Sibling rivalry is a type of competition or animosity among siblings, whether blood related or not.
Siblings generally spend more time together during childhood than they do with parents. The sibling bond is often complicated and is influenced by factors such as parental treatment, birth order, personality, and people and experiences outside the family. Sibling rivalry is particularly intense when children are very close in age and of the same gender and/or where one or both children are intellectually gifted.
Sibling rivalry usually begins in childhood and can continue throughout the siblings life into adulthood if they do not take steps to resolve any issues.
What causes Sibling Rivalry?
Sibling rivalry typically begins in childhood, as soon as a new child enters the family through birth, custody, or adoption. It can even begin before a child is born if the parents are openly talking about the pregnancy/adoption and the coming sibling with the child. The environment a child enters into a family can affect if there is any potential rivalry. A parent can help minimise competition, jealousy, and fighting between siblings, but this is a natural part of sibling relations, so it can be that a parent feels helpless and frustrated in some situations and gives in.
Factors that can cause sibling rivalry:
- Each child is competing to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they try to find their own talents, activities, and interests. They want to show that they are separate from their siblings.
- Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of attention, discipline, and responsiveness. This can result in feelings of inequality.
- Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby or other siblings, especially when the new baby is receiving more attention.
- Children’s developmental stages will affect how mature they are and how well they can share attention and get along with one another. When one child can do something, they expect the others to be able to do it, too. When others can do something and they can't, they feel bad about themselves, as if life is somehow being unfair to them.
- Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
- Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead.
- Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings is normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.
- Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict.
- Stress in the parents' lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry.
- Stress in children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
- How parents treat their children and react to conflicts, can make a big difference in how well siblings get along.
Signs of sibling rivalry in children
There are a some common signs that can help you recognise sibling rivalry:
- Being violent towards a new member of the family, i.e., hitting or kicking them
- Demanding you take the baby or child back where you got it from
- Seeking attention constantly
- Verbal or physical fighting between siblings
- Exhibiting frustration at the smallest things
- Telling tales on each other
- Talking like a baby
- Sucking their thumb
- Throwing temper tantrums
- Competing with their siblings for grades or friends
- Acting out towards other people, pets, or inanimate objects
How to deal with sibling rivalry in children
As a parent concerned about sibling rivalry in your young children, there are some things you can do to help minimise or resolve conflicts.
- Most importantly, do not play favorites between your children.
- Try not to compare your children to one another.
- Let each child be who they are. Don’t try to label them or place stereotypes on them.
- Enjoy each of your children’s individual talents and successes.
- Set your children up to cooperate rather than compete. For example, have them race the clock to pick up toys, instead of racing each other. This will encourage working together, as opposed working against each other.
- Pay attention to the time of day or other patterns in when conflicts usually occur. Are conflicts more likely right before naps or bedtime, or maybe when children are hungry before meals? Consider making a change in the routine, an earlier meal or snack, or a well-planned quiet activity when the children are bored could help avert your children's conflicts.
- Teach your children positive ways to get attention from each other, such as how to play and share their toys and belongings with others.
- Being fair is very important, but it is not the same as being equal. Older and younger children may have different privileges due to their age, but if children understand that this inequality is because one child is older or has more responsibilities, they will see this as fair. Even if you did try to treat your children equally, there will still be times when they feel as if they’re not getting a fair share of attention, discipline, or responsiveness from you. As a parent you should expect this and be prepared to explain the decisions you have made to reassure your children.
- Plan family activities that are fun for everyone, which involve all members. If your children have good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they come into conflict.
- Make sure each child has enough time and space of their own. Children need the chance to do their own thing, play with their own friends without their sibling, and to have their space and property protected.
- Help your children learn to manage conflict with other children.
- Give each child ‘alone time’ with yourself, so that your child does not feel he/she needs to compete for time with you.
- Listen to what your children are saying, what they want and how they are feeling. This will give you an indication to what the problem may be.
- Try to speak positively of all siblings with each of them, and encourage siblings to speak positively of each other.
In situations where sibling rivalry is causing serious issues, it is best to speak to a therapist who can help you to identify and work with your children to resolve the conflicts. A therapist can offer alternative methods that you may not have considered.
Signs of sibling rivalry in adults
Sibling rivalry can continue into adulthood if not dealt with or resolved during childhood. Sibling rivalry in adults is a continuation of the same relationship that was developed through childhood sibling rivalry, and may be just as painful as it was in childhood.
The typical signs are:
- Jealousy and envy
- Being very competitive with siblings even in adulthood
- Trying to outdo/one-upping siblings
- Dwelling on the past
- Overanalysing what happened that caused the hurts of sibling rivalry incidents
- Talking often about how horrible it was to grow up with the sibling
- Seeing the sibling as they were in childhood rather than noticing how they are as adults
- Talking about their great friends and spouse in a way that diminishes the relationship with the sibling
- Describing a sibling as an enemy
- Persistent interfering in other siblings
The long-term effects can be devastating when sibling rivalry progresses into adulthood. A sibling who was verbally or physically abused by their brother or sister may see effects in all their relationships, including professional, romantic, and family relationships. People lose their sense of self and judge others based on the rivalries they carry from their past.
This could also mean as children they may have never adequately learned social skills. They may not understand how to resolve or prevent conflicts, and thus not learning how to compromise and cooperation in such situations. They may not understand empathy - either to give or receive it. So as they begin adulthood, they're socially handicapped.
How to deal with sibling rivalry in adulthood
As adults we are able to recognise more easily when there is rivalry present and can take steps to try to overcome this.
- Have a one-to-one conversation with your sibling to talk about your feelings about the relationship then and now.
- Don't overemphasize your own accomplishments. Instead, admit that not everything has gone right for you.
- Refuse to engage in rivalrous arguments, even if you have to remove yourself from the situation on occasion. It is better to let nasty comments pass without anger or bitterness. Remember that it takes two to have a fight.
- Remind yourself that you and your siblings each have different relationships with your parents.
- Remember that the family was different when each family member was added, and everyone was different at those times, too.
- Try to be a role model of reasonable behavior for your siblings who may not have moved on from the past.
- Concentrate on your own behavior and how you can make changes that will improve the relationship.
Sometimes, the problems created during childhood are so stubborn and become out of control that you find it difficult to move past them becoming more serious problems. If the above tips do not ease the situation with your sibling, then it would be a good idea to speak to a therapist.
A therapist can help you explore your past and current feelings with the aim to help you resolve any ongoing conflicts you have with your sibling. This will help you change the way you think about the rivalry and teach you even more techniques for overcoming it. Once you know how to deal with sibling rivalry, your family relationships are sure to improve.
At GoMentor.com we have many verified therapists who can help you and your family with any sibling rivalry issues that you may be experiencing.