My younger sister and I spent a lot of time together growing up, and she was my closest companion during my early years. That said, few things could get me as profoundly enraged as she could – perhaps some of you can relate! As time passed, we spent less time together and more time with our peers. Life happened, and we grew up.

“Siblings can influence each other’s development in positive ways.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children spent less time with their peers and more time in isolation, often alongside siblings. Looking back, I wonder how my relationship with my sister would have been affected if we had been in a similar situation, spending even more of our formative years together.

Why do sibling relationships matter?

Sibling relationships are among the longest-lasting relationships many of us will ever have. Siblings often fight for their parents’ attention and resources (the remote control and the last cookie, in my case). While there may be advantages to being an only child, having a sibling offers benefits as well: Siblings can influence each other’s development in positive ways – for example, encouraging the development of social skills through interaction, observation, and imitation. Having a sibling can help children learn that others have their own emotions, intentions, and beliefs. This, in turn, promotes the development of positive relationships and self-esteem later on.

Sibling relationships during the pandemic

Sibling relationships can be a protective factor during stressful life experiences, helping to shield children from sadness and loneliness. Some relationships may have improved during the pandemic, as siblings were able to turn to each other for support that was perhaps lacking from parents or friends. Particularly for girls, interaction with siblings and mutual acceptance seem to have increased; why this holds true for girls more than for boys remains unclear. Spending time together in isolation may have brought siblings closer together, as they have shared not only activities, but also their feelings. Indeed, a recent study has found that children with siblings experienced less depression and anxiety during the pandemic than children without siblings.

“Sibling relationships can be a protective factor during stressful life experiences, helping to shield children from sadness and loneliness.”

The pandemic has been extremely stressful for many families, however, and stress in the family can increase the likelihood of sibling violence. There is some evidence that both physical and emotional abuse by a brother or sister increased while families were isolating at home. This is concerning, as conflicts among siblings can have lifelong consequences. Being bullied by a sibling has been linked to depression and self-harm in adulthood.

Can parents improve sibling relationships?

Parenting styles can influence sibling relationships. Based on the work of psychologist Diana Baumrind, a distinction is made among three types of parenting styles. Authoritative parenting shows warmth and understanding while also providing supervision. Authoritarian parenting is characterized by more controlling behavior and less warmth. Permissive parenting provides little supervision of children. Some researchers include a fourth style – neglectful parenting, in which parents are relatively uninvolved with their children.

One study has shown that both authoritative and permissive parents tend to have children who are supportive of each other, while this is less true of authoritarian and neglectful parents. It is generally believed that authoritative parenting is the most beneficial parenting style for a developing child out of those based on Diana Baumrind’s work.

“By helping siblings to communicate with one another, parents can promote the development of social skills.”

If a child is being bullied by a sibling, coaching techniques can help parents deal with the situation in a productive way. For instance, they can facilitate communication between the children and involve them in conflict management decisions. By helping siblings to communicate with one another, parents can promote the development of social skills and help lessen the effects of stressful events such as the pandemic.

More on this topic
The benefits of helping children understand emotions

I like to think that my relationship with my sister would have been one of mutual support and trust, had we been children during the pandemic. However, sibling relationships are complicated, as siblings can simultaneously be role models, confidants, and adversaries. I believe more research is needed to shed light on one of the earliest, most lasting, and most impactful connections a child can have. By learning more about how to nurture supportive connections and communications between siblings, we may be able to help set children on a positive path throughout their development and particularly in times of crisis.

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