April 1, 2021 

How to Improve COVID-strained Bonds 

The past year has been a trying one for family relationships. Many parents have felt this most intensely in their children’s relationships with each other. Siblings often fight and “play” in ways that may concern parents. The intensity of so much togetherness during the pandemic has many parents feeling exhausted and exasperated as to how to deal with sibling squabbles.  

While a return to our pre-coronavirus lives may be in sight, here are ways parents can maintain (or repair) sibling bonds that may be strained.  

“Net-Positive” Memories 

Many of us can vividly recall bickering with our siblings, but that doesn’t always end badly. Psychologist Dr. Laurie Kramer has found in her research that adults with strong sibling relationships have “net-positive” memories of their childhood experiences, meaning that memories of fun and play outweigh those of conflict.    

Create Opportunities 

An absence of conflict between children does not automatically mean there is a developing closeness. While everyone can be peacefully in their rooms on their devices (and parents may be grateful for some much-needed quiet!), finding opportunities for children to have fun together may require some effort by parents. 

Encourage Cooperation 

Designate times for games, letting each child choose a particular activity as part of the daily routine. Physical play, movement, and even roughhousing are fun and help regulate behavior and can communicate affection.

Encouraging children to be part of a team while doing chores (or competing against Mom or Dad in a game) is a way to help them collaborate and increase feelings of warmth. And, of course, acknowledge cooperative and helpful behavior towards family members when it occurs.  

Set Expectations 

Sometimes siblings, especially when stressed, may lash out at each other. Establish expectations of how family members treat each other and refer to them frequently while helping children develop the skills they need to navigate conflict. “Those words hurt. Can you find a different way to tell your sister you’re busy right now?”  

Encourage Respect  

Helping children learn to communicate and respect each other’s boundaries is also part of helping everyone feel safe. “Look at your little brother’s face. He doesn’t like that. If he says ‘Stop!’ you need to stop.” 

Teach Compromise 

Probably the biggest gift we can give our children are strategies to negotiate and compromise. While it is important to not be drawn into taking a side, young children often don’t have the tools or impulse control to work things out without escalation into physical altercations or verbal lashing out.   

If necessary, separate children to let them calm down first, then “coach” them through a discussion of possible resolutions. Acknowledge feelings of both parties and help identify the problem in a neutral way:  “Both of you want a turn on the iPad at the same time. What’s a way to figure this out? I’m going to hang onto it while you come up with some ideas.”    

Use Simple Strategies 

Parents don’t always have the time to referee every conflict. Having some simple, impartial strategies (timers, flipping a coin, rotating certain decisions to be made by each child on their designated day) can be useful. But whenever possible, encourage children with your support to hear each other’s point of view and try solutions they come up with themselves.   

Finally, try and find a way to see that everyone’s basic needs are being met: sometimes enough sleep, a little time alone, and a little time one-on-one with a parent can help get everyone back on track again. 


Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW, has been a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital since 2001 and is a regular contributor to the award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter.

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