Sibling Rivalry

All children experience jealousy, anger, and anxiety when they think that they may miss out on resources, attention, or love from their caregivers.

This is particularly obvious when children have to compete with their brothers and sisters for their parents’ attention – sibling rivalry or sibling fighting. Unfortunately, the way we talk about sibling fighting gives the impression that it is abnormal. On the contrary, competition or rivalry between brothers and sisters is normal, and probably biologically pre-programmed. Therefore, no amount of preparation or discussion will remove these feelings – they must be managed by parents effectively to reduce the risk of negative results. A young child’s intense rage may be thought of as abnormal because parents don’t like it. However, a toddler, for example, has not yet learned to control and hide these feelings – masking them is just not an option.

Sibling jealousy does not signify a personality flaw, or bonding difficulties, poor preparation for the arrival of a sibling, or poor parenting. Rather, the feelings of anxiety and anger are a natural consequence of the changing status of relationships (e.g., being one of two children in a family rather than the only child). Of course, there are individual differences in how strongly a child may feel about competing with siblings arising from variations in temperament, irritability, reactivity, activity levels and tolerance of stimulation that arise from within the child. These combine with family factors including levels of family fun, confidently applied rules, parent modelling of healthy problem resolution, and respectful communication.

The degree to which the child enjoys securely attached relationships with their parents enables them to tolerate the sharing of attention, affection and possessions with siblings. Early unmet needs for consistent, sensitive and responsive caregiving may leave children feeling chronically jealous, fearful, demanding and self-absorbed. A child who feels insecure of their own importance and power may be more vulnerable to hatred towards a new arrival. Children in this category may have been exposed to excessive domination by parents, overprotection, parental preoccupation with other matters, parental impatience or excessive discipline.

Firstborn and same sex siblings are particularly vulnerable to sibling rivalry, which is most likely between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Rivalry also arises more often, and is more severe, when the siblings are closer in age. It becomes less common after age 8 when children may be more confident of their position in the family. When parents separate, an increase in sibling conflict may result from the parents’ reduced attention to the children. Excessive expectations and comparisons (by parents) amongst siblings may foster hate and envy. In contrast, children can also turn to their siblings for mutual support when parents separate.

Healthy management of these sibling tensions is promoted by enabling the children to have a say in decisions, where the parent acts as mediator rather than judge. Frequently, there is no need for the parent to react at all (unless there is a danger of physical harm). If you do intervene, try and resolve the problem WITH them, not FOR them. Separate the children until they are calm and get them to return with at least one idea about how the conflict could have been avoided. Try not to focus on blame (everyone involved is usually partly responsible) but beware of real bullying when there is a big power differential between the children.

Help siblings take the other’s perspective and remove group privileges when they cannot agree. Try and avoid the trap of scrupulous equality and take into account each child’s developmental stage and needs – treating your children fairly does not necessarily mean treating them equally: an older child may have a later bedtime than a younger child; a younger child may need more help than an older child. Discourage tattling; you want to know what that child is doing, not what the sibling has done (unless there is risk of danger). Set personal property boundaries with strict rules about asking permission before taking. When they are going through a rough patch, ensure that each child receives sufficient time with you.

Sibling rivalry mellows with maturity and the sibling relationship acts as a laboratory for experiencing positive feelings and empathy, and learning life skills. Remember, the sibling relationship lasts longer than any other relationship an individual is likely to have across their lifetime.


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