Sibling rivalry is antagonism between brothers and/or sisters that results in physical fighting, verbal hostility, teasing, or bullying.
Psychologists believe that sibling rivalry comes from competition for parental attention, love, and approval. The amount of conflict depends on the perception of parents about the role of each child in the family , the personalities of the parents and children, the number and spacing of children in the family, outside resources available to the children, and parental beliefs about child rearing, including their attitudes toward gender, birth order , and competition. Sibling rivalry is also affected by the presence in the family of a special needs child, divorce or other family trauma, and ethnic and cultural attitudes toward family relationships.
Studies suggest that sister/sister relationships are the least competitive and hostile while brother/brother relationships, especially when brothers are close in age, are the most hostile and competitive. However, this is a generalization that does not apply in many specific instances. Some psychologists believe that moderate levels of sibling rivalry can help children learn to share, compromise, and negotiate with others.
The birth of a new baby in the family often creates jealousy and distress for older children. Not only does a new baby increase the number children that must share parental attention, newborns are inordinately time consuming, leaving older children to feel they have been displaced and abandoned. Mothers often are exhausted and sometimes depressed after the birth of a child. While in the hospital and immediately after the birth, they may withdraw from their older children to care for the newborn, leaving day-to-day care taking of the other children to friends, relatives, or hired caregivers. Friends and other family members tend to focus on the newborn, further displacing older children. If the new baby is born with special needs, the time and energy spent focusing on the new sibling may be quite extensive.
Toddlers may react to a new baby by reverting to younger behaviors in an attempt to gain parental attention. For example, a toddler who is toilet trained may start having accidents in his or her pants. Verbal toddlers may express their disgust with the new sibling by asking, "Isn't it time to send him back?" Others may pinch and poke the new baby. Older children may become more difficult, temperamental, and uncooperative, as they see their role in the family changing. Although responses like these are, within reason, normal, they challenge parents and create conflict within the family.
Parents can help their other children prepare for the arrival of a new sibling by reading books to them about babies and involving them in preparations for their new sibling. After the child is born, in a two-parent family, the father can step in and spend extra time with older siblings, taking some of the pressure off the relationship between the mother and her older children. Many children feel more connected to their new sibling if they are given some specific age-appropriate task that helps to care for the baby.
Toddlers are active, curious people who are beginning to explore both their physical and social world. As noted above, they may respond to the birth of a new sibling by reverting to more childish behaviors. Toddlers are developing a sense of themselves as individuals and pushing the limits of their physical abilities. This testing and accompanying frustration often manifests itself in tantrums and other socially unacceptable behaviors such as an unwillingness to share toys . Since toddlers usually lack the ability to perceive the needs and desires of others and do not have the verbal capacity to express their emotions or abstract thoughts, sibling rivalry at this age usually takes the form of physical aggression.
Toddlers who are working out social boundaries may take toys from others or refuse to share or take turns. They may go through a stage of wanting whatever a sibling has, even if the moment they get it, they no longer want it. This can be a normal, if not socially desirable, stage of development. However, it creates friction with older siblings that often degenerates into kicking, hitting, punching, pinching, and even biting.
Parents need to intervene when sibling rivalry becomes physical. Younger toddlers can sometimes be distracted, but older ones need to be separated and given a break from each other. Many experts recommend punishing both children rather than becoming involved in trying to figure out who was "right" and who was "wrong."
Preschool children are more verbal than toddlers, and much of their hostility toward siblings takes the form of name calling, verbal abuse, and teasing. Parents need to set limits on what is acceptable. Another source of sibling conflict at this age is the preschooler's desire to be part of his older siblings friendships. Although it may be easier for parents to tell their older child to include the younger one, this often intensifies the older child's hostility toward the younger one. Parents should be alert to the need to protect each child's personal possessions and friendships.
Sibling rivalry can and often does continue into adulthood. By the time children reach school age, the level of sibling rivalry is affected by family attitude toward competition, ethnic and cultural attitudes, comparisons of siblings by teachers and coaches, the family's expectations for each child in the family, and their method of applying "fairness" in their relationships with their children. Hostility can take the form of physical or verbal fighting, invading each other's privacy, or destroying each other's possessions.
At this age, children often begin to carve out their own area in which to excel. One child may concentrate on soccer while another concentrates on music and a third on schoolwork. This differentiation can help reduce competition and sibling rivalry. Parents can reduce the level of sibling rivalry by supporting each child's interest with an equal investment of enthusiasm and time. At this age, the approval and support of individuals outside the family also plays a role in reducing sibling rivalry. Resentment and hostility can be increased when parents insist that all children in the family do the same activities all the time, always include each other in their play and friendships, and put older children in charge of younger ones for long periods on a regular basis.
The presence of a special needs child who dominates the parents' attention can add to increased resentment and rivalry. Other common problems include assuming that the older child is always at fault in sibling fights, giving each child a label such as "the smart one" or "the wild one," that suggest one child is "good" and another is "bad," reinforcing cultural attitudes that place a higher value on sons than daughters and on first children rather than later children, and overprotecting younger children or children who are perceived as weaker than their siblings. Single parents may face an especially difficult time balancing the needs of their children in ways that reduce rivalry simply because they are the only adult in the family.
Parents often worry about preferring one child over another and being fair to all their children. In reality, parents may love their children equally but find at different times in their development some of their children are more likeable and easier to get along with than others. Parents can help reduce sibling rivalry by following these steps:
- working to see each child as a unique individual with his or her own strengths and weaknesses
- spending some one-on-one time with each child every week
- encouraging children to develop their own interests and friends independent of the interests and friends of their siblings
- limiting the amount of care giving expected of older siblings for younger ones
- setting and enforcing firm rules about name calling, teasing, and physical aggression in the family
- praising cooperative behavior
- insisting that each child's personal possessions and privacy are respected by the other children in the family
When to call the doctor
Parents may wish to consult their pediatrician, a child and adolescent psychologist, or a family therapist if any of the following occurs:
- Serious attempts at reducing sibling rivalry have failed.
- Siblings physically harm each other.
- Siblings constantly tease and belittle or bully each other.
- One or more children in the family seem to have other behavioral problems at home or school.
- Siblings gang up on one child in the family.
- The level of sibling rivalry appears to be destructive to any member of the family.
Borden, Marian Elderman. The Baffled Parent's Guide to Sibling Rivalry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Goldenthal, Peter. Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000.
Hart, Sybil. Preventing Sibling Rivalry: Six Strategies to Build a Jealousy-Free Home. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Sparrow, Joshua, et al. Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way. Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press, 2005.
Thomas, Pat. My Brother, My Sister, and Me: A First Look at Sibling Rivalry. New York: Barrow's Educational Series, 2000.
American Academy of Pediatrics. 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098 Web site: http://www.aap.org.
"Sibling Rivalry." Available online at http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/feelings/sibling_rivalry.html (accessed November 14, 2004).
Tish Davidson, A.M.