Sister Power: How sisters improve mental health
Studio 5 Contributor, Julie Hanks, LCSW with Wasatch Family Therapy has tips to help you tap into the positive power of sisters.
A recent New York Times essay “Why sisterly chats make people happier” by Deborah Tannen caught my eye because I have five, yes, FIVE sisters. I love research that supports what I already know from real-life experience — sisters are important to mental health. Having a sister protects teens against feelings of depression, loneliness, self-consciousness, fear, and being unloved according to Laura Padilla-Walker, head researcher in a recent BYU study.
The positive impact of sisters extends beyond adolescence into adulthood. British researchers Liz Wright and Tony Cassidy found that people who grew up with at least one sister were happier more motivated, had more friends, and were more resilient during difficult times, especially during parental divorce.
Here are some tips for helping your children, sisters AND brothers, develop close, positive relationships with each other during childhood and adolescence so they will continue to support emotional health as adults.
Tips to Help Your Kids Help Each Other
1) Show Affection
Encourage your family to express physical affection, to notice and express positive traits, to increase emotional sensitivity to siblings, and to celebrate other sibling’s successes. Affection is an important aspect that contributes to the positive mental health outcomes among siblings, According to Padilla-Walker, “An absence of affection seems to be a bigger problem than high levels of conflict.”
A-list star Gwenyth Paltrow, and her producer brother, Jake Paltrow are a great example of affectionate siblings raised in a loving home.
Healthy emotional expression is a crucial component to emotional health. Wright & Cassidy found that in families whose parents divorce, sisters tended to express themselves, and encourage emotional expression in others leading to less distress.
Coach your children to express feelings to their siblings in a non-attacking way. Here’s an excellent tool to help your children communicate their emotion:
I feel (emotion word) when you (other’s specific behavior) because I think (thought) . I would like it if you would (requested behavior) .
Here’s an example: “I feel mad when you take my clothes without asking because I think you don’t respect my privacy. I would like it if you would ask me before you borrow my clothes.”
When single mother Jennifer Child’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer her sisters were her strength.
“I have 2 sisters whose lives CHANGED when my daughter was diagnosed. I was a young single mom, my sisters PULLED me through~ I COULD NOT have made it through without my family. We pulled together and somehow made it through this HORRIFIC time in our life. My sisters are my best friends. I now have 2 daughters, 6 and 7 they are best friends. They do fight like NO OTHER, but love each other as I have seen with my sisters.”
3) Show Kindness
Coach your children to treat each other with respect, thoughtfulness, and kindness. Having a loving sibling of any gender seems to promote kindness and empathy toward others, according to Padilla-Walker. Interestingly, the relationship between positive sibling relationships and good deeds was twice as strong as the relationship between parenting and a child’s good deeds.
Mother of eight children, Andrya Lewis, promotes kindness among her children “by having sleepovers on Friday nights with movies and treats and sleeping bags, by letting siblings tell good news and surprises and
distribute treats to the other siblings, and by verbally interpreting and translating that acts of kindness or service (like sharing a toy, or finding a lost shoe) mean their sibling loves them.”
4) Communicate Often
Tannen’s research found that women talk with sisters more often, at greater length, and about more personal topics than they do with brothers. She concludes that the frequency of contact with sisters, not necessarily the content of the communication, is most important component contributing to the positive impact of having a sister.
Annie Frazier says she checks in with her older sister Jennie Gochnour by text or phone every other day. “It’s not always a big conversation; often it’s just a check in. We share everything and it’s not judged. We have gotten each other through everything – deaths, marriages, and divorce. She’s the only reason I’m not in intensive therapy! I particularly remember one day when we were running together in the early morning. I was going through infertility treatments and hoping to get pregnant – despite the reality of the months of darkness that I knew were around the corner with my postpartum depression. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember what I felt. In her eyes, I could not have been any more wonderful – even though in my eyes, all I saw was failure, sadness and inadequacies. She was my crutch and has carried me along many dark roads that have led to beautiful moments of celebration. She has always been by my side.”
5) Minimize conflict
Set family rules of no name-calling and no physical fighting, and don’t be afraid to intervene in your children’s fights. High levels of sibling conflict is associated with increased risk aggression in other relationships, and increased delinquent behavior, but on the positive side, a little bit of conflict gives siblings a chance to practice emotional control and problem solving skills.
According to Oracne Price, mother to tennis superstar sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, though they are fiercely competitive on the court, her daughters are very close friends.