Sometimes it comes naturally, but often the closeness between siblings needs to be nurtured and cultivated.
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“For me, nothing is more important than brothers and sisters,” says Dana Castro, psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. “I myself am very close to my sisters. I share with them my most beautiful childhood memories.” Castro, the author of Frères et sœurs, les aider à s’épanouir (Brothers and Sisters: help them blossom), notes that for many parents, family harmony is an important driving force. “They have in mind the stereotypical image of siblings chatting in a quiet atmosphere by the fire and that the parents have the role of doing everything they can to keep harmony among their children and to bring out the love between them.”
In reality, things are much more complicated. “It’s universal: there are ups and downs in relationships between brothers and sisters,” insists Castro. The psychotherapist specifies that “one must be wary of perfect, idyllic and smooth harmony. This may mean that one of the children is sacrificing themselves to maintain the balance desired by their parents!”
The most important thing is to do whatever you can to avoid instigating rivalries
For Dominic, a father of five, harmony is inevitably relative, “It’s part of the learning process to disagree, to understand each other.” Learning to live together, to form this first social unit that prepares us for adulthood, conceding, forgiving, sharing … these essential values of community life are learned early on, in the family unit. The range of extreme emotions experienced among siblings undeniably prepares them for future emotional life.
This preparation is all the more effective because “children do not have the choice to be brothers and sisters or not,” Dominic recalls. “They express very quickly and very early on their right to disagree, to fight with each other, but their condition as brothers and sisters is unconditional and inalienable. For better or for worse, this allows them to test with each other what they would not dare to with their friends.” Siblings are the bearers of contradictions and ambivalence: desires, fears, a place of love and tears, tenderness and jealousy.
The role of parents at the head of this miniature society must be defined with finesse, requiring constant adjustments and rigorous frameworks, “which children absolutely need to grow up,” says Castro. The most important thing is to do everything possible not to aggravate rivalries: not showing preferences, adapting to each person’s needs, distributing responsibilities in a balanced way, sharing time equitably among the children. Conflicts between siblings often stem from a sense of injustice. If the parents prefer one of the children, for reasons of temperament and affinity, then they must compensate with their other children by arranging special time with them. This implies having a sincere and lucid view of your relationship with your children.
Be the “guardians of the bonds of friendship”
The role of parents is essential, especially when the children do not get along. “In this case, you can’t force siblings to love each other, but it is essential to maintain a family balance.” Geraldine, mother of four, says that her two sons, the oldest and third, have never gotten along. “Our oldest son likes to explain things to the little ones, and spends time playing with them — except for his little brother. He never shows him his LEGOs or Playmobil. It is very hard on him.”
She did not hesitate to intervene in the relationship, inviting the older child to take time to play with his brother when his sadness was unbearable. She also encouraged the younger brother to be less demanding of his older brother. “I have always tried to find the words to translate the suffering and expectations of one to the other.” Geraldine notes that the older her sons grow, the more common ground they find. “You shouldn’t give up,” says this mother, for whom the most important thing is not that siblings are always happy with each other, but that each one is “individually fulfilled.”
Castro points to the crucial role of parents as the “conveyor belt” that ensures that the bond between the children is never broken. The adults are thus the “guardians of the bonds of friendship.” They pass on important information, give children the keys to understanding a sibling, then help each family member find his or her own solutions and adjust their attitude.
Provide some time alone for everyone
It is, however, a question of finding the right balance and not systematically intervening in conflicts or disagreements between brothers and sisters. Anne-Sophie and her husband have decided not to act as referees when their children have a fight: “We let them manage if they don’t come to us for help. They learn to find a solution to their conflict on their own.” The only absolute limits for them: no violence, no insults.
When arguments are too frequent, Ludivine organizes “desert days” where the children have to spend a day playing alone. This is an opportunity for them to recharge their batteries and experience the absence of a playmate. “They quickly get back together on their own,” she says. As for Eleanor, she doesn’t wait for conflict to impose daily moments of solitude on her three oldest children. “I do home-schooling, so the children are together all the time. This has a big influence on developing relationships, but it also requires that they have time for themselves, especially my eldest daughter, who needs more peace and quiet.” This young mother also makes sure that each child has an activity of their own and has opportunities to make other friends as well.
However, the problem of arguments is more difficult when adolescence begins and personalities change. It’s not a big deal when little kids fight; they won’t remember it,” says Alexandra. “But with older children, it’s important to be vigilant.” As a mother of seven children between the ages of 7 and 24, she remembers one summer when the rivalry between the two eldest children, who were in their teens, was non-stop. “The meals were unbearable. I ended up rearranging the seating plan so they wouldn’t see each other. It saved our vacation.” Sometimes you have to know how to separate the combatants.
Siblings, a bond to be cultivated
The role of the parents is essential in encouraging, with patience and finesse, a good relationship between the children. While it sometimes comes naturally, this bond must be maintained and cultivated. Anne-Sophie repeats over and over to her children that “their brothers and sisters are a treasure they must cherish.” In this family, board games are a great way to have a good time: “We favor group games and, if it isn’t agroup game, we invent rules to win the game that encourage the children to form a team so that everyone can make it all the way to the end.”
At both Alexandra and Eleanor’s home, the most important thing is helping each other. Alexandra encourages the older ones to help the younger ones with their homework. Eleanor does not hesitate to delegate certain tasks: “When a child asks me for something, I start by suggesting that they ask their sister or brother. I encourage mutual aid, with a little compliment, such as ‘Your sister needs your strong arms, would you please help her?’” Marie organizes “guardian angel” days, where each of her children secretly picks out the name of one of their siblings and must discretely help them out during that day. The organization of exceptional moments –a walk in the mountains or an ice cream on the beach — also allows the children to share memories that will enrich their bonds.
Finally, prayer is a privileged time, to ask forgiveness from a particular sister or brother, to pray for someone on their birthday or for the little one, stuck in bed with a nasty illness. This is an essential foundation for the family, a tiny church which is intrinsically the place of fraternity.
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