Sibling Rivalry and Conflict
Most of the conflicts that exist in our world boil down, in one way or another, to struggles over limited resources. For any child, the ultimate resource is his or her parents. From the parents all things that make life bearable and sweet flow: shelter, food, affection, support and affirmation, among other things. Is it any wonder, then, when a child is confronted with the presence of other needy youngsters in the family that he or she is apt to feel threatened – and anxious that perhaps there won’t be enough of those precious parental resources to go around? Sibling rivalry is so common among families because it is fueled by this instinctive and primal fear, which all of us partake in to some degree.
The jealousy and resentment that one sibling feels for another is typically the expression of one deep and all-encompassing desire — to possess the exclusive love and attention of both parents. When competing brothers and sisters stand in the way of this desire, animosity can rear its head in a number of ways. Children may seek to outshine their siblings in the eyes of their parents. They may begin to keep score, feeling envious of any achievement made by a brother or sister and resenting every privilege. Oftentimes, one sibling will assume that the best way to rise above another is to diminish him or her.
The ways in which this goal of a sibling may be achieved can oftentimes be malicious and cruel. Indeed, parents are often shocked by the lengths to which their children will go to antagonize, belittle and undercut each other. Many child psychologists and behaviorists have pointed out, however, that siblings can reap certain mental and emotional rewards from their rivalry. The intense state of competition that exists between many children can teach them assertiveness and self-defense. And, if their quest to become the dominant sibling fails, they may well learn the fine art of compromise.
What actions can parents take in the face of the more destructive consequences of sibling rivalry? Our best tactic would be to avoid fueling the conflict by favoring one sibling over another in any way. If sibling rivalry is driven by competition for our attention and love then we should strive to express these equally to all of our children. Some habits that can derail us in that regard include making comparisons between kids (even seemingly innocent ones) and taking sides in an argument. Whenever rivalry erupts, the issue is not who is right but rather that each sibling is different and has an innate need to be respected and acknowledged for his or her uniqueness.
We have the opportunity to do this every time a fight breaks out if we take the time to listen to children and acknowledge their feelings – echoing these back to them, if we can – rather than trying to get to the bottom of why the fight occurred. Usually the “why” has to do with deeper feelings of fear that each sibling carries. They may fear that they don’t measure up to the others, that we love them less, or that they aren’t worth our attention. We can assuage these fears by helping them to put their feelings into words, to express what their real underlying desires are, and by giving them opportunities to channel any lingering hostile feelings in creative rather than destructive and hurtful ways.