Dinner in my family is occasionally punctuated by little skirmishes. Good-natured humor gives way to tears and sharp words. Siblings form alliances as they jostle for dominance. Parental intervention seems futile as nature takes over. I have a beautiful, kind, close family. I’m sure you do too. Yet despite this, I know that the harmony of your life is also periodically interrupted by sibling rivalry.
As far back as the legendary competition of Cain and Abel, which is reflected in the writings of three of the world’s major religions, human progeny have competed for the love and attention of their parents. In its most tolerable form, this is intermittent, contextualized by love and affection, short-lived and without major injury. At the other extreme, Cain, the first human born is driven by sibling jealousy to kill Abel, the first human to die in the sacred writings.
Romulus and Remus are famous feral children whose story is told in ancient mythology. Abandoned to die in the Tiber River, the infants were miraculously saved by flooding waters that carried them to a she-wolf who nurtured and raised the two boys, suckling them and feeding them with her own milk. After a mortal dispute as adults, the surviving Romulus founded Rome, the seat of so much European history and civilization. While siblicide is more common in nature, it is fortunately outlawed in human society.
Whether gentle and infrequent, or persistent and hostile, sibling rivalry is a puzzle to many of us. I speak with many exasperated parents who feel guilty that their poor parenting skills allow such unattractive competitiveness. I propose that this is natural, healthy behavior that is better understood and embraced than regretted and suppressed. But, there is a balance. Somewhere on the continuum, a flexing of muscles becomes abuse, and functional rivalry becomes pathologic enmity.
Many instincts drive modern sibling rivalry. Children compete to define who they are. As they emerge with their own identities, they want to separate themselves from the family. In a more practical sense, they benefit from parental attention in learning and nourishment. When this is scarce, their instinct is to compete for the limited resources. Stress can limit the availability of parental kindness, and at the same time impedes a child’s ability to manage natural tensions without resorting to hostility. Birth order and developmental stage impact the expression of sibling rivalry. Older children may try to preserve the dominance they enjoy from early physical, emotional and mental advantage. Conversely, younger children may rebel against older siblings, fighting for independent expression and share of family voice. Parental example is a powerful means of influencing rivalry behavior. Families that model tolerance and peace should not be surprised to find it in their children.
As parents we should acknowledge and listen to each child’s unique needs. Celebrate differences, praising each child loudly for their unique talents and achievements. Equal treatment is not appropriate. Equal attention, love and praise is. We should look for and reward good behavior, and be prepared to model kind and peaceful ways to address and resolve conflicts. We should try very hard not to compare our children with each other, including subtle non-obvious ways. Rather than have them try to clean their rooms quicker than each other, have them race the clock. Don’t get involved, or pick sides. Even perpetuating a nickname that implies comparison like “speedy” or “little man” can be unintentionally harmful. And remember, it doesn’t matter who started the fight. Without resistance, there would have been no tension and no dispute.
If you recognize that your own stress is exaggerating natural tensions, be kind on yourself. It takes courage to own this. Don’t reproach yourself or describe your condition with mean self-criticism. Take active steps to remediate, and celebrate the fact that each family has built in stress detectors, like sibling rivalry, that are the early warning systems. If you can, show your children that you understand how your impatience or distraction is part of the problem. Modeling this in an active way without letting shame detract from your important status within the family is an invaluable life lesson.
Your guidance during calm moments is more valuable than your desperate attempts to calm a violent outburst. Use happy times to discuss and model awareness and appreciation for different styles and personalities within the family. Of course, dangerous or hurtful disputes must be stopped, ideally by diverting the energy towards more fruitful discussions. Distraction is useful in younger children. Decide if a conflict is harmful, and if not either watch quietly as your children develop their own skills at conflict resolution, or help them negotiate towards a win-win situation. Celebrate peace when it returns, and reward your children generously when they find their own path to a safe and mutually fruitful outcome.
There are many prominent examples of competing siblings in our world. Serena and Venus Williams often compete for top international tennis honors. The Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, compete for rights as top quarterback in the NFL. Michael and Janet Jackson vied for the spotlight on center stage as vocal entertainers. Although smutty media sometimes probe for the ugly side of these relationships, for the most part we are impressed by the power of sibling respect and support. I’m sure that behind closed doors, the Williams, Manning and Jackson families would all confess to the universal presence of sibling rivalry, and hopefully to its role in developing the exceptional adults we know today.
I hope that this article allows you to appreciate the value of sibling rivalry, and provides you with strategies for channeling it positively towards healthy growth for the entire family. Even as we guide the development of our children, we advance our own insight and strength as caring, engaged adults. This is BodyWHealth!