Words Hannah May-Lee Wong
The relationship between siblings can be complex. If all goes well, a sibling can be a dependable anchor of family support through the course of your life. They will be there to celebrate with you during special occasions, mourn with you through life’s sorrows and reminisce with you about the good old times growing up – they’re your best and greatest ally. Sadly, that’s not always the case in many families. In contrast, a rivalrous and bitter sibling relationship can feel like an unrelenting thorn in the flesh – a painful reminder of the hurts and trauma of childhood.
Rivalrous relationships between siblings do exist. It can get quite intense and aggressive, and resolving such conflict requires the cooperation of both parties. It is a matter of choice. In some families, the issues resolve, but in many others, they don’t. Psychologist Cathie Wu tells us about the psychosocial aspects of sibling rivalry.
What causes sibling rivalries?
The psychosocial explanation is that it happens when children, specifically the older child, gets ‘dethroned’ when the younger child is born. This makes the older child feel insecure. A firstborn often feels like there was once a period of security and love. When the rest of the children come along, he or she will get a sense that the love and attention is now divided. Because of that, it is not uncommon to feel insecure, and they start to compete for the attention of parents. It’s usually a competition for perceived scarce resources – they perceive their parents’ love and affection as scarce resources. We use the term “perceived” because the love of a parent isn’t necessarily quantifiable. Other perceived scarce resources could be privileges or material things: they might fight over a toy that they perceive as the only one or the best one.
Furthermore, parental issues such as playing favourites would exacerbate the rivalry.
Does sibling rivalry occur the same way across ethnic groups?
There isn’t really a difference in sibling rivalries found in Western and Eastern families. But what I sometimes find in Asian societies is that Asian families seem to value harmony more. Asian parents may be very quick to cut in and try to balance the relationship – a move which is not recommended. Among young kids, some competition is natural and quite common.
Even though research is still quite lacking in this area, sibling rivalry can be found across different socio-economic levels and ethnic groups. It tells us that it’s more likely a psychosocial issue rather than a biological issue.
Does personality play a role?
Personality, which is the slightly more biological aspect, does come into play and can affect the situation. If you have children who are very flexible, then they may not have such intense rivalry.
Does age gap affect how siblings get along?
The more similarities children have, the more likely they are to fight. Similarities like gender and a close age gap increase the likelihood of fighting because their developmental stages are more similar. They tend to perceive things the same way and want the same things, and that’s when they vie for attention.
Does birth order affect behaviour and personality?
Yes. A very famous psychologist named Alfred Adler has done extensive research in this area. Findings show that the first child is typically more responsible, independent and nurturing. There’s also an interesting correlation of firstborn children being more likely to hold higher positions in corporations (more leadership positions). But on the flip side, there is a higher likelihood for firstborns to have psychological maladjustments. Because of those years of carrying burdens, responsibilities or expectations, firstborns tend to be people pleasers. They also tend to be more confident.
The middle child is usually a little bit quieter, more patient and seemingly more reserved. They find their place in the middle, and thus it defines their identity.
The youngest child is the baby of the family. Because they grew up in a secure environment, they may feel freer to explore and this is perhaps why they tend to be more risk-taking, life-of-the-party kind of people. They also are more likely to seek attention because they are so used to getting it.
These are some common patterns in relation to birth order, but they aren’t definitive.
Is competition among siblings always a bad thing?
Competition among siblings is not necessarily unhealthy as children can learn and develop through this. They learn social skills, verbal skills, how to adjust their emotions, how to bargain and negotiate. Building all these soft skills in the safe environment of home is often the best way. Mild to moderate types of vying for attention is perfectly normal. That’s how most kids play and learn.
On the other end, if assault or abuse happens, it’s no longer sibling competition or rivalry – it turns into sibling maltreatment and that’s unhealthy. Research has indicated that if an individual shows persistent violence towards family members, he or she is very likely to carry on with it outside of the family. They become bullies. This points to a red flag and the individual should receive help.
How should family members react when siblings get aggressive towards each other? Should they take sides, ignore or intervene?
For mild to moderate cases of sibling rivalry, it is best for parents to first observe as a third party. If the kids are still trying to figure things out between each other in an argument, you may not need to interfere. If you’re too quick to interfere, there may be consequences and it gets tricky. What seems fair and logical in the eyes of an adult or parent may not be so from a child’s point of view. Many times, parents want to interfere immediately to break apart potential fights. But their children can perceive this as the parent taking sides.
If you feel like things are going to get aggressive and physical, interfere in a way that does not point out who is right or who is wrong. Interfere by using ground rules. For example, if the kids are hitting each other in the backseat of the car, instead of saying “don’t hit your brother”, remind them of the ground rules: “in the car, we treat each other nicely” or “there is no beating each other in the car”. When you refer to the ground rules, you are alluding to whoever is breaking the rules. The difference may be subtle, but it can give very different effects.
Can such rivalry carry on into adulthood?
Most of the time, after kids have learnt how to navigate with their social skills, they enter adolescence and their attention shifts from home to school or even outside of school. They will naturally have other things to worry about, so the sibling rivalry gradually lessens.
That said, in some cases, sibling rivalries can carry on. Certain feelings of unfairness, extreme insecurity, inferiority, feeling the need to retaliate by aggression can linger and collect. As a psychologist, I do see many adults that come in for a set of symptoms, some even have clinical symptoms and after some analysis, the issues connect back to the family.
The competition and rivalry between kids turn into envy as they get older. The vying for parents’ attention evolves into a competition for other forms of scarce resources, perhaps money or prestige. They may start to compare with their siblings and develop feelings of envy.
The prolonged conflict between siblings and even other family members can be unhealthy and can lead to psychological issues such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. It is especially a struggle in Asian societies because most people feel the need to put on a façade, pretend to get along during festivities and put on a show for their elderly parents. In the West, individualism may ultimately prevail, and toxic relationships and individuals may be more readily cut out if things cannot be patched up.
How can parents foster a close and strong bond among their children?
This gets tougher the more children you have. My professional advice is to try and develop a quality relationship with each child individually. That way, even if other children come along, it is less perceived as a loss of attention. If a child can see that he or she gets quality time and has a good relationship with the parents, the rivalry is less likely to develop.
Don’t be too quick to interfere and try to prevent potential fights.
To foster close and strong bonds among your children, try to develop a quality relationship with each child individually.
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