- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2011

Culture Challenge of the Week: Disconnected Siblings

“I really don’t see my brother much. We’re not that close.”

Jenny was nineteen, a sophomore at a California university. Her brother, a junior at the same school, lived in a nearby dorm. A volleyball court, two bike racks and a grassy hill separated their daily lives, but Jenny hadn’t seen her brother in months, except for a few glimpses in the school’s cafeteria.

Why?

Her voice betrayed sadness - for a moment. “We never hung out much when we were kids.”

Then she continued with a practiced shrug. “It’s OK.”

But it’s not OK - for Jenny, her brother or any of our children. They need each other, even if they don’t realize how much.

In 2006, a Duke University study reported that the average American shares confidences - a sign of closeness in a relationship - with only two people, down from three in the span of one generation. Twenty-five percent of people have no one in whom to confide. The result: loneliness and isolation.

So where do family relationships enter this picture?

On the plus side, family members are the chosen confidantes 80 percent of the time. Even though friends and social networks create communities that reach across time and distance, family members remain the most stable and consistently supportive relationships in most people’s lives.

Indeed, when parents nourish strong connections among siblings, the payoff lasts long into adulthood. Research shows, for example, that children who grew up with close sibling relationships are less likely to be depressed as adults.

And close sibling relationships provide immediate benefits as well. A recent study done by Brigham Young University’s Flourishing Families program found that adolescents who experienced close relationships with their sisters (no matter how old or how far apart in age) were less likely to feel alone, sad, fearful or depressed. And children who experience good sibling relationships are more likely to exhibit kindness and charity in their everyday lives.

The research is clear: Our children need each other. Many parents, however, find it increasingly difficult to nurture strong sibling relationships.

Distance and disconnection start young and the school year takes its toll: Different schools or buses, dance or football teams, piano lessons or tutoring, homework, and orthodontist appointments keep us running endlessly in different directions. Even day care and after-school care separate siblings by age. Personal electronics may erect virtual walls between siblings, reducing their common interests and shared experiences.

Unless parents are careful, sibling time will evaporate into busyness. And, before we know it, we’ll have disconnected siblings, like Jenny and her brother.

How to Save Your Family by Making Sibling Time

Take the gift of time that summer brings and strengthen the connections among your children. (Or among extended family members, like cousins, if you have an only child.) Experience new challenges together (learn to water-ski or cook a new ethnic dish), plan an adventure (we climbed a small local mountain one year), or simply share experiences (from playing board games on a rainy day to watching old home movies).

If a sibling relationship already is rocky or distant, you may need a more direct approach. Consider whether the negative habits or attitudes of one sibling toward another beg your correction. Make a real effort to help them heal old wounds. Older children may benefit from your helping them talk through hurt feelings or disappointments - and expressing their hopes for the future.

And what about you and your siblings? Remember this truth about any relationship in your life: As long as you both are breathing, there is time to reach out and express your love for that estranged brother or sister. When relationships have languished in silence over the years, the best way to open the door is often through a handwritten, personal letter that expresses your regrets, hopes and plainly asks for forgiveness for any wrongs you have done. Don’t let another day go by if you long to reconnect with a sibling - sit down and write the letter today.

Time is a healer and a builder. Make sure you are willing to give of yourself and your time to strengthen all of the important relationships in your life, starting with your own immediate family members. Your children will get the message if you are consistent and deliberate about carving out family dinner time at least three nights per week.

Do what you can each day to remind your children that they are a gift for each other, and help them create memories that will last a lifetime.

They won’t always be children. But they’ll always be siblings.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosave yourfamily.com.

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