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Tightening the Family Ties

Sometimes I feel like an in-house publicist for my three adult children: a text to the middle son asking him to give his sister a call; an email to the oldest telling him about his brother's time on a half- marathon; a phone call to the youngest suggesting she check in with her brothers. Why persist in trying to tighten the sibling bonds? Because adult children are often at different stages - and locations - in their lives so it takes a conscious effort to keep family ties strong. Unfortunately in this 24-7 world it is too easy to let those bonds weaken.


Children spend decades growing up and sharing family experiences together, from the awful to the wonderful. No one will ever understand just one word - mom@#$%^! - like a sibling does. The relationship is the longest one of their lives; while parenting can span five or six decades, a sibling relationship, seven or eight. Academics have studied these relationships and categorized five types: "the intimate, the congenial, the loyal, the apathetic, and the hostile," with more than 75 percent in the first three categories. The most common is "loyal," defined as a relationship based on a "common family history. They maintain regular, periodic contact; participate in family gatherings; and support each other during times of crisis."

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Spurred by National Sibling Day this month, I wondered whether parents can do anything to improve their adult children's relationships, even if they fall into those positive categories. Peter Goldenthal, author of Beyond Sibling Rivalry, has a blunt answer: "If you're asking this question, you are probably doing all you can do already. This is one of the challenges of parenting adult children. We don't have that much control."

Paradoxically, parents can offer some influence more often when the sibling relationship is strained. For example, Goldenthal said, a parent can explain one child's quirks - not being conversational, always busy - as something another child should not take personally. Rather that's the way the sibling is with everyone, friends and family.

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Otherwise, he suggests, keep on doing what we're doing: upholding family traditions, planning gatherings, celebrating holidays and reminding our children of the peaks and valleys of their siblings' lives. Thanks to technology, we have more ways than ever to nudge them; perhaps I should try Instagram too?


Mary W. Quigley's blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.


Illustration: dtimiraos/iStockphoto


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