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Sibling Rivalry

Children are the essence of the family life but can become the driving destructive force that splits or divides them up (Dr Barbara Wallace, 1995).

Recently it has been realised that siblings have an enormous impact on one another not just through early childhood but long into the lifespan. Previously it was thought that parents were the main influence in early childhood changing to peers for early adulthood and old age, only now has the full impact of siblings influences been realised.


The sibling relationship is usually one of the longest relationships an individual will experience through a whole lifetime, this is apparent even through half or step siblings (Cicirelli, 1995). A sibling relationship is ascribed, Siblings cant choose each other and because of this fights, disagreements and arguments can normally be overcome where friendships may not be overcome, which relates back to the folk saying you cant choose your family . Sibling relationships overcome most blocks that destroy other relationships when presented with the same blocks. Blocks such as age, size, intelligence social skills, achievements and so on would generally halt most relationships before they even get a chance to start, but siblings with most or all of these differences still manage to relate on an equal level. Siblings also have a common history of shared and non-shared experiences again strengthening the bond between them.

Bill Cosby once said, "You aren't really a parent until you've had your second child." Parents of one child won't really understand this. Parents of two or more children will relate to this statement immediately. He was referring to the seemingly constant bickering and fighting between brothers and sisters.

Myths & Theorists

Adler (1959) believes that birth order is the most important factor in sibling relationships. His theory was accompanied by empirical literature on birth order and sibling structure effects on siblings intellectual and personality. Studies such as these are still going on today. Minuchin (1974) believed that rivalry between siblings was genetic. It has been argued that sibling rivalry can be a valuable childhood experience, siblings can learn to take other perspective s, ague their positions, negotiate to settle differences and many other skills needed in future life experiences.

There has always been debate about the age gape between siblings and their influence on the relationship between them. Early theorist believed that two years was too much of a gap between siblings, as sibling rivalry was inevitable. They believed that with such a big gap the rivalry can start three ways, the first child could receive things as he progresses through his development and the other younger sibling would feel left out. They both could get everything at the same time, making the older sibling frustrated as he never got that when he was that age, and finally the first sibling could feel more left out as the younger sibling gets more attention.

Lateral thinking.

Imagine if you were placed in this situation, one day your husband announces to you, honey,. I ve got wonderful news for you. Next week I m planning to bring home someone else to live with us. It ll be a woman; she ll be a bit younger than you, perhaps a little bit more attractive. In any event, she ll seem that way because I plan to spend more time with her than with you; nevertheless, we re all going to continue to be a very happy family. You ll get used to her presence and I very much want you not only to love her but to show her and I how much you love her . This most people would find intolerable, so why do we expect our two-year old too accept it.

The only toddler who wouldn't be extremely jealous and unhappy about the presence of a nine-or ten-month-old sibling would be one who had very little to lose, the only kind of two-year-old with very little to lose would be one who had not formed a basic attachment to his own mother. In a sense, then, the resentment of a two-year-old toward a younger sibling is reasonably good proof that that older child has formed normal, beneficial ties to his Parents.

Theorists today.

Dr Kidd On (1990) believes that any age gap has its disadvantages and advantages, but believes some have more advantages than others do. Dr Kidd believes that a two year gap although with flaws if its prepared and planned is the ideal age gap, the theory is that that first child will be less demanding of the parents time, leaving more time for the other child. The obvious problems with this gap is the first child may not like being separated from their mother for the long hospital visits and tend to be very territorial, but both of these can be overcome quite easily with good planning. (P.6 Sibling rivalry, spacing the family)

This theory has overlooked the big brother syndrome, the older brother is always bigger, faster, smarter etc. which is reliant totally on nature and the stages of development. This no matter how well explained to some children is injustice in the first degree. The older brother gets all the older boy toys, gets to play first, walk first, run first and so on.

Dr Barbara Wallace believes that the age gap between siblings and the relationship between the siblings aren t of real significance, the significant aspect governing their relationship simply is their personality and the incorporation in the child s upbringing by the older sibling. Although the age gap is a big problem to children at early stages, evidence shows there is minimal difference in IQ, or other achievements between siblings. In cultures were older children are expected to help in the upbringing, teaching and cleaning of the younger sibling generally relationships are closer all the way through the lifespan. Barbara Wallace believes is the governing factor to whether siblings will fight or get along.

Contemporary Theories

Judith Dunn states that sibling rivalry doesn t exist, the same squabbles, fights and arguments would happen if two children were randomly chosen from the neighbourhood street were put together without choosing each other and were to interact together under the same conditions as siblings are. Siblings she explains are thought of too much as brothers and sisters, rather than people, people with totally independent thoughts and feelings, people with different personalities and characters. Arguments and fights start generally because of differences, differences in opinion, differences in ability etc. Judith goes on to say this is what causes the majority of fights within the family unit and society, the differences in personality and character, the very differences that make us unique and individual.

Judith Dunn explains that siblings can get along in a family situation, but she believes their actual personality or character has the most influence on it. People in general will find someone that just doesn t agree with them, someone that rubs them the wrong way , it could be the ignorant taxi driver, the unprofessional doctor that ignores your symptoms, the inconsiderate boss. Children are no different, when placed in a semiclosed environment and basically forced to interact with someone some of these reactions should be expected.


Children have always been underrated, studies now show that children as early as 12 moths old can understand, manipulate and judge other peoples thoughts regardless of age. This ability and knowledge can be used to deliberately start arguments and fights between people. Manipulating parents, children, guardians, teachers and any one else who might be able to give them an edge over their brother or sister.

Children can sense injustice, to a child this is a very important issue and any injustices that have been made could result in arguments, temper tantrums, fights etc. Children like most people hate injustice and will fight it will all means at their disposal. Some parents fail to see their prejudices until comforted them, to a child even something as small as letting the older or younger sibling choose the first crayon to draw with could create deep feelings of injustice to the other sibling.

The order children view another siblings entering the family unit as another person to play with, another person to share my toys with, another person to share my room with, another person to share my clothes with but most of all someone to share my parents love, affection and attention. If these conditions were placed on the best-adjusted adult, you would get some very interesting reactions and could possible end up with much the same reactions. Just as adults may view another adult as a threat to their lifestyle, children may view the same from a younger sibling.

Be careful

Parents sometimes encourage competition and comparisons among siblings in the mistaken belief that it will make them work harder and be more successful. This may result in siblings avoiding active participation in an activity in which another sibling does well especially if they are close in age. If the first child is successful in academic skills, the second child tends to try something else, usually athletics. In some families, an overachieving sibling will be followed by an underachieving one. Parents may not have caused this competition, but they may have unwittingly contributed to it.

When parents react to hostility with hostility, they are unwittingly promoting sibling rivalry.

Too often parents in this situation try to talk children out of their feelings by saying things like "Stop complaining. He's the only brother you have." One parent heard that siblings fight less when the parent describes the feelings. The next time Adam complained about Ben, Linda said, "Sounds like you're pretty mad at Ben."

To her amazement, Adam looked puzzled for a minute and then said, "Yeah, I am mad at him." Then Adam went to another room to play by himself.

(Afters, Gender and conflict in after school care 1993)


Different Cultures have a big impact on how well siblings get along, in some cultures it is expected for the older siblings to help care and tend to the younger ones. In the majority of non-western countries this is not requested but expected and sibling relationships seem to be better intrenched and have better stability. In most western cultures this style of family network is not embraced, and the majority of sibling relationships although close don t have the same kindship as the non-western siblings.

In south France in the 17th Century the oldest son was less likely to be sent away to a wet nurse as an infant or to another household as a youth. A younger brother in this period was penned with these bitter words It is certain that in this share of my mothers heart I got no more than the minimum I was owed, and the prose of the eldest son was always preferred to the poetry of the younger (The family in the western world, P.171)

Aid & Prevention

Judith Dunn offers some important tips for avoiding or resolving sibling rivalry.

 Parents should be clear to explain the new child on an equal level, don t assume they aren t or won t understand, but remember to be clear.

 Be wary of differences in parental love or approval, don t reward telltales, don t pay too much attention to bad behaviour etc.

 Separate the children. Give them some private time alone and try to help both of them to respect and understand others private time.

 Give children the opportunity to resolve their differences, avoid the referee role. This will help their negotiation skills and problem solving skills by giving them choices.

 Be supportive over stress and jealousy avoiding it will just make it worse.

 Don t make assumptions about gender. He s just being a boy .

 Treat children as individuals rather than try and treat them equally. Give based on need rather than equality.

 Make each child feel special. Spend some time alone with each child as often as possible.

(The worlds of childhood, Pt 14, Rivalry & interdependence in sibling relationships)

When parents see the older children are feeling left out and unappreciated, there are ways to mend the problem. One way is to take outings with the older children leaving the little ones at home. The parents structure the outings so that the older youngsters have "one on one' time with first parent and then the other. During these outings, the parents say pleasant things to the older children such as, "You are so grown up. It is a big help to Mom and Dad. " Then you can reinforce the older children's importance by saying, "Let's get some food for the baby, what do you think the baby would like to eat? You choose some jars." Give the older children a sense of importance about the role they play in the nurturing of the baby. Parents often use the older children as a helper with the baby. Most of the time it is to get something and bring it to the parent because the baby is on their lap. Try to be considerate of the older children and don't interrupt important play activities.

When people compliment the baby, look for ways to point out something nice about the older children. For example, a doting Aunt walks in and says, " Oh the baby is so beautiful.," the parents can say "Now we have two beautiful children instead of just one. " After the statement, give the older child a hug, or a smile and a wink. A little reassurance and encouragement can go a long way.
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