Sibling rivalry is among the greatest sources of stress in families, the least discussed if not the best-kept secret (Meyerhoff 1993). Conflicts, aggressive actions and harsh behavior among children, usually only a year or two apart, are a cause of deep torment and mental discomfort to parents that the matter is seldom discussed openly. Only when it becomes severe that it is brought up but in isolation and often with a lot of shame.
People in society assume that members of the family will love and get along with all other members. They generally expect positive feelings between spouses, between parents and children and among children (Jacobson 1999). It is a fact, however, that most members of a family at least some times do not feel very loving towards another member. And observation shows that the closer the family members are, the more intense their interaction with one another. Western culture is strongly inclined to trace sibling rivalry with that of Cain and Abel of the Old Testament and elaborated later by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who gave it the label as the competition between siblings for parental love and attention (Leder 1993). Since the Freudian view got accepted, therapists and people in general came to view the relationship between siblings as one of conflict and struggle but failed to appreciate it as something that needed to be addressed and solved. Instead, sibling rivalry has been accepted as a normal state of affairs (Leder).
Frank observation of hundreds of homes will yield thousands of hours of unpleasant collision and confrontation between and among children who are mostly less than three years apart (Meyerhoff 1993). This is not often the case in families where there is only one child or when the space between children is four or more years. The hostility and jealousy that exist among children who rival for their parents' attention are made worse by the latter's confusion and self-condemnation (Meyerhoff). The problem condition is further reinforced by child experts and other professionals who ignore it as a mild disturbance in the family, which they believe can be quickly handled with minimal effort. Their faulty research, based mostly on interviews, combines with parents' reluctance to disclose the real difficulty with candidness. Confronting that real difficulty requires honest and earnest answers to certain questions, such as:
1. What is sibling rivalry? Why do siblings fight?
2. At what stage does it usually develop?
3. What causes sibling rivalry?
4. What are some warning signs of sibling rivalry?
5. How can it be handled effectively?
Meyerhoff, MK. Understanding and Alleviating Sibling Rivalry (Part I -- Perspectives on Parenting). Pediatrics for Parents, December 1993
Meyerhoff writes that, when a competitor enters a child's world for his mother and father's attention, his resentment of the intrusion is deemed normal, especially if he is under three years old. This happens because he feels he has a lot to lose and because he has very limited intellectual skills to cope with the loss. The world of a child less than three years old centers on his home environment and is focused on his relationship with his parents, his primary caretakers. In contrast, a four-or-five-year-old usually has formed essential attachment with his parents and the issues of control and family role has usually have been defined. At this age, he has also usually formed relationships outside the home, such as in nursery school and other children and adults. The infant or toddler newcomer, on the other hand, still struggles with very basic fundamental ways and has only verbal and physical assurances from his parents. He is still unable to understand and absorb expressions of abstract concepts such as love, sharing and fraternity. Furthermore, his attention span and memory are still short. The older child is usually able to figure the signs out and feels comfortable that an additional sibling will not threaten his importance in the family, especially when the new child is first brought home and sleeps most of the time. But as months go by, the new child begins to take up the time and attention of their parents and the older child, if he under three years old, may try to compete for and win back his parents' attention by imitating the younger child, such as by crying and whining or screaming, instead of talking and other regressions to infant behavior. When the baby goes beyond six or seven months and begins to crawl, climb, talk and talk, the situation can get worse. It is at this time that she requires greater and more immediate attention and praise for what she is now able to do. The feeling of jealousy and competition becomes greater and tighter in her older brother who now sees her as stealing their parents from him and he retaliates by hitting, pushing, pinching, biting and grabbing toys from her. But these reactions earn their parents' displeasure and punishment instead of a show of assurance that he wants desperately to win back and his jealousy and hostility towards his younger sibling grow and get deeper. The younger sibling, in the meantime, experiences different reactions. While she receives warmth, affection and assurance from their parents and other adults, her older sibling subjects her to abuse. She quickly learns survival techniques, such as crying, and realizes that she can retaliate through these means. With this new sense of personal power, she actually turns into the aggressor of the older sibling. At this point, parents get confused and overwhelmed that their angels can be engaged in constant hostilities for their affection.
Leder, Jane Mersky. Adult Sibling Rivalry. Psychology Today, Jan-Feb, 1993
According to Leder, clinicians and developmental psychologists agree that the bond among siblings is complicated, fluid and influenced by parental treatment, genetics, gender, life events, ethnic and generational patterns and the people and experiences outside the family. She mentions the findings of the work of Judy Dunn on sibling studies in England and the United States, which offer a radically new view of children's abilities and social understanding. Dunn's findings suggest that one-year-olds can respond to disputes between their siblings and that they are deeply affected by their mother's interaction with the other siblings. The findings also concluded that 18-month-old siblings understand how to comfort, hurt and deepen each other's pain and showed that three-year-olds can have a sophisticated grasp of social rules and how to use them for their own motives. At this age, they can evaluate themselves and their relationship with siblings and can adapt to frustrating conditions and relationship in the family.
Dunn explained that parents' relationships with each of the children have a lot to do with sibling rivalry, Leder continues. Children from one year can acutely sense how they are treated differently from other siblings by their parents. The show of more love, more attention or the inability or unwillingness to monitor what goes on between children is what brings on sibling rivalry or damage the connection among siblings. And both parental action and inaction have long-lasting effect and impact on already rivalrous relationship between siblings.
Dunn's studies also suggested that sister-sister pairs tend to be the closest and brother-brother pairs tend to be more rivalrous, with identical male twins as the most competitive. But sibling relationships tend to change dramatically over the years: critical life events in early and middle childhood can bring or separate them, such as a mother's illness or death, transition to school and adult events, like leaving home, marriage, tending to an ill parent, grief over a parent's death and other adjustments. Dunn concluded, as Leber writes, that siblings are constants in life that serve as a reference in judging and measuring ourselves, because they share a history through which any one sibling can understand and develop a perspective in adulthood. Friends and neighbors may disappear and die but siblings remain one's siblings and old rivalries can be forgotten or forgiven and siblings can instead help one another feel more human and more connected.
Jacobson, DonnaRae. Living with Your Teenager. North Dakota State University Extension Service Newsletter, July 1995
Jacobson enumerates that children or siblings fight because they want a parent's attention, because they are jealous, because of ordinary teasing and because they want to win, as they grow up in a competitive society. Both children and adults need not only weeks or months but also years to learn how to behave right in relationships. Teenagers fight more intensely for parental love, attention and concern and some adults never really fulfill this need.
Jacobson suggests that parents look for the reasons behind their children's fight or rivalry and decide to stick to their position about it. They should impress upon them that, while disagreements are normal, constant fighting is not and it upsets them and the peace of the home. They should also remain calm and keep their sense of humor. Jacobson also suggests tips to parents in curbing, preventing or controlling sibling rivalry.
Child Development Institute. Handling Sibling Rivalry,…