The importance and role of sibling rivalry
Siblings are the longest standing relationships in most of our lives. As we grow older they increasingly serve to keep a connection to our families of origin, reminding us of our parents and our younger selves. Most of us share genetic material and family histories with our siblings. They have a significant place in our origins and narratives and an important role in shaping us. We don’t choose our siblings in the way we do our friends and sexual partners but, in many ways, they are our closest peers.
Over two blogs I have focussed on one area of sibling relationships, namely rivalry. In part 1, I will look at some aspects of sibling rivalry as they can surface in childhood. In part 2, I will think about how these might impact ongoing struggles in adult life, before suggesting ways in which problematic issues with rivalry can be helped.
Sibling rivalry in childhood
Sibling rivalry is part of growing up. Children who have sibling/s share their parent’s love and attention and feelings of rivalry are naturally going to arise. While squabbling and fighting can disturb the family atmosphere, it is important that we are aware of these feelings and struggles are normal. These conflicts around competition are also ways in which young children prepare for managing later peer relationships.
However, feelings of rivalry can become particularly exacerbated for different reasons. For example, if there are unresolved difficulties in the parent’s relationship to competition and rivalry. Fighting between siblings that gets out of control or dominates the family can be often be traced back to some difficulty for one or both parents.
Other family dynamics may also play a part in complicating and exacerbating rivalry. Below are some examples where sibling rivalry might become heightened, and complex.
- One example is when a parent is particularly enmeshed with one child. This means all other relationships, including other children, are pushed outside of this unhealthy coupling. This can create huge difficulties for everyone in the family and can heighten and complicate rivalrous feelings between the siblings.
- A large age gap might mitigate rivalry in some ways but not in others. It may be particularly hard for the older sibling to allow or express jealousy or rivalrous feelings towards a much younger sister or brother. This younger sibling may be getting a kind of affection that the older brother or sister has had to relinquish but still misses.
- The much younger sibling can feel the older one is closer to the parent/s as they’ve perhaps reached an age where they are being treated on more equal terms. This can also become bound up with the difference in capabilities due to age-difference. So, rivalry can feel linked with feelings of inadequacy.
- Children who are born close in age may have had to share their mother’s/main caregiver’s attention and care as babies. Feelings of competition and rivalry may be experienced on a primal level – originating very early in life – and this could make them particularly hard to articulate.
- Children who have siblings with a disability or illness may feel ashamed and guilty for having negative feelings towards the sibling/s. This dynamic gets further compounded by the extra attention the sick or disabled sibling may well get from parents and others.
- Harder still to express, manage, or even feel, is the rivalry and jealousy that might be felt towards a sibling who has died. In the psychotherapy field there is particular concern about children who may have been conceived to ‘replace’ a child who has died, and the very particular – often unconscious – pressures they come under.
- Relationships and rivalry between half and step-siblings can sometimes be less intense if, for example, they do not live with each other. There will likely be a parent the child can claim as their own who is not shared biologically and emotionally. However, these half/step-sibling relationships can also feel complex and painful, as they are often bound up with parents’ separation and families splitting into ‘new’ and ‘old’.
- One of the more unconscious ways families often manages rivalry is by assigning different roles and attributes amongst siblings. For example, the ‘clever’, ‘sporty’, ‘artistic’ ‘musical’ one; or ‘quiet’, ‘sociable’, ‘troubled’ etc. These might work to mitigate rivalry some of the time, in some families, and for some individuals. However, they can also stir up further complex feelings of rivalry, imbuing them with restrictive self-expectations and feelings of inadequacy.
Do only children have it easier?
Based on the accounts above we could think that the only child is the most fortunate. Certainly, ‘only’ children do not usually have to compete with early peer relationships for their parents’ love and attention and therefore avoid some of these more painful and destructive experiences of sibling rivalry. However, those who have grown up as only children often report a pervasive feeling of loneliness and isolation. Being the sole focus of parents’ love (and often therefore need) can feel very burdensome as a child and an adult. It is also no coincidence that only children often describe particularly acute difficulties starting nursery or school where they suddenly encounter the rough and tumble of peer relationships and rivalry.
The jostling and competing for space and attention that siblings engage with, prepare them for later experiences. However, it is important that children are also able to develop feelings of concern and companionship towards their siblings. In this way, the intense and more hateful feelings of rivalry can be moderated and managed. While feelings of sibling rivalry never fully go away they need to be resolved enough to establish healthy relationships with peers in adulthood.
In part 2, I will the potential impact of unresolved sibling rivalry in adulthood and look at ways of helping.