Sibling Rivalry

by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu
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Frayed tempers; frowning faces; stuck-out tongues; name-calling; hair-pulling. All of us have seen how sibling rivalry unfolds itself.  This seemingly natural part of development for children coming from a family that has two or more siblings can be disastrous for some families when it reaches an extreme.

Why is there sibling rivalry?

Rivalry is inherent to human nature. To prove one’s superiority and to feel jealous of other’s achievements are two traits from which no human mind is exempt – only the intensity of these feelings differs from individual to individual.

In a way, sibling rivalry starts the moment the news breaks out that a new family member is on her way. The elder child who has been the centre of attraction in the family till then, suddenly finds himself relegated to second spot and he sees that a tiny tot who doesn’t even know what she is doing, hog all attention.

As the new baby grows up, she sees the elder sib as somebody who is all too ‘powerful’ and ‘skillful’ doing things which she cannot do. These two conflicting perspectives of elder and younger sibs and the social compulsion of having to stay together and share everything – including parental love and attention, forms the basis of this sibling rivalry.

Personalities of sibs play an important role. Those kids, who are fussy, get easily frustrated or those who are aggressive are more likely to engage in such conflicts.

Family environment is another important determinant. Parents who show overt favouritism amongst sibs on the basis of their gender, appearance or achievement; those who frequently have arguments/fights and those who fail to devote enough time/ attention to kids are more likely to face this problem.

How does it manifest?

In the early years, siblings fight and fret over things like toys or sometimes for a father’s lap or a mother’s breast. As they get older, then the rivalry takes a different course. There might be conflicts on usage of shared things like room, books, TV, computer etc. There are negative remarks passed on each other’s appearances, achievements or friends. There is bullying to get the daily chores done.

How to manage this problem?

Preparing the elder children for the arrival of new baby is the first step. Let them know well in advance (by second trimester) about the delivery. Encourage them to voice their views and concerns. If you are comfortable with the idea, then let them ‘see’ the baby by allowing them to attend the ultrasound tests or make them ‘feel’ the kicking baby inside.

Emphasize their ‘Big brother / sister’ role and that they would be caring for and protecting the young baby. Reassure them that your love for them is not going to be less. At the same time also tell them that mother would be busy looking after the small baby for some time and would find it difficult to give them the same amount of time.

Be prepared to face the kid’s negative remarks about other sibs (‘He is not good!’; ‘She is ugly!’) and about your parenting (You are unfair!). Remember that they are coming from kids, who are not yet emotionally mature.

Make your kids understand the concept of ‘Family’ and also that physically injuring (pinching or hitting) or yelling at the other sib is not going to be permitted in the house. Make them appreciate good points about each other.

Never indulge in comparisons between siblings and ensure that parents’ attention, affection and appreciation are equally distributed.

Don’t take sides in a sibling fight. Firmly make them both understand that what they are doing is wrong and it would not be tolerated. Give them time to cool off and then make them shake hands or give them a shared activity.

If sharing common things is the problem area, then set a time-table to share those things like toys, games, TV-time or computer time.

How do we judge its serious nature?

At younger ages, the serious sibling rivalry may manifest itself as temper tantrums, play acting as a baby (baby talk, crawling, crying for bottle or breast feeding etc.), bed wetting, stuttering or withdrawn depressed mental states. Older children and adolescents could show difficulties at school, anxiety, depression or rage attacks. 

Most of these are manageable by parents by showing more understanding, patience and affection. If persisting, they need expert guidance from a child psychologist / psychiatrist.

The key to solve this problem is to understand and make your children understand that everyone has his or her individual strengths and weaknesses and one has to use those strengths and overcome those weaknesses to succeed in life, instead of looking at someone else to compare. Feelings of jealousy and rivalry are not unnatural but we have to just use them as spurs to try harder and reach higher in life, instead of getting caught in their whirlpool and finally getting drowned in despair and dejection!

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