Sibling rivalry is a type of competition or animosity among brothers and sisters within a family. It results from a predictable, normal, and healthy response of an older child to the birth of a new brother or sister, because the older child feels threatened by the new member of the family. Sibling relationships are training for living in a world of diversity. Though born of the same parents, siblings often differ from one another widely in temperament, personality, tastes, preferences, talents, and even political leanings. Learning to resolve these differences provides training in tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness. Failure to do so, however, results in rivalries that threaten to destroy the harmony of the family, create a toxic social environment, and when unchecked may lead to violence and tragedy. With the parents' help, a child can transform resentful feelings into cooperativeness and genuine altruism.
Sibling rivalry is the intense competition that exists among brothers and sisters for the attention of their parents. Children are sensitive from the age of one year to differences in parental treatment. From 18 months on, siblings can understand family rules and know how to comfort and hurt each other. By three years old, children have a sophisticated grasp of social rules, can evaluate themselves in relation to their siblings, and know how to adapt to circumstances within the family.
Eighty percent of people in Western countries have at least one sibling, and siblings generally spend more time together during childhood than they do with their 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.
Sister/sister pairs tend to be the closest and brother/brother pairs tend to have the most rivalries, more so when they are closer in age, with identical male twins the most competitive of all. Parental and societal expectations of males may lead to more competitiveness and a greater degree of comparison between brothers, as opposed to between sisters or opposite-gender siblings.
Sibling relationships can change dramatically over the years. Events such as a parent’s illness may bring siblings closer together, whereas marriage may drive them apart, particularly if the in-law relationship is strained. Approximately one-third of adults describe their relationship with siblings as competitive or distant. However, rivalry often lessens over time and at least eighty percent of siblings over age 60 enjoy close ties.
Sibling rivalry usually starts right after, or before, the arrival of the second child. The older child can become aggressive, “act out,” or regress (act more like a baby). This process, known as "dethronement" occurs when the older child feels they must now share their love with someone else. It is not initially hatred but a sense of unsettlement and grieving over the loss of position as the parent's sole object of love and attention.
Among children the deepest need, the greatest hunger, is to receive love from their caretaker. Because of this dependence, young siblings sometimes fear that love given by parents to others will mean love withheld from themselves. The firstborn's reaction to the birth of a new sibling is a change in behavior that is either aggressive or regressive. Typical aggressive behaviors include hitting, pinching, attempting to lift the baby off the parent's lap, covering the baby with a blanket, to name a few. Regressive behaviors include problems with toilet training or bedw-etting, using a bottle for feeding after being weaned, thumb sucking or use of a pacifier, temper tantrums, demanding behavior, or clinging.
The older child’s personality and psychological development are significant factors in how they react to a new baby. Children with the closest relationships to their mothers show the most anger after the baby is born, while those with a close relationship to their father seem to adjust better. The child’s developmental stage may affect how well they can share their parents’ attention. Often two-year-olds have trouble adapting to a new baby, because they still have a great need for time and closeness from their parents.
Each child in a family competes to define who they are as individuals and to show that they are separate from their siblings. Children may feel they are getting unequal amounts of their parents’ attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Children fight more in families where there is no understanding that fighting is not an acceptable way to resolve conflicts, and they do not experience any alternative ways of handling such conflicts. Stress in the parents’ and children’s lives can create more conflict and increase sibling rivalry. Parents can reduce the opportunity for rivalry by refusing to compare or typecast their children, teaching the children positive ways to get attention from each other and from the parent, planning fun family activities together, and making sure each child has enough time and space of their own.
The story of Cain and Abel, written in the Bible at Genesis chapter 4, in the Torah, and Qur'an at 5:27-32, tells of the first instance of sibling rivalry which led to the first murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel. They were the first sons of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Although warned by God that if he did not do well, sin was couching at his door, Cain was jealous of his brother when God accepted Abel's offering and not his own. This jealousy and anger led Cain to kill his brother.
Many religious faiths view this as the prototypical murder and paradigm for conflict and violence. While some view this story as merely a story of the origin of humanity, and others as a justification of murder, it is generally interpreted as a tragedy in human relationships. Cain and Abel often represent different personality types or social positions. Cain represents the firstborn, sinful, worldly, privileged, a farmer, a city-builder, and bad son. Abel represents the junior, faithful, spiritual, herdsman, and good son.
Social psychologists have viewed Cain's action as an example of the frustration-induced aggression. The solution to avoiding such tragedy is to teach non-violent responses to frustration. An alternative view suggests that both sons are equally loved by both their parents (Adam and Eve) and by God, who desire the reconciliation of Cain and Abel. The conflict between the brothers is a continuation of the failure of Adam and Eve, documented in Genesis in the story of the Fall of Man, and the resolution of such conflicts is a model for peace and conflict resolution generally.
Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, saw the sibling relationship as an extension of the Oedipus complex, where brothers were in competition for their mother's attention and sisters for their father's. Alfred Adler saw siblings as "striving for significance" within the family and felt that birth order was an important aspect of personality development. David Levy introduced the term "sibling rivalry" in 1941, claiming that for an older sibling "the aggressive response to the new baby is so typical that it is safe to say it is a common feature of family life."
Sibling rivalry is common among various animal species, in the form of competition for food and parental attention. An extreme type of sibling rivalry occurs when young animals kill their siblings, as happens among eagles and hyenas. However, sibling relationships in animals are not always competitive. For example, among wolves, older siblings help to feed and guard the young.
Evolutionary psychologists often explain sibling rivalry in terms of parental investment and parent-offspring conflict. Parents are inclined to spread their resources over all their children, whereas a child would like all those resources to himself. So the parent tries to encourage the children to share, but often meets resistance. Children share half of their genes with siblings, so they have some motivation to feel positively towards brothers and sisters. This may explain the mixed feelings that siblings sometimes have towards each other.
It is notable that in many Asian countries, including Japan and Korea, the distinction between the roles of elder and younger siblings is determined by the cultural norms. The eldest son is expected to assume greater responsibility for the family's welfare and also receives the greater share of the inheritance. Younger children are expected to show respect and obedience to their elder brothers and sisters, and can expect guidance, care, and leadership from them. These cultural norms are more conducive to harmonious family relationships.
Peer mentoring, which has similarities to the Asian model of sibling relationships, has become an effective practice in many U.S. youth programs. Older teens are trained to mentor and coach peers or younger youths. This model has been effective in enhancing self-esteem and self-confidence for both the teens and their mentors as the older teens feel a responsibility to act as positive role models for their peers and younger children and the younger students strive to emulate the positive behaviors of the teen mentors.
The Social Influence Model has shown that peer mentoring is effective in changing student attitudes toward drug-use as well as involvement in other high risk behaviors (Ellickson, 1990; Bangert-Drowns, 1988). Peer programs positively harness the power of peer relationships by training members to provide services that directly and indirectly impact the personal development, communication, decision-making, and conflict resolution/violence prevention skills of other young people.
According to the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) Program, the key to decreasing sibling rivalry lies in making each child feel valuable, important, and a cherished member of the family.
People are decision-making social beings whose main goal in life is to belong. Each of us strives continually to find and maintain a place of significance. Choosing how you belong is a powerful motivation!
Through the parents' love for his brothers and sisters, a child learns to love them as well. A son's respect for his sister is learned by observing the parents' respect for her; a daughter's respect for her brother is likewise learned. The parents' love endows each child with value that is worthy of respect. This is the starting point for children to learn empathy, caring, sharing, and giving:
Sibling rivalry can be a major spur in children's learning to live together, learning how to share, how to win victories and suffer defeats, how to love and how to cope with their own unloving feelings.
Parents can help an older child overcome their self-centered perspective by including them in caring for their younger sibling. Through helping to take care of the helpless baby an older sibling responding happily to praise from the parents, and feels pride in accomplishing even a small task for the sake of the other. This activates altruism, which serves them well later in life:
One of the ways in which a young child tries to get over the pain of having a younger rival is to act as if he himself were no longer a child, competing the same league as the baby, but as if he were a third parent. … the parents can help a child to actually transform resentful feelings into cooperativeness and genuine altruism.
From this perspective, sibling rivalry is not a negative situation, but an important lesson in life. Failure to learn these lessons in childhood may make it more difficult and more costly emotionally to learn as an adult.
Thus, parents need not try to eliminate rivalry, but rather keep it within healthy and constructive bounds, channeling the competitive urges in positive directions. The biblical story of Cain and Abel does not mean that rivalry is evil, but rather the brothers merely desired to win approval, attention, and recognition from God (as children from a parent) for their offerings. Evil prevailed only when Cain chose to act on his resentful and jealous feelings by using violence against his brother. It is possible to resolve these feelings, as demonstrated in another Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob was able to win his brother's heart and heal Esau's resentment. The desire for love and attention is not wrong, it is a natural desire.
With this in mind, parents can use several tools to help decrease sibling rivalry with the intention that each child is valuable, important, and cherished regardless of their behaviors.
The Bible contains many examples of sibling rivalry:
The complex relationship between siblings has provided a rich source of material for fiction:
Real life examples of sibling rivalry include:
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