How Parents Can Foster the Bond Between Siblings Divided Between Two Homes
My daughter misses her brother during the time he's living with his mother. This can be the hardest part about having a blended family. But experts offer ways to deal with the pain of missing a family member who's only there part of the time.
It's early Monday morning, and my 3-year-old is standing on the side of my bed. Before I've had a chance to wipe the sleep out of my eyes, she asks the same question I hear at the beginning of every other week: "Where's my brother?"
I feel the familiar sting of dread washing over me. It's tough being a blended family sometimes. "He's at his mama's house," I tell her gently. Because of the custodial agreement between his parents, my partner's 12-year-old son only spends two weekends a month with us, give or take an extra day here and there.
My daughter's smile quickly fades. Her eyebrows scrunch together, and she heaves a dramatic sigh. No matter how many times she hears it, she is always deeply unsatisfied with this answer. "I want my brother," she pleads with me, as if I've put him away in the closet like a favorite toy in an effort to punish her.
It astounds me that my daughter has grown so attached to her brother, considering their limited time together. Somehow, she intuitively knows that he belongs to her. He is a member of her tribe. I respond the only way I know how: "I know, baby. I miss him, too."
Watching my daughter grapple with her brother's long absences is hard. I knew when she was born that she'd navigate circumstances that I, an only child whose parents are still together, would be unfamiliar with. But I couldn't have imagined how heartbreaking it would be to witness her longing for a sibling she can only see a few days a month.
I know she’s not the only one. About 12 percent of children in the U.S. “are living with stepsiblings or half-siblings,” according to data from the Census Bureau. "Having this kind of [family] complexity is not necessarily a barrier to having routine family functioning. It just requires a different tool set and a little bit more intentionality than fully related families might require,” says Paula Fomby, a sociologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research who studies the way family instability affects a child’s well-being.
The most important thing, says Courtney Bolton, Ph.D., a Nashville-based psychologist and parenting and child development expert, is to ensure children know that even when a sibling is absent for long stretches of time, they're still a part of the same family.
Luckily there are effective ways to help build and maintain that all-important family cohesiveness. Here are what experts suggest parents like myself do when there's distance between siblings who miss each other. (We plan to start them all!)
My daughter and her brother use a phone app to send each other video messages regularly, and she always replays them when she wants to hear or see him. Dr. Bolton suggests making communication like this routine by setting up a time in the evening for your child and their sibling to chat about their day via video chat. "As long as it doesn't interrupt the routine at the other household, we employ a lot of the same tools you would with a parent in the military or family member who has to be away for a while due to life circumstances, such as a job out of state,” adds Dr. Bolton.
If there's an age difference between the siblings, Jennifer Leister, a licensed professional counselor in Dallas, suggests having the older one read out loud to their sibling. "They can take 20 minutes a day at bedtime and read the book together when they're apart,” says Leister, who wrote a children's book about blended families titled Max Meets Emma.
Encourage creative bonding
On days your kid has a particularly hard time missing their sibling, Dr. Bolton says hand them a pencil or a box of crayons and a daily journal so they can jot down things to show their sibling the next time they come over.
"Whether a child just draws pictures or is able to write about what happened during their sibling's time away, it delivers the message that the other sibling was missed and lets them share something together,” says Dr. Bolton.
For something more immediate, Leister advises taking it a step further and using the postal system. "Children like to get things in the mail," she says. "I'll have siblings who live apart...make each other artwork, write each other letters, or send really inexpensive things in the mail to each other's homes so they can still feel connected."
Let them do activities together
If possible, don't let your child be confined to whatever time is allotted by a custodial agreement. "If co-parents can share their time with children in a more fluid capacity, where the children are able to still have contact with each other and attend each other's activities, that allows children to feel [closer]," says Leister.
For siblings close in age, she suggests signing them up for the same extracurricular activity, such as soccer or a dance class. That way, regardless of whether they're sleeping in different houses at night, they still get to spend time doing something they enjoy together.
As Dr. Bolton points out, all of this is really contingent on parents working together to provide stability and consistency for the children. Doing so, she says, can make moving between houses and family structures a little easier for both your child and the sibling he or she misses.