A few years ago, a fascinating university study emerged that showed the mental health benefits of having a sister. After a careful study of more than 400 families, a theme emerged that children with sisters were less likely to experience loneliness, depression, and shame and also were more motivated, kind, resilient, and had closer friendships. The social scientists who conducted the research even went so far as to conclude that sisters are more influential than parents are! The results of this project were heavily amplified: Huffington Post, USA Today, and Psych Central were some of the big names in the media to talk about the findings. As someone with five female siblings, this research did not surprise me one bit, and yet I was still thrilled to see this cultural conversation about sisters!
How can we use what this study illustrates to inform how we raise young people? The positive influence of sisters extends beyond childhood and adolescence, and my belief is that we can effectively model and teach the values that are practiced in healthy sister relationships in order to foster these precious mental health benefits. Here are some strategies to raise kids (girls and boys) to have excellent social and interpersonal skills so they’ll be great siblings and future adults.
A good place to start is to teach kids to express emotion. So often young people are not trained to work with and honor their internal experiences. Let’s help them first acknowledge and identify their emotions, then properly communicate them. For example, if you notice that your daughter is having a hard day, maybe say something like, “you’re probably feeling pretty frustrated, huh? Would you like to tell me more about that?” as you listen to whatever message this child chooses to express. This lets her know that it’s okay to have feelings, and it can be good to talk about them!
Through the years, they can use this skill to share their emotions and thoughts with others, particularly with their siblings. This act of communicating (regularly and sincerely) is one of the best safeguards against the emotional discontentment that plagues so many adults. I can personally attest to the healing effects of talking things out with the girls. I can share details of my life (whether they’re fascinating or mundane) with my sisters and then actually feel our relationship strengthen. It’s almost a tangible connection. Encouraging kids to express their emotions and then to have an active friendship with their siblings can lead to them maintaining those communication patterns later in their lives.
Kindness is an important value to instill in our children to ensure that they’ll be good brothers and sisters. It’s such a simple and beautiful principle, and yet it seems like all too often it’s overlooked. Model in your own life what it means to be kind to others (whether they’re strangers or friends) and lovingly correct your children when they are unkind. Make thoughtfulness, respect, and love the norms in your home, and have high expectations that your children will treat each other in these ways.
Taking this idea a step further, the study revealed how important affection is; it’s a crucial aspect of the positive mental health outcomes found among siblings. According to Laura Padilla-Walker (the head researcher of this study), a lack of affection can create bigger problems than even lots of fighting. So without forcing your kids to show affection, why not suggest that they may feel good and happy if they hug or hold hands with their brother or sister?
This can help them know additional ways to express their love and feelings for one another and can also create an opportunity to teach and model appropriate personal boundaries (e.g., only hug someone who wants to be hugged, etc.) C.S. Lewis famously said that “affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives,” so let’s help children understand that they can use it to show that they care about their brothers and sisters.
And finally, even conflicts with siblings can help prepare young people for a life of good mental health. It may seem counterintuitive, but the truth is that dealing with differences of opinion—even those that escalate into fights—can teach kids about boundaries, forgiveness, sharing, and communication. Young children generally don’t yet possess the skills to manage conflict, so it’s the job of the parent to step in and help them resolve the issue. Once the problem has passed, your kids can even learn and experience what forgiveness looks like.
Truly, the home is a great environment for understanding people skills, especially when it comes to conflict resolution. And although high levels of sibling conflict correlate with increased aggression in other relationships, on a positive note, conflicts that naturally arise in home relationships give siblings a chance to practice emotional management and strengthen problem-solving skills.
I know I’m not alone in saying that I adore my sisters and value all the things I have gained from my relationships with them. Let’s dig a little deeper into what makes sisters so great for our mental health and then harness this knowledge to equip our kids with the skills to help each other throughout their lives.