Sibling Rivalry for Better or Worse

Washington Parent Magazine, May 2003
Kay Kosak Abrams, Ph.D.

My son, Daniel, age 14, competes with his sister, Leah, age 11, at every opportunity. He is trying to "one up" her. The good news is that Leah holds her own and appears to be unscathed. This annoys Daniel all the more, because he is, of course, most satisfied when he is winning. When "push comes to shove," as the competition crescendos, some dynamic truths spill out.

Daniel tells us that his sister is "too perfect." Although he is older by three years, "she acts older!" Leah confesses that she will not "give in" to him because he has "no right to act superior." In the meantime, their younger brother, Michael, appears to dodge bullets easily. If his older brother turns on him, he not only rolls over, he is furious if his parents step in to defend him. Besides, if he gets fed up, he can always join forces with his sister against Daniel.

Rivalry is alive and well in our household, for better or worse. All of it takes place in between shared laughter and the dizziness of daily activities. Despite the infighting, Daniel seeks out his sister to say "goodnight" nearly every night and often adds, "love you Leah." "Love you too, Danny," she replies. Michael is 8 years old going on 14 and a leader in his third grade class, largely due to his big brother's influence. Leah stands firmly apart from them both, in a league of her own as the middle child and the only girl.

Rivalry: A Blessing and Curse

Parents can see how rivalry is both a blessing and curse, for themselves and their children. Rivalry is here to stay and is a crucial piece of preparation for coping and achieving mastery in the real world. Rivalry is in our families and in our social and work relationships. It is not rivalry in itself that is the problem. Rather, it is how we learn to cope with rivalry that is the key to success in managing competition and differences in any relationship.

What our Rivalry is About

Rivalry is about having a voice and establishing a separate and valid self-identity. It is about securing influence and having a worthy role in our family or community. Rivalry involves social ranking, negotiating needs and establishing boundaries. Through sibling and social rivalry, we begin to develop defenses to secure ourselves. How we learn to secure our needs for love and attention stays with us and plays out in our current relationships.

Factors that Influence Rivalry

Many internal and external factors influence the outcome of sibling rivalry, including temperament, birth order, situational stress and family dynamics.

Differences in temperament appear in sibling rivalry when one child is naturally compliant and another competitive and aggressive. A strong-willed and oppositional child can upset the applecart almost as much as one with serious physical illness or deficit.

Birth order has an impact on rivalry. The youngest child has a different experience than the oldest or middle child. The eldest child is often that "guinea pig," and he can set the pace. A second child may learn to compete or fight if the first is a fighter, or he may learn to avoid or flee from the older sibling. The adage, "The first is glass, the second is wood and the third is rubber" is based on reality. We are protective and reactive to our first, and land in the emergency room far more often with our third or fourth child.

In many cultures, the eldest was granted responsibilities and privileges based solely on his position. Parents even now refer to twins by birth order, and twins will play the role of older vs. younger. Birth order is about a degree of responsibility, influence, status and inheritance. On top of temperament and needs for hierarchy, there are situational factors and alliances that influence rivalry. Siblings may bond beautifully in the face of divorce or when one parent falls ill. Siblings may also ally with each other by acting out to test parents who feel guilty and ineffective about how to manage them. One sibling may take on a parenting role when a father or mother is largely absent. Alternatively, one child's behavioral problems may instinctively serve to keep parents together. In this manner, situational factors influence alliances and vice versa.

Adding Fuel to the Flames

Siblings often enjoy rivalry. Parents do not. Parents respond to rivalry according to their own temperaments and personal histories, i.e. how they fared in the face of competition. They also respond to rivalry in accordance with the mood of the moment. So, watch out!

Children love to pull parents in to ally with "their side" of the argument or conflict. When parents take a side, thereby allying with one sibling over another, they are, for one reason or another, identifying with or validating that sibling. When there is no legitimate right versus wrong and parents get "hooked" in this fashion, they become part of the conflict and lose their objectivity.

The more we parents get hooked on one side or the other, the more likely our children will fight to provoke us into the ring! This becomes a never-ending, very exciting boxing match without a referee. We inadvertently add fuel to the flames by allying with one sibling over the other, typically feeling obliged to cast blame and dish out punishment. We promote a win-lose, as opposed to a win-win, mentality and outcome.

Rarely do parents have the patience and resourcefulness, in the face of protests and dramatic affect, to listen effectively and facilitate problem solving. By getting "hooked" and adding fuel to the flames, the fights themselves become the purpose, and we fail to promote accountability in our children. The worst part of this cycle is how drained and exhausted we become by stepping into the flames and taking accountability by offering to solve the conflict! Now, the siblings have learned to depend on us whenever there are problems. And they are rewarded because they can project the conflict onto us and do not have to effectively solve it!

Managing the Rivalry

To successfully manage rivalry among your children, memorize the following truths:

Managing conflict in any relationship takes practiced skill, not necessarily instinct. We would never respond to a conflict with a friend, neighbor or an employee in quite the same way we allow ourselves to respond to our spouse and our children. 

Heed these four steps over and over:

  1. Step back, and breathe so you can listen objectively to each side.
  2. Validate each side by restating each child's needs, one at a time, reflecting back her position. Remember, there is no "right vs. wrong." Each person is right and justified, from her perspective.
  3. Request that the listener repeat the speaker's version of the problem. Each person needs to learn to listen and show empathy for the other's perspective. Model this for them first if it is difficult for them or they refuse to do it. Solutions are easier to find once understanding has taken place.
  4. After both siblings have stated their positions and been validated, encourage them to come up with a win-win solution. You can leave the room while they struggle to do so. The only time this whole process of listening, empathizing and problem solving does not work is when there are more serious or chronic feelings of anger and jealousy and needs for attention or revenge. In these cases, family counseling may be in order to delve a bit deeper, for a longer period of time in order to enhance cooperation and resolution to conflict.

Always remember that when you change your response to your children, even for the better, change is tough. Habitual behaviors and responses may get worse before change takes place. It is human nature to test new behavior, and your children will resort to any tactic, and worse, to get you back "in the ring and hooked" as you were before.

The steps to responding to conflict sound so simple and ring true for all of us, yet it is much easier said than done. Staying calm, playing mediator and acting like a sportscaster, who mirrors back the conflict, is better than getting hooked by taking sides. This does not mean that siblings will be sweet and loving about it. The goal is to not get stuck in the quicksand whereby they've got you feeling the conflict and solving it!

When conflicts escalate to a dangerous level, it is time to examine the underlying dynamics that might need adjusting. In my family's case, with respect to hierarchy and my daughter's uncanny ability to usurp her brother by acting as his equal, it was time to declare his privileges and secure his status as the older one. In addition, we were able to appeal to her privately to help her to understand the connection between her brother's needs for recognition and status and his belittling of her. We know that there will be conflicts again and again as our children learn to accept and resolve their differences.

Copyright 2003 - Dr. Kay Abrams