How Siblings Bond

February 19, 2013 at 6:21 am (Attachment Parenting)

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The importance of a secure parent-child attachment is not a new revelation; this is what sets the foundation for all future relationships a child will have in his life. But there is also something to be said for security between siblings. A connected relationship between brothers and sisters also provides a foundational context. It is an opportunity to develop the groundwork for peer relationships in a child’s life.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, developmental psychologist and co-author of Hold On To Your Kids, has devoted his life’s work to studying attachment and to helping parents and children resolve relationship struggles. According to Dr. Neufeld, there are six stages of attachment: six levels of development that a relationship must go through before the participants have reached secure attachment. These stages start simply and build consecutively to deepen the level of attachment over time. To successfully navigate all six stages is to develop a secure relationship. Just as parents and children go through these stages of attachment, so do siblings.

Helping children develop a security with each other goes beyond mediating arguments and preventing sibling rivalry. It’s about fostering security between your children and strengthening their relationship; it’s helping siblings find attachment in each other. Here are Dr. Neufeld’s six stages of attachment as they apply to sibling relationships and some ways you can help children navigate each one.

Being With
The most basic level of attachment between siblings is simply about engaging positively together. Their relationship begins as soon as they meet one another other and it continues every time they talk, laugh, play, smile, hug, play house, swordfight, or put on skits in the living room. These behaviors engage the senses and connect siblings on a basic level.

When children are getting along and playing happily, it is important to let them continue for as long as possible. This means don’t interrupt, comment, or join in, but just let them have that enjoyable time together for as long as it will last. “I have delayed dinnertime, cancelled playdates, even occasionally rescheduled my daughter’s music lesson because my kids were playing so well together, and I just wanted it to last!” says Amy Jackson, a mom of two in New York. When you can, make sacrifices for the sake of sibling camaraderie; maximize those opportunities for positive interaction. It is absolutely essential to their long-term relationship.

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Though, as any parent of multiple children knows, sibling interactions are not always positive. Conflicts are still interactions that can help bring children closer together, and they’re not always necessary for a parent to intervene. When kids resolve their own disagreements, their relationship becomes stronger, as they must learn to communicate with each other. As long as a conflict between children is minor, let them have the opportunity to work it out themselves. Don’t step in right away. This will give kids a chance to express themselves with each other and establish their baseline of communication.

Letting children resolve their own conflicts won’t be possible all of the time, especially in the early years. When conflicts escalate in intensity or physical or verbal violence is involved, it’s always necessary to step in and mediate. Young children’s brains are immature, and they do not yet have the neural connections needed to effectively communicate when their emotions run strong. Kids’ lack of impulse control may lead to actions and interactions that aren’t conducive to sibling attachment. Modeling nonviolent communication and facilitating their problem solving will teach children the communication skills they need solve difficulties with their brother or sister while still maintaining the relationship.

It is also important to ensure that family time is a priority. As often as you can, get the whole family together for meals, games, outings, bike rides or other activities that are fun for everyone. The support and companionship of everyone together will assist the development of children’s relationships; they’ll engage positively with each other within the context of the whole family and have shared enjoyable experiences together.

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Being Like
The next level of attachment, beyond simply interacting together, is when siblings know how they are the same. Realizing what you have in common with another person takes interaction a step further. They may not realize it, but siblings have commonalities. No matter how opposite your children may seem, they at least have you in common! Beyond that, there are most likely other similarities they share, and it’s important for them to realize what they are. Are there hobbies they both enjoy? Characters they like? Interests they share? What do they both dislike? Find those things that they have in common and help your children bond over them. Have conversations over dinner about their favorite TV shows. Ask them questions or have them teach you about the things they like to do together. Engage kids in their shared interests as often as possible.

Being Together
From regular positive interactions and the realization of their similar interests, children start to develop a sense of loyalty towards each other and a feeling of belonging. With their siblings, kids feel a sense of we’re a team; we work together; we’re in the same boat. This stage of attachment comes about naturally after years of living together, resolving disagreements, supporting one another, communicating regularly, enjoying each other’s company and working cooperatively, so it’s important to prioritize those first stages of attachment. In addition to facilitating positive interactions and focusing on kids’ commonalities, you can also provide plenty of opportunities for your kids to work as a team.

Gina Osher, a mom of 6-year-old boy/ girl twins and author of The Twin Coach, says that she gives her kids plenty of opportunities to communicate and work together through games. “We occasionally do ‘sibling night’ in which the kids get to make all of the decisions for the evening,” she says. “It’s good practice for them to have to work together, and it’s fun for them to tell mommy what to do as a team.” Regular games in which siblings work together like this are a great way to further their senses of fellowship towards each other. They feel that perspective of, “We are together in this.”

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Being Significant
At this level of attachment, a child feels significant to his sibling. There’s a sense between the two of them that, not only are they a team, but they also matter to one another. They’re significant in the family, they’re significant to their parents, and they realize they’re significant to their siblings. Significance develops when a child stands up for a sibling at school or when one shows a gesture of kindness to the other. It occurs when siblings support each other in their activities by attending each other’s basketball games or dance performances. It’s waving ‘hi’ to a sister from across the cafeteria at school, helping to take care of a brother when he’s sick (even if that just means leaving him alone so he can rest), and it’s making sure a sibling is included in a game with peers. These kinds of gestures communicate, “You matter to me.”

Being Loved
Though it doesn’t happen right away, with the development of a relationship over time comes the knowledge between siblings that they are loved by each other. The bond between them deepens when they no longer need prompting to behave in loving ways but when gestures of affection come from the heart. These might be expressions of genuine apology, offering comfort during a hurtful moment, a hug during a joyous one, or deep concern for the other’s emotions. After years of growing into a connected relationship together, siblings’ gestures towards each other begin to show unprompted love, and they will move into the last stage of attachment.

Being Known
At this point in the relationship, a child feels trust, significance, love, commonality, and a sense of belonging. That is, they feel close enough to a sibling to divulge deeply personal information. They want to tell their sibling everything about themselves as they share their secrets, their fears, their emotions, their hopes, and their dreams. At this stage of attachment, siblings are able to communicate intensely and find support in their love. They truly hear one another. Genuine sibling attachment is more than just getting along, it is about being known to each other.

It takes time, perhaps even into adulthood, to develop the deeper levels of attachment between brothers and sisters. The most important thing to do to facilitate this relationship when children are young is to foster those beginning stages; create opportunities throughout childhood for siblings to relate and engage in a consistently positive way. Help them see what they have in common. Create opportunities for them to work together. These kinds of interactions create a foundation for early attachment, and the deeper levels will naturally unfold with time.

6 Comments

  1. Joshua Koepp said,

    Reblogged this on Fiddlehouse Dad and commented:
    This is a really neat piece about sibling attachment. I like the idea that sibling attachment is an important part of secure attachment. Obviously, Dr. Neufeld has done far more research than me on the topic, but my gut reaction is that the “6 stages” might be a little arbitrary. One could probably figure out one more and make it seven or cut one out and still get the same idea across. I also think that, rather than this being a single, sequential development that starts young and goes through adulthood, sibling probably go through ALL the stages several times as they grow older and pass through different developmental stages. It might be more of a spiral that continues up be also doubles back on itself a few times. I bet that each time the sibs go through the cycle, the attachment experiences set them up for the next go round. Just a thought. I do think the information is very useful for helping us foster better interactions between siblings.

    • Kelly said,

      That’s interesting, Josh, thanks for your thoughts. Dr. Neufeld’s study of the stages of attachment are focused on the parent-child relationship…they begin at birth and are estimated to take about a year to complete year stage. So by the time a child is 7 years old, ideally, he is securely and fully attached to his primary caregiver. So his work in attachment is just focused on the parent-child relationship.

      But his principles of how relationships develop are universal …when we meet someone new, we all start at the first stage of “Being With” (engaging the senses with handshakes, eye contact, smiles, etc) and gradually progress through the deeper stages (what do we have in common, do we ‘belong’ as friends?, etc). In this articles, I just applied his same principles of relationship development to that of sibling relationships, because from what I know of my own sibling relationship and what I see developing in my children it made a lot of sense…I see the attachment happening the same way.

      That said, sibling relationships may take YEARS to reach secure attachment, and some siblings may never get there. There’s no right or wrong answer to how far siblings “should” attach (though a child should definitely reach full attachment with a parent or caregiver), but I think sibling relationships progress roughly along the same lines as Neufeld’s identified stages of attachment.

      Your idea of it being cyclical is interesting, though! I completely see what you’re saying! I’m sure sibling relationships are complex, and I’m interested to learn more. 🙂

  2. katesurfs said,

    This is so cool! I have little ones, 6 months and almost 3… but I can already see them forming a little relationship. The older one, to my surprise is really gentle and nurturing and thoughtful when dealing with her little sister! I was really shocked! But, I went to a Dr. Sears seminar just the other day and it all made sense because he was saying that being attachment parents encourages all of that positive behaviour 🙂 Very nice to see in action!

  3. Ariadne - Positive Parenting Connection said,

    Kelly,
    what a wonderful post. my three kids are so attached to one another, I have been so grateful for how they interact and care for one another, and I found myself nodding over and over again as I read this and thinking, yes, this – exactly this! I was just writing something about how we sabotage our child’s play with interruptions and forcing sharing issues, and how letting them play until THEY are done is so important and just like you wrote, it applies to fostering that true bond between siblings too. sharing this!!

  4. mamacravings said,

    I found your blog from “The Single Crunch” on FB. My son is an only, but he has an uncle that acts as a sibling. This article is really helpful, especially since they did not get to be “siblings” the traditional way.

    I am excited to share this on my fb too. I know my readers will benefit from this as much as I have.

  5. 30 Blogs with the Best Tips on Helping Siblings to Get Along - Become A Nanny said,

    […] How Siblings Bond […]

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