Brothers and Sisters, Unite!

Laurie Kramer is associate dean and professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a prominent researcher in the field of family studies with a long-time interest in family resiliency. One of her objectives is to discover why some siblings have positive bonds while others do not, so that effective programs for enhancing these relationships can be developed. To this end, Kramer has been following 30 families in a long-term study that began in 1984 as each prepared to have a second child. Using a variety of methods, from interviews and questionnaires to in-home observations, she has been working to understand how sibling relationships are established and how they change as children develop.

What Kramer has learned to date has enabled her to create a preventive intervention program called “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers,” which teaches children between the ages of 4 and 8 the specific social skills they need to improve their relationships. The program is currently offered at the University of Illinois Family Resiliency Center, where she served as the founding director.

Vision’s Gina Stepp asked Kramer to elaborate on some of her research and her views on the sibling bond.


GS Existing research suggests that a positive sibling relationship offers tremendous advantages. But does a person need to have siblings to develop optimally?

LK Individuals who grow up without a sibling are not necessarily disadvantaged. The literature shows that only children do just fine through life. They manage to learn a lot of very valuable social and emotional competencies, but they tend to learn them from peers. So they’re not truly disadvantaged, but their social experiences and their experiences growing up are likely to be different from those of children who grow up with siblings.

As a result of my research, one of the things I believe is most important about sibling relationships is that they provide some safe opportunities for children to develop those social and emotional competencies that help them learn how to manage other relationships in their lives. How better to learn how to have a fight than with someone who is still going to be your brother or sister the next day. These are often safe relationships, where children can experiment, develop some new skills and do some things that might not be acceptable in other types of relationships.

But those who grow up as only children can develop some of those skills through their relationships with peers, with friends, maybe with cousins. Cousin relationships are really understudied and probably undervalued as well. Even for children with siblings, they provide great opportunities to have close relationships with people who may be close in age but are also predisposed to care about them.

GS Do you find that birth order is a primary concern in sibling relationships?

LK The research tends to show that factors like birth order, children’s age and gender constellation—factors that are called “social address”—often do play a role in predicting how well children get along with their siblings, but not an especially powerful role. If you think about it, it makes sense. Knowing where a child falls in a family can help people understand how those individuals’ experiences may have been different as they were growing up. Being the firstborn, for example, means coming into a family of only adults, and the adults are usually very motivated to understand and perhaps cater to the needs of the child. Coming in as a second-born means that there’s already another child, so parents are a little bit more experienced in dealing with children; it’s a more child-oriented rather than an adult-oriented family environment. So the experiences individuals have may be different because of their birth order, but in the big scheme of things, those factors don’t seem to play a tremendous role in shaping the quality of the relationships that people have with one another.

We don’t usually have a lot of control over the social-address factors. If we’re lucky, we get to choose when we have our children, and how old older children are before a younger sibling enters the family. But in a lot of cases, adults don’t have that kind of control; biology gets in the way. We don’t have any control over the gender or the gender constellation of the children. So we don’t really get to make a whole lot of decisions about those factors, and if we do it’s maybe just one decision. Yet every day we have countless opportunities to make decisions about the ways we parent our children, all of which may have an impact on how the children get along.

Every day we have countless opportunities to make decisions about the ways we parent our children, all of which may have an impact on how the children get along.” 

Laurie Kramer

GS So would you say the primary concern is the way parents encourage relationships between their children?

LK I think that’s a huge part of it, but it also relates to things the children themselves bring to these relationships—social and emotional skills that are likely to lead to a more positive relationship with a sibling. Parents can play a very important part, but sometimes we need to work directly with children and help them develop those skills too.

GS To this end, you’ve developed a program called “More Fun With Sisters and Brothers” to teach 4- to 8-year-olds social skills that help lay the groundwork. Can you tell us a little bit about the program?

LK It’s a five-session program aimed at teaching children the social and emotional competencies that contribute to good sibling relationships.

The first session helps children understand the importance of sibling relationships—the fact that it is the longest relationship that these kids will have with anyone in their families. It really encourages them to make these positive relationships. The parents watch the program, so they’re learning the skills too and learning how to coach their children so that the skills are actually used in contexts outside the program. We teach kids how to ask each other to play, how to look at whether they’re being successful in their interactions, what to do when they don’t want to play—how to get out of those play invitations in a way that doesn’t lead to hurt feelings or conflict.

The second session focuses on perspective-taking, teaching kids to look at a situation not only in terms of what they want or need but also to identify that their brother’s or sister’s needs, thoughts and ideas are valid and just as important as their own, though they may be different.

The third session focuses on the fact that interacting with a sibling can be very emotional. Often it’s difficult for young kids to manage some of the emotions that happen in their interactions with siblings. We work with them first to help them develop a wider vocabulary of emotions and to distinguish between emotions that they often find confusing. For example, you may hear young kids say to one another, “I hate you!” They don’t really hate their sibling; they’re frustrated. So you’re trying to help them develop a more accurate way to articulate what they’re experiencing. And then we teach children some skills for regulating their emotions. We teach them a variety of methods to help them be aware of when they’re feeling overwhelmed by these emotions and then learn how to manage them.

All of this culminates in the fourth session, where we teach children how to manage conflict. We teach a problem-solving approach that includes all the skills we’ve taught them.

The final session takes place in the families’ own homes and helps kids apply those skills. So far we’ve been working with families who have volunteered to be part of the program research, so they understand that we are actually videotaping children interacting in their home so that we can get a picture of how well they’re getting along and also whether they’re using any of the skills that we’ve taught them in the program. Parents welcome this. It’s really important for kids to be able to apply those skills at home, or in the car, in the grocery store—wherever they are; and parents have to play a very active role in cuing their kids, prompting them to use these skills and coaching them. A component of the program teaches parents how to do that.

GS One of the most common areas where parents seem to have difficulty is knowing when and how to intervene in children’s conflict. Do you have any recommendations?

LK There are certainly some core social and emotional competencies that are critical for the developmental level we work with. The research that I and others have done has clearly shown that for children who don’t already have those skills in conflict management, it is critical for parents to step in and help. Children under the age of 8 were generally unable to manage conflicts with their siblings completely on their own if they had not previously been taught some skills for doing that. There could be some exceptions, of course, but one thing that’s really critical is for parents to think about whether their children will know what to do if they don’t intervene. If they feel that their children have those skills, maybe all they really need to do is remind them that this is a good time to use them. If they feel that their children don’t have those skills, then they may have to be more actively involved in coaching their children through the process. I think it’s important for parents not to be the ones to settle the argument, per se—to decide who wins or loses, or to punish someone for starting a fight. Rather, it’s important for parents to be the coach and help the children have the sorts of conversations with one another that will lead to some understanding of one another’s positions and help them come up with a solution to their problem that both children feel is acceptable.

GS What if the parent is hearing one child say to his sibling, “If you don’t do what I want you to do, I’m not going to play with you”? Is that conflict resolution?

LK No, that’s relational aggression. It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, “I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.” It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.

GS What is the first issue you usually see between siblings? Is it jealousy when a second child comes into the family?

LK It’s been labeled as jealousy, displacement, dethronement; a lot of words have been used to describe something that’s common, but it’s not universal. You’ll find many kids who are very excited about developing a relationship with a new baby. But I think a lot of the problem stems from the realization that this younger child is not as competent as they are—not able to articulate or play with them. There may be some disappointment because the baby takes so much of the parents’ time and attention—attention that was previously devoted to them. Those are valid observations and feelings. One of the most helpful things parents can do happens before the new baby arrives; that is, talking with the older child about the new baby coming in ways that recognize that the new baby is a separate person, someone who is going to have his or her own ideas, experiences, wants, likes, dislikes. The goal is to help the older child recognize the individuality part of it, but also realize that this is a new person in the family to love, and someone who will love them.

And of course, everything changes when the baby starts getting mobile and starts getting into the older child’s stuff.

GS What about that? Is that when parents need to teach them how to share?

Sharing is wonderful, but that’s just one possible way of handling conflict over toys.”

Laurie Kramer

LK You know, sharing is wonderful, but that’s just one possible way of handling conflict over toys. In our program, we use strategies that help kids not to behave impulsively but to reflect on the situation a little bit and articulate what it is they want and what they perceive the baby or toddler wants or needs, to deal with some of their feelings about those situations, and to brainstorm ways to resolve the situation to meet the needs of everyone in the family. It’s not always coming in and saying, “You’ve got to share.” It’s much more helping kids go through a process where they can identify what they really want, what their sibling wants, and how to deal with those differing thoughts and feelings. It’s based on perspective-taking, but it grows into a problem-solving approach where you can offer a lot of different ways to solve the problem. It could be sharing, turn-taking or something else.

We really try to teach them flexible thinking to generate different ways to solve a problem. It might be key for a child to be able to say, “I don’t really want my little brother or sister to have that, because that one is special to me.” That can lead to a whole different kind of conversation that opens their eyes to what might be special to the other child. They can make it reciprocal, so they both understand that some things are just going to be special to each of them, and what should they do in those situations? Should they have a special place in the closet? Should that toy just come out on weekends? Should a toy be placed in “time-out”? There are many ways to handle those situations, and we try to encourage parents not to worry so much about what the particular outcome is but to focus on the process of being able to tell one another what they’re thinking and feeling so it becomes framed as a problem. This is important, because problems have solutions.

GS What about for families who didn’t have this information in time? Is there any way to change negative patterns in their relationships?

LK One of the reasons we like to start when children are very young—ideally as a second or third child is just being brought into the family, or soon after—is to try to prevent those dynamics from becoming routinized. If you’ve grown up in a family that values talking things out and sharing perspectives, and that knows how to problem-solve, it’s unlikely that siblings are suddenly going to begin bullying one another in adolescence. So starting early is really ideal.

But kids are never too old to learn how to correct some of those dynamics and recalibrate sibling relationships so they are a little bit more egalitarian and respectful and don’t include that bullying or relational aggression. We have not directly studied the relationship of adolescents to the extent that we know all the factors that contribute to good sibling relationships in the same depth that we have with the younger children. But we do know that differential treatment of siblings by parents is going to be a very salient issue for adolescents, on top of all the other things we’ve talked about. There are all sorts of issues—like coercing people into doing things for you—that you want to bring out on the table so the siblings in a family can learn how to talk to each other about them.

GS How does all of this apply when there are step-siblings, adopted siblings or disabled siblings? Do these variations materially change the strategies we’ve been discussing?

LK Each brings its own set of complications. There’s probably some degree of overlap across them, but the issues that come to bear are things like Who’s really my parent? Who do I need to listen to? How do I get along with siblings who are not 100 percent biologically related to me? What does that mean? There are a lot of issues there.

The disability questions are huge. We know a little bit about what it means to grow up with a sibling who has some form of disability or developmental disorder, and the types of pressures that that often creates for siblings who are developing typically and some of their particular needs in those situations. So that’s a very different complication.

Then you have twins and other multiple births. It’s fascinating to me; we’ve talked about birth order, but even when you have twins or triplets, they usually identify someone as being the oldest or youngest. And if there are other children, different types of alliances may develop. We know very little about sibling relationships in large families, and those will be a bit different as well. I don’t think we know enough in general about what these types of families look like in terms of alliances.

The good news is that with some careful thought and attention, the opportunity exists to really help children develop positive relationships with one another.”

Laurie Kramer

There are a lot of interesting questions left to explore in sibling research. Often siblings are directly encouraged to share interests, but sometimes they are diverted to very different things. Does that have an impact on how close they become, and is there a connection to parents’ perceptions of how close they were to begin with? There are a lot of dynamics involved. The good news is that with some careful thought and attention, the opportunity exists to really help children develop positive relationships with one another.

GS Is it ever too late for parents to change the dynamics between their children, or for grown siblings to change negative patterns in their relationships?

LK Never. It’s never too late.