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How Sibling Connections Help Us Thrive During Social Distancing

Professor Jonathan Caspi shares advice for parents, as well as adult siblings, during the pandemic

Posted in: Faculty Voices, University

Jonathan Caspi
Professor of Family Science and Human Development Jonathan Caspi

As New York has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the nation has watched while the Cuomo brothers – Governor Andrew and CNN Anchor Chris – support (and rib) each other on national TV.

Even while each lightheartedly claims to be their mom’s favorite, their bond is helping them get through the crisis – particularly as Chris battles the virus and isolation – and it shows how one of the keys to surviving our new world of social distancing lies in our relationships with our siblings.

Professor of Family Science and Human Development Jonathan Caspi says that whether between adults or children, it’s the unique bonds siblings create that can make all the difference during the coronavirus pandemic and other crises.

“Siblings have deep-rooted connections,” says Caspi. “Our shared childhoods mean that we have shared histories and have been witnesses to each other’s greatest and most embarrassing moments. For adults, the ability to relax, joke, reminisce and commiserate about how crazy things have become is extremely helpful for our mental and physical health.”

Keep the Connections With Adult Siblings in Times of Crisis

While it’s an important time for facilitating our children’s sibling relationships and building the bonds that will benefit them for a lifetime, it is also a good time to strengthen our connections with our own siblings.

Research shows that sibling relationships are a central factor in creating positive outcomes in all aspects of everyday life, from other interpersonal relationships to academics, sports, and even longevity, particularly for older adults. For example, the Harvard Study of Adult Development identified siblings as the most powerful factor in well-being for those who are 65.

The bonds become even more important as we grow older, as studies show that sibling relationships are more influential than relationships with friends or one’s own children for maintaining good health and life satisfaction in people 83 and older.

“While many of us may be focused on parenting our children’s sibling relationships right now, we shouldn’t forget the importance of our adult sibling relationships,” says Caspi. “Social distancing naturally creates isolation from those outside your immediate household, which can have negative effects on both your physical and mental health. So it’s more important than ever to maintain the sibling bonds we share, because connecting with siblings can be a powerful source for reducing isolation and anxiety, and making us happier. When we are less anxious, we are better coworkers, spouses and parents.”

Despite our inability to physically be with our adult siblings in most cases, Caspi believes this is an opportune time for people to connect and even strengthen these relationships – and that we will all be better for it.

“Connecting with our siblings, regardless of age, makes us better people in other areas of our lives,” he says. “I urge everyone to connect with your siblings – visually, even if it is virtually –  and experience the power these relationships can give you in these challenging times.”

Handling Sibling Conflict During the Crisis

As important as it is for adults to stay connected to siblings, it’s also important to nurture those sibling relationships of their children. As parents try to do that during the crisis, as well as create peace in the house during social distancing, Caspi says they should focus on – and praise – the positives, and structure each day so those relationships can thrive.

“Too often, busy parents rely on their children to keep each other occupied,” he says. “Siblings can play together really nicely by themselves often for a long time, but the minute a conflict breaks out, a parent gets involved and reprimands or asks ‘What’s going on?’” Caspi says, noting that this sets children up to complain and parents up to playing referee.

“In such cases, parents miss all the good or ‘pro-social’ behavior and only the negative encounter gets attention,” he says. “Giving the positive behavior attention reinforces it. Parents should say things like, ‘I’m so proud of how nicely you are treating each other!’ or  ‘I love how you are complimenting each other.’”

Structure will also play a critical role in helping siblings get along. Parents should develop and follow rules for situations such as alternating first turns for using toys or devices on a given day. Also, times should be set not only for online schooling, but also for “breaks” and “after school” help to provide parameters for the day, and reduce the risk of the boredom created by doing one activity for too long – which often leads to fighting with a brother or sister.

Fighting should largely be ignored, according to Caspi, unless it becomes dangerous, which involves verbal and physical behaviors that aim to do harm.

“Research has found that parental intervention into sibling conflicts usually perpetuates and even exacerbates negative relationships between children,” he says. “Even when a parent thinks they are helping by mediating, they’re often actually doing harm.

“Having a person mediate the relationship of others doesn’t allow the two in the relationship to sort things out themselves, which deprives them of the opportunity to become closer and know how to resolve problems independently,” he says. “This is a critical skill in a child’s development, one that can be consistently worked on throughout this time of social distancing.”

For more information on Montclair State’s family science and human development offerings, visit the University’s College of Education and Human Services.

Professor Jonathan Caspi and Senior Media Relations Specialist Andrew Mees contributed to this story.