Sibling rivalry is a difficult topic that concerns all parents who have more than one child. According to Boyse, sibling rivalry manifests itself in the form of jealousy, competition, and fighting between brothers and sisters (par. 2). While there are many things parents do that can cause sibling rivalry, it is often seen as a natural process that affects every sibling relationship in one way or another, and therefore there is not enough research on the topic of sibling rivalry (Whiteman et al. 4). Sibling rivalry can also affect the relationship between siblings in adulthood (Woods par. 3), which is why it is important to understand its causes, manifestations, and effects, as well as the ways of mediating the competitive feelings among siblings.
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As Boyse notes, sibling rivalry is caused primarily by the relationship between parents and children: when a child feels ‘left out’, he or she begins to act to catch the parents’ attention: “Children may not know positive ways to get attention from or start playful activities with a brother or sister, so they pick fights instead” (par. 3). Many factors can make a child feel like he or she is loved or appreciated less than his or her brother or sister. Particularly, these situations can arise when parents experience high levels of stress at work and do not have a sufficient amount of emotional resources to distribute attention and care evenly between the kids. Families that are preparing to have another baby may find that the older child expresses the signs of stress and jealousy even before the younger child is born (Boyse par. 3).
This is often linked to the fact that having a new baby is a busy and difficult time when most of the parents’ efforts are directed at preparing for the newborn, which takes a significant share of their attention from the older child. Moreover, certain factors affect a child’s reaction to siblings. For instance, if a child is hungry, bored, or tired, he or she is more likely to grow frustrated and pick fights with other kids, including siblings (Boyse par. 3). Stress from school life can also cause aggression and increase the need for attention, resulting in siblings fighting (Boyse par. 3). Finally, a biological factor that proved to be significant in determining the relationships between siblings is birth order: “birth order is a great contributor to why children of the same family, with similar genes, end up with very different personalities […] the firstborn child experiences the ‘only child life’ and is center of attention until the second-born child arrives, which can cause anger and frustration” (Badger and Reddy 46). Thus, we can also say that it is common for sibling rivalry to be initiated by the older sibling rather than the younger one.
The effects of child rivalry can be both immediate and long-term. For example, having frequent fights with a sibling can be damaging for a child’s sense of self, his or her motivation in sports and academics, as well as for the family climate: Briscoe reveals, “the most desperate youngsters remain relentlessly hostile – and a nightmare to live with” (par. 7). As siblings grow older, the fights become more severe, sometimes leading to them developing mutual hate rather than a close and supportive relationship. Parents tend to experience stress seeing their children fight one another each day. Moreover, if sibling rivalry is not addressed properly by parents, it can develop into a problematic sibling relationship in adulthood. For example, it is common for siblings who had a rival relationship in the past to experience sibling envy in adulthood: “Sibling envy is like a festering wound and it sours our relationships to the point where we can’t bear the idea of our siblings being successful, or even happy, and instead take pleasure in their failures” (Woods par. 4).
Helpful parenting practices
So, if the main reason for sibling rivalry lies in parents’ attitude towards their kids, what can be done to avert its damaging impact on the family relationship? Gleitman et al. argue that one of the most effective parenting practices, in this case, is to praise the differences between siblings rather than openly comparing them to one another (604). Boyse agrees with this point, explaining that regular family meetings, equal distribution of parents’ time and attention between the siblings, as well as maintaining an overall positive and calm environment within the family are crucial to promoting the healthy development of the relationship between siblings (par. 4-5). Leaving an adequate amount of personal space for both kids and setting basic rules for their communication with one another is also part of a good parents’ tactics for dealing with sibling rivalry (Boyse par. 4).
Overall, sibling rivalry is hard to ignore and the parents must address it to minimize the possibility of long-term negative effects of rivalry on the sibling relationship. One of the key mistakes parents make is assuming that rivalry between siblings is normal and goes away with age; on the contrary, parents should be working with their kids to help them resolve conflicts (Boyse par. 3, 6). Learning to overcome aggression and frustration leads to a better understanding of self and helps children to develop and explore effective communication strategies that will help them in later life.
Badger, Julia, and Peter Reddy. “The Effects of Birth Order on Personality Traits and Feelings of Academic Sibling Rivalry.” Psychology Teaching Review, vol. 15, no. 1, 2009, pp. 45-54.
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Boyse, Kyla. “Sibling Rivalry.” Michigan Medicine, 2011, Web.
Briscoe, Joanna. “A Nasty Case of Sibling Rivalry.” The Guardian, 2014, Web.
Gleitman, Henry et al. Psychology. 8th ed., Norton, 2011.
Whiteman, Shawn et al. “Theoretical Perspectives on Sibling Relationships.” Journal of Family Theory and Review, vol. 3, no. 2, 2011, pp. 124-139.
Woods, Judith. “What Happens When Sibling Rivalry Turns into Adult Envy?” Daily Mail Online, 2010, Web.