kids being friends later in life.
“Kids learn what they live,” says Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power, a parenting coaching service in Calgary. If they see Mom and Dad regulating their emotions, resolving conflicts amicably, treating loved ones with warmth and respect, and speaking kindly about others, they will be more likely to copy those behaviours—with their peers and with each other.
Children are born with a blank slate when it comes to social skills, says Bell, so it’s up to parents to teach them manners and to outline expectations and boundaries related to language, inclusion and physical aggression.
When Allison Ford was growing up, her parents laid out rules around how she and her two younger brothers interacted with each other. “Generally speaking, we would get called out if we excluded somebody or were mean to somebody else,” says the Vancouver mom of three.
Not only did the strategy work—Ford and her brothers got along when they were little and are now friends as adults—but it rubbed off. Ford and her husband have upheld similar expectations for their own children.
The sibling relationship is a “natural laboratory” where children learn how to share, negotiate and generally get along with other people, says Nina Howe, a professor of early childhood and elementary education at Concordia University in Montreal.
If your kids can come to understand each other’s point of view and stick up for their sibling in spite of personality differences, it will go a long way toward forming a lasting bond. Parents can encourage this support by taking the time to recognize each child’s strengths and weaknesses, and by doing things like recruiting one child to help out a sibling when they need it, says Howe.
Michelle McIvor builds the bond between her kids by having them boost each other up when they’re mastering a new skill. “We encourage them to cheer one another on,” says McIvor. For example, when her son dresses himself, Mom asks his little sister to make a big deal out of it for him. And when sis started walking down the stairs by herself, and kicked a ball for the first time, her big brother was there, saying, “Way to go!”
McIvor hopes that by supporting each other with small wins in childhood, they’ll become pillars for one another as they grow up.
On average, young siblings fight about three times an hour, so it’s probably unrealistic to think that yours will exist in a Kumbaya world free of disagreements. What matters most is how they resolve these frequent squabbles.
When Veronica Teller* was a child, her mom was always interfering in her relationships with her siblings, and she’s still trying to mediate their adult relationships. Now that Teller has her own kids, she wants to “teach them conflict resolution instead of having to intervene,” she says.
While researching for his book, Greif found a direct correlation between parental interference in childhood and negative adult sibling relationships. To avoid this cycle, help kids think of solutions that will be a win-win instead of automatically stepping in when they fight.
If they’re arguing over a toy, for example, suggest they set a timer and then each play with the coveted item for five minutes. Or perhaps they make a trade for a different toy so that everyone’s happy. The next time a similar disagreement erupts, see if they can work out a solution on their own. As they get older, Mom or Dad might get an earful from one sibling about another. Listen (don’t weigh in), and then ask, “What are you going to do about it?”
“By staying out of it as much as possible, you’re modelling not getting overly engaged in their relationship,” Greif says.
So your kids have a blowout and hurl insults at each other. Don’t force them to apologize in the moment because it won’t be sincere, says Bell. When they calm down, brainstorm ideas for making amends, whether the olive branch is an apology text or a conversation where they share their feelings and move forward.
When Ford’s three children were little, she always told them to make up after a fight. She encouraged them to write notes to each other apologizing in their own words, and adding a line or two that was positive: “I love you because…”
“I felt making amends was important so they’d all learn that it’s OK to wish you hadn’t said or done something, and that there are ways to make it right,” Ford says. It’s also a crucial step, considering siblings live together under the same roof (in other words, they can’t opt out), so they need to reconcile.
Whether it’s a weekly games night or an annual summer camping trip, rituals are the glue that bonds families together. A good place to start is the dinner table.
“Sit around the table and talk about what happened in the day,” says Howe. “Those traditions are really important.”
Not only did Ford and her husband have regular Sunday dinners with their kids, they also took an annual vacation that she believes helped solidify positive relationships between her son and two daughters, who are now young adults.
“The ritual of us doing a lot of family travel has encouraged them to choose to do more things together,” says Ford. “They don’t have as many friends who are as adventurous as they are. So they will go on a crazy backcountry hike together, or paddleboard across to a nearby island and stay overnight. They’re starting to see each other as that adventurous friend.”
Every child is different, with unique strengths and interests, so it behooves parents to celebrate that individuality—and teach their other kids to accept those differences—rather than verbalize a wish that one kid was more like another, says Bell. “Be very aware that you don’t compare kids,” she says.
Favouritism makes sibling conflict worse, say experts.
Teller feels that her close bond with her own mom growing up may have harmed her relationship with her siblings—in hindsight, she perceives that she was the favourite. Now a mom to a three-year-old daughter and a baby girl, she’s working hard to make sure she has a similar-strength bond with each child.
However, there are some situations that might warrant differential treatment from parents, says Greif. In families where one sibling has extraordinary needs, such as autism or a physical challenge, parents will need to spend more time with that child. But this disparity should be explained to the other sibling(s) in an age-appropriate way, and it can be balanced by making an effort to spend one-on-one time with all children.
Though experts caution there are no guarantees these tips will turn siblings into friends later in life, there’s no harm in trying. McIvor’s kids are little, and while she and her husband are still “figuring parenting out,” she’s bearing witness to how modelling, support, guided conflict resolution and family traditions are working to bond her children together—her son is already verbalizing his love for his younger sister.
“We’re starting to see how our efforts are paying off,” says McIvor.
*Names have been changed