By Leslie Davis
Children learn many things from their parents, including good manners, grooming habits and healthy eating practices. But children who have siblings may learn just as much about other aspects of life from their brother or sister.
A recent study in the journal New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development found that siblings influence each other’s social and emotional development, often affecting how they ultimately behave as adults. While this can go a long way in helping children learn to interact with their peers and strengthen their social skills, the influence of siblings can also lead to delinquent teen behaviors.
Children who have siblings who drink alcohol, smoke, have sex or engage in similar behaviors are more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves. Those children will learn by example, and often try to fit in with their siblings and their friends by mimicking their behaviors.
“A lot of current research looks at how children learn undesirable behaviors like smoking, drinking and other delinquent acts, from exposure to an older sibling’s antisocial behaviors as well as that of their sibling’s friends,” said Laurie Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois who researched the study. “Siblings are closer to the social environments that children find themselves in during the majority of their day, which is why it’s important not to overlook the contributions that they make on who we end up being.”
The influence of siblings occurs no matter how far apart in age the siblings are or what their genders are. While it is common for children to try to emulate their older siblings, other children go the opposite route and attempt to differentiate themselves from their siblings and form their own identities.
“They may choose a different path in which to excel or make their mark to base their own identity on. That child may choose to focus on sports, the arts or being the social one,” Kramer said. “It relieves them from the pressure to be seen or compared to their elder sibling, particularly if they’re afraid that they won’t be able to measure up.”
Whether children choose to differentiate themselves or not, their relationship with their siblings will influence them for the rest of their lives. Here are some things you can do to encourage a good relationship between your children while lessening the risk of any of them engaging in delinquent behaviors:
Foster a Supportive Relationship
One of the most important things for you to do is to encourage a supportive relationship between your children, according to Kramer.
“We know from longitudinal studies that if kids start off their relationship with a sibling on a positive note, it’s more likely to continue positively over time,” she said.
That means developing mutual respect and cooperation between your children, and helping them figure out how to effectively manage problems. Have them participate in activities together and help each other with class projects as a way to get them engaged and working together. A strong sibling relationship will be beneficial to them for the rest of their lives, and knowing they have a strong support structure will keep many kids from engaging in bad behaviors.
Know Their Friends
While not all younger siblings will start hanging around with an older sibling and their friends, there’s a good chance that there will be some overlap in their social circles if they are close enough in age. Make sure that none of your children are engaging in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, smoking or other delinquent behaviors by finding out who your kids spend their time with.
Have your children invite their friends over so you can get to know them, or make a point to meet them if they come to pick up your kids. Knowing who your kids are spending time with and what they are doing can be vital to helping them stay away from peers who may be bad influences, and who may influence all of your children.
Siblings often argue, slam doors or leave the house out of anger or frustration instead of talking it out. Encourage your teens to talk to each other instead of ignoring problems. Let them know that it’s okay to have some cool-down time, but that talking about what’s bothering them will be most effective for making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Beyond encouraging communication between your children, stress the importance of communication between your kids and you. If you know what’s upsetting them and can help them learn to productively handle life’s stressors, your kids will be less likely to turn to drugs, alcohol or other harmful activities to help them cope.
Set Rules and Enforce Consequences
The rules of good parenting always stress the importance of establishing rules and enforcing consequences. This may be even more important if you have more than one child, as being lax with one will indicate to the others that you will also be lenient with them.
Younger kids who see their older siblings breaking the rules without getting into trouble are more likely to break the rules themselves. Prevent this from happening by being consistent with house rules and following through when they are broken. Of course, the rules will be slightly different depending on the ages of the children, but the important part is to show that the rules do mean something and there will be consequences if they are not followed.
Create a Peaceful and Nurturing Family Environment
Preventing your kids from engaging in bad behaviors may simply mean providing them a peaceful and nurturing environment in which to grow up. The less drama there is in a family, the more likely it is that the siblings will like each other and bond together. If they grow up with parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or who engage in domestic violence, they may pick up on those behaviors instead.
Do what you can to make sure your kids grow up in a stable and supportive household. If you are struggling with domestic violence, or an , get the help needed to ensure that your own bad behaviors don’t trickle down to your kids.