Although families are adapting remarkably well to current restrictions, it’s hard on children not to be able to spend “real” time with friends. Virtual togetherness only goes so far towards satisfying young people’s desire to mix with peers.

For those lucky enough to have siblings living with them, could it help to regard their siblings as friends?

You’re probably thinking “impossible!” – and research is on your side. When Brenda Volling and colleagues at the University of Michigan collected information about five- to six-year-olds’ relationships with their best friend and their younger sibling, they found more positivity and egalitarianism between friends than siblings. When Wyndol Furman at the University of Denver asked 10- to 12-year-olds to assess the qualities of relationships, they described those with friends as companionable; with siblings as more often conflictual.

This is natural. Rivalry is inevitable between siblings, because each child is competing for the same “prize” – to be seen as the most special and lovable in their parents’ estimation. Sibling rivalry occurs in all mammals as a survival mechanism, to ensure the best access to food, warmth and protection. It can be particularly intense when children are close in age and/or similar in character because they’ll have many of the same needs at the same time – when that happens, parents have to decide whom to help first.

If you’re a parent, you’ll therefore face huge challenges if you encourage friendships among your offspring. But if you succeed – even partially – it will really improve the atmosphere in your household.

Here are some suggestions to help:

Don’t compare. Try never to tell one child they’re doing something “better” or “worse” than the other. Instead of trying harder, the slighted child will only feel increasingly jealous of their sibling.

Praise different strengths. Each of your children will have their strong points. Look out for and praise those qualities. If possible, try to mention something positive about their sibling at the same time. Not only does this encourage each child to build positive qualities, it reduces feelings of competition.

Set aside one-to-one time with each child. Even 10 minutes a day, just the two of you together, means each child will feel special and, therefore, have less reason to be rivalrous.

Emphasise practical tasks. According to Marieke Voorpostel at Utrecht University, siblings are more likely to support each other if they’re asked to work together on practical tasks as opposed to offering each other emotional support. The latter is better obtained from friends.

Your efforts will be rewarded not only now but also in the future. Hsiu-Chen Yeh and Jacques Lempers at Iowa State followed children in 374 families. Those who reported positive sibling relationships early on tended to have better friendships and increased self-esteem later.

The Daily Telegraph

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