What Parents Should Know About Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is found everywhere in nature. For example: baby sharks will ingest one another in utero until the last and largest one is left standing. Baby birds may toss siblings out of the nest to ensure their food supply. And, we are all familiar with Darwin’s survival of the fittest as a natural struggle for food and other resources that are necessary to survival — not only of the individual, but the entire species.

The same is true in the human family. In my years as a researcher and educator, with a Ph.D. in Psychology and Doctorate of Education, I’ve witnessed sibling rivalry at different levels. The following is a common scenario that I have seen happen in many families.

Your first child receives 100 percent of what you have to give, and in the best of all possible worlds that means a lot of love and attention. Therefore, your child has the best chance for bonding, nurturing, and having his/her needs met.

Then suddenly, without your first born’s choice, knowledge, or options, a stranger – the new sibling – is introduced into his/her world. Not only is this new person requiring a lot of time and attention, but also has seemingly replaced him/her as the center of Mom and Dad’s universe.

At first the new baby on board is a novelty, and your older child may even enjoy some of the busy activities going on, especially if he or she is included. But soon enough, your older child may begin to tire of the novelty and will want his or her place back as the sole recipient of Mom and Dad’s attention. However, that is not going to happen. Not only that, but your child soon realizes that his or her place is gone…forever.

A nagging thought sits on the edge of the older child’s consciousness: that maybe this new baby is loved the best.

Now this is where things begin to heat up and the first sibling, out of frustration, may become duplicitous, as he or she tries to sabotage and even injure your new baby. A pinch or slap, when no one is looking; hiding your younger child’s toys; or even overt expressions of anger, such as, “I don’t want or like this new baby and I want you to send it back,” are only a few examples of how difficult it can get.

The first sibling may become aggressive in general, even when your new baby is not around; or regress into more childish and needy behavior, all in an effort to reclaim his or her rightful and now lost place. This competition, if left without remediation, has the potential to sow the seeds for a lifetime of negative patterns. Then, if another child is born into the family, the resources of Mom and Dad’s time and attention in relation to nurturing, bonding, and meeting children’s needs are cut no longer in half but, if they’re lucky, in thirds.

And so it goes, until by the time your last child is born, the competition for goods and services is very scarce indeed.

To further complicate things, young children are in concrete operations, meaning they are both egocentric and unable to process their emotions critically. Therefore, when they are emotionally upset, they strike out reactively instead of thinking about things and choosing the best proactive course of action.

Furthermore, their understanding of the here and now is concrete and they don’t really understand the difference between a city, a state, a universe… or life and death. They are magical in their thinking and believe that what is killed today, will rise up tomorrow. Along with this, since the brain is still forming, your children might develop patterns based on these early frustrations that could stay with them for a lifetime and influence the way they think and feel about a brother or sister for the rest of their lives, as well as influence other significant relationships.

Sibling rivalry is so powerful that it may even affect the roles that we take in a family, and the careers we choose for ourselves in the adult world. For example, due to competition with our siblings, what we pick for our life’s passion may be in direct opposition of our brothers’ and sisters’ choices.

So as a parent, how do you manage this rivalry between siblings? I’ll share some tips in my next blog post.