The “Why” of Sibling Rivalry

Four siblings posing in costumesIf you have siblings, you are probably going to get into conflict with them at some stage in your life. I can probably go as far as saying that if you have parents, you are probably going to end up arguing with them at some point too. Why? Because parents and siblings are pains in the backside, regardless of how much you love them.

One of my clients gave birth to her second son about 3 years after the first one was born. She says there is a constant struggle to enjoy them both at the same time. Let me explain. The eldest is magnificent, beautiful, and smart, a perfect kid. But he is so jealous of his new brother that he has become aggressive, angry, short-tempered and not fun to be around. When he spends the time with mom or dad on his own, he is completely fine, but when baby brother is around, he gets angry and upset. Mom has to make sure he does not hurt his little brother.

Every parent struggles with sibling rivalry. Jealously between people is quite natural, and for kids it is particularly evident because their definition of fairness is distorted. They think fairness means treating everyone the same (even though siblings are never the same).

As a kid, I often thought things like, “Why does my brothers/sister have privileges that I do not have”. I was not able to contemplate that the differences could be due to our ages, my parents’ financial circumstances, my gender, the culture, my parents’ ability, the level of risk. At the time, I thought we were siblings and therefore we should be treated the same. Of course, when talk turned from privileges to responsibility, suddenly we did not need to be treated the same anymore. I used to say things like, “She is the eldest, she should do it” or, “He is a boy, he can do it”.

Parents often think in a similar way. They believe they should be “fair” to their children and treat them equally. In fact, children are different. Each of them is born in a different time, to different circumstances. Usually, kids who think they are being discriminated against become very aggressive.

Surprisingly, the same is true of Monkeys! Here is a video I saw recently which illustrates monkeys’ (and children’s) reaction when they are not rewarded equally.

After watching this video, you are probably wondering whether you should treat your children equally after all. My answer is that you cannot treat kids equally because they are not equal in many respects: their ages, your age when you had them, their gender, your gender, the period in life you are currently in, their maturity, your maturity, your/their skills/levels of ability/talents/fears/social circumstances. There is an endless list of factors that make them different from their siblings (even if they are twins). Each child is unique.

Siblings rivalry is completely natural. It is also not a result of jealousy but of a false expectation by the children that they should be treated the same. Regardless of your kid’s age, do not aim for equal treatment. Aim for appropriate and unique treatment.

Cheers to my brother and sisters. I love you dearly!