Step inside most family homes with two or more children and you will find some evidence of sibling rivalry. Defined as, "competition between siblings especially for the attention, affection and approval of their parents,'[i] sibling rivalry is often dismissed as just 'one of those things' which families must tolerate. With research however suggesting that left unchecked sibling rivalry can form the foundation for future family distress, is it really something which parents should turn a blind eye to? Cases around the world show that people who have experienced severe incidents of sibling rivalry in childhood not only fail to develop positive relationships with their brothers and sisters, but may also be at increased risk of conditions such as depression, eating disorders and self-harm. Here we look at the causes of sibling rivalry and explore the impact of this phenomenon.
Why does sibling rivalry occur? (Click on Read More)
"The mere existence of an additional child or children in the family could signify Less. Less time alone with parents. Less attention for hurts and disappointments. Less approval for accomplishments... No wonder children struggle so fiercely to be first or best. No wonder they mobilize all their energy to have more or most. Or better still, all.[iii]"
This fierce struggle can be a challenge for many families. Previously placid and loving children can transform overnight into devious, jealous siblings. The associated bad behavior is often dismissed as a passing phase. What if it isn’t though? Is sibling rivalry always bad news for a family unit and the people within it?
Sibling rivalry - the research
According to a growing body of evidence, extreme forms of sibling rivalry can cause serious damage to the mental health of the children involved. A comprehensive study carried out by researchers at the University of New Hampshire on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[iv] found that sibling rivalry often develops into physical and psychological aggression leading to a buildup of anxiety and anger. This can manifest itself in depressive conditions, eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating and self-harm.
Over 3,500 young people aged 17 and under were surveyed during the study and asked about their experiences of sibling rivalry. 32% of participants reported incidents of aggressive bullying by a sibling which caused them distress[v]. Lead author of the study, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, believes that by ignoring sibling rivalry parents are training their children to give into bullying. Overlooking the behavior can make children feel like no one cares about them and yet opting for decisive action such as removing an object which is being fought over can also create an impression of 'taking sides.' Learning a more positive approach to conflict resolution in the home was viewed as the only effective long term strategy in this scenario.
Sibling rivalry - personal testimonies
Drilling further into the subject of sibling rivalry unearths additional insights into the personal experiences of those who grow up in a competitive relationship with their brothers and sisters. Two sisters from Essex in England recently told their story in the media there, revealing exactly what it is like when your childhood is dominated by loathing and jealousy. Louisa was eight years old when her sister Ursula was born and immediately resented her arrival. Louisa admits that her unacceptable behavior was driven by abject jealousy,
"To say I resented my sister was an understatement. I felt as if Ursula had stolen all of my mother’s love from me. I could never compete."
Both girls believe that their parents drove their competitive behavior and even encouraged it, openly taking sides in fights and urging one to out-do the other. The sisters may have now resolved their differences but it has been a slow process - at ages 43 and 51, they are only just at the point of salvaging their relationships. The majority of their adult lives have been dominated by bouts of depression and other destructive behavior[vi].
Yet on the flipside, carefully managed sibling rivalries can be a force for good, especially on the sports field. Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel and his younger brother Blake thrive on their spirit of competition both on and off the ice[vii]. Despite their sporting battles the brothers choose to live together and have a strong bond. Research conducted by The Open University supported the position that sibling rivalry can indeed be an important ingredient in terms of achieving sporting success[viii]. Later born siblings were seen to particularly benefit due to their attempts to keep pace with their older brothers and sisters. Mother of British Olympic swimmer, Rebecca Adlington said that her career had benefitted due to,
"a matter of the little sister being determined not to be outdone by her big sisters…Because of that early rivalry she has always had a competitive streak."
Sibling rivalry - strategies for success
While it may be the case that some degree of sibling rivalry can be beneficial, the key to realizing these benefits is to actively manage the situation[ix]. Dealing with a potentially divisive sibling situation[x] requires parents to:
- Not play favorites
- Avoid comparisons
- Treat each child as an individual
- Applaud each child's individual successes
- Encourage sibling co-operation in the completion of household tasks
- Listen to what is going on and do not ignore signs of conflict
- Work together to learn how to resolve conflicts as a family[xi].
Contributed by reader Jennifer Galvin