When Parents Foster Sibling Rivalry


Remember when your mom asked:

“Why can’t you be as nice as your sister?”

“Your brother used to get As when he was in Calculus, why are you barely getting Bs?”

Have you found yourself making similar types of remarks to your child?

Sibling rivalries can be initiated by seemingly benign comments such as these. However, they can often escalate and plant the seeds for unhealthy sibling dynamics that can continue into adulthood. As a parent, you may be inadvertently fostering rivalry between your children; as a child, you may unwittingly be the pawn in your mother’s or father’s attempts at splitting and/or manipulating.

Why do some parents foster sibling rivalry?

Parents who engage in this kind of conduct may, in some cases, actually be projecting their issues of low self-esteem, narcissism, lack of control, and insecurity. It’s possible they were compared to their siblings, and are now projecting their past experiences onto their children. A form of splitting and/or manipulating occurs when parents compare and contrast their adult children in an effort to control them or make them jealous.

What’s really happening is that parents use splitting and manipulating as a way of asserting their control. They play one child against the other or play favorites, implying that one child is preferred. However, children are sensitive and perceptive, and pick up the nuances when it comes to matters of the heart. And when it comes to demonstrations of parental love and affection, they can detect favoritism and rejection immediately. If sustained over a long period of time, this parental splitting and manipulation can have lasting consequences.

All parents love their children. However, it is undeniable that for some parents, childrearing is informed by their own agenda. Ultimately, parents hold the power, and if they act in the best interest of their children, then they can leave a legacy of a happy, healthy family. In spite of their controlling and manipulating behavior, most parents do want their children to be close and not burdened with childhood jealousies.

What can parents do?

  1. Recognize and acknowledge your behavior. Ask yourself: “Am I creating hostility between my children in order to gain love, attention, and control?”
  2. Recognize that your children are separate individuals both from you and your partner, and also from each other, and it is important not to compare them.
  3. Step back and let your children individuate.
  4. Seek counseling when needed.

What can adult children do?

  1. Recognize and acknowledge what has been done.
  2. Create boundaries that you can live by, as boundaries will liberate you.
    • Example of a boundary: if a parent brings up your sibling during a phone conversation in a way that feels uncomfortable, change the subject or let your parent know you are busy and will have to call her back. Ultimately, she will get the picture and start adjusting her splitting and/or manipulative behavior.
  3. Be cordial; don’t fight. Let your parent know you are not going to participate or get hooked, by kindly refusing to engage in unhealthy behavior. The more you refrain from participating in this way, the more you are teaching your controlling or splitting parent that her style is no longer working. If you don’t react, she will not get what she wants…or needs, and, she will slowly begin to change her actions. When she realizes that her old style of splitting and/or manipulating is no longer working, she will often regroup and change her behavior.

What’s interesting is that when parents die, and then children come together – each child carries some part of the parent back to the primary family unit, and they find they need each other in a new way. Parents who can get a handle on their behavior can be integral in creating this loving and supportive dynamic between their children while they are still living.