Key points

  • A person’s relatedness to a brother or sister is often closer and more meaningful than the relationship to parents, especially during divorce.
  • Parents coping with their own sadness and loss may become emotionally unavailable after divorce, so siblings turn to each other.
  • Parents can help insulate their children from the effects of divorce by promoting the consistent, everyday involvement siblings can provide.

A friend of the New York Times writer Ellen Umansky was struggling with her daughters who simply couldn’t get along. The friend asked Umansky how she could get her daughters to be as close as Umansky and her brother.

“You and your husband should separate,” Umansky replied. “Then go through an ugly divorce. That’ll bring your kids together.”

There’s truth to Umansky’s gallows humor. During and after the upheaval of divorce, brothers and sisters may feel like one another’s sole constant in an upended world over which the children have no control. Often, experiencing this turmoil brings them closer.

Siblings offer stability during divorce

The great value of the sibling relationship is generally under-recognized and under-examined. What research does exist, however, shows that siblings have a unique place in each other’s lives.

From birth, siblings are fellow survivors of childhood, witnesses to that elemental world. They have a front-row seat to each other’s formative years, and that experience forms the basis of a crucial, distinctively enduring connection. The renowned Yale University professor of psychiatry Theodore Lidz, author of the classic textbook The Person, explains, “A person’s relatedness to a brother or sister is often closer and more meaningful than the relationship to parents.”

That’s especially true when parents divorce. Here are some of the findings about divorce and siblings from recent studies:

  • Siblings experienced greater closeness as a result of undergoing their parents’ divorce together, according to “The Experience of the Impact of Divorce on Sibling Relationships” by Caroline Abbey and Rudi Dallos, an article appearing in the Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
  • Children with siblings may adjust better to parental divorce than only children, according to the article “Presence of a sibling as a potential buffer following parental divorce: An examination of young adolescents” by Kempton, Armistead, Wierson, and Forehand, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.
  • The company of a sibling provided reassurance and promoted resilience among individuals who experienced divorce in childhood or adolescence, according to “Sibling support during post-divorce adjustment: An idiographic analysis of support forms, functions, and relationship types,” an article by Jacobs and Sillars appearing in the Journal of Family Communication.
  • Sibling relationships may constitute a buffer, protecting children from some of the harmful effects of divorce, according to the article “Relations between parental divorce and the quality of adult sibling relationships,” by H. R. Riggio, published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage.

Anxiety, depression, and anger typically occur as brothers and sisters are forced to contend with great challenges during their parents’ divorce, potentially including rearranged living situations; relocation to a different neighborhood or town; a change in schools, and new family members—stepparents and step-siblings.

Parents coping with their own sadness and loss may become emotionally unavailable after divorce, so siblings turn to each other. They may feel their sibling is the one person who truly understands the loss.

In the best of circumstances, brothers and sisters may provide each other with vital emotional resources, such as comfort and stability. A sibling may assist a brother or sister with homework, even helping with college applications. An adult brother or sister might step in to offer a younger sibling moral support and caretaking, helping them understand divorce and what is happening. In some cases, a parent-child dynamic may even develop.

Importance of the sibling relationship

In general, siblings spend more time together than with anyone else. For the fortunate, those relationships endure through many decades, outlasting friendships, marriages, even relationships with parents. Brothers and sisters typically are our first playmates, instilling in one another some of the necessary social qualities—tolerance, generosity, loyalty—that eventually affect relationships with friends, colleagues, and lovers.

Studies show the importance of sibling relationships over a lifetime:

  • Adolescents who perceived that their siblings validated their beliefs and feelings reported higher levels of self‐esteem.
  • Sibling support and a strong sibling relationship correlate with better academic performance.
  • For children at risk of poverty, family discord, parental mental illness, or divorce, having an emotionally stable person, such as an older sibling, improves their chances of becoming a well‐adjusted adult.
  • Sibling support and closeness have been associated with lower levels of loneliness and depression, as well as greater satisfaction later in life.

Divorce and parental support of siblings

When divorce disrupts a family, parents should be careful not to undermine their children’s adjustment to their new reality and to avoid actions that may damage the sibling relationship. Beware of the following:

  • Children often act out during and after a parental split. This behavioral challenge sometimes leads to a “good kid/bad kid” dynamic. The resulting favoritism can create a deep divide between siblings.
  • Physical distance—occurring when one child lives with one parent and another lives with the other—can erode the relationship and deny siblings the support they might derive from proximity to one another.
  • Children don’t necessarily have the tools to care for one another. In absence of a parental model (where a mother or father offers support and communication), siblings may step in, even if they don’t really know how to behave and take care of each other. Parents should be alert to such developments and recognize their primary responsibilities in nurturing their children.

By promoting strong sibling relationships, parents can insulate their children from some of the most harmful effects of divorce. Parents should encourage their children to lean into these special relationships for everyone to reap the benefits of their consistent, everyday involvement and interactions.


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