“I had it first.” “No I did.” “You always have to get your own way.” “Mom, he’s hurting me.” “You deserved it ‘cause you started it.” Does any of this sound familiar in your home? It is natural and normal for siblings to be rivals. The wish of every child is to be the sole recipient of the parent’s love and attention. When siblings fight, they are usually seeking to be the most loved child.
“Sibling rivalry is the fighting that occurs between children as they compete for the attention of their parents” (Faber & Mazlish, 1). Children can be extremely tireless in their abilities and intensity when it comes to conflict with their siblings. They can be masters at fighting and at pulling their parents into the fight (1). “The fighting that siblings engage in can actually be an important process for them to go through. They will learn to take risks, negotiate, and assert themselves with people they trust” (2).
There is probably no more intense relationship than the sibling bond, except the bond between child and parent. “Powerful feelings of both love and hate alternate, often swiftly, and brothers and sisters have to learn in their earliest years to control these intense feelings” (1).
The full range of human emotions first begins on the sibling scene, especially during the early years. The home is the setting in which both the most powerful ties
of love are formed, and the deepest hatreds boil (1-2). “The sibling slowly learns to accept both violent and loving desires. Siblings may either help each other to accept the inherent difficulties of life or destroy each other’s capacity to adjust to the demands of parents and society” (2).
“It is important to realize that the majority of sibling fighting starts with feelings of jealousy and favoritism. It is natural to be envious of a brother or sister who seems to get all the attention” (Cohen, 75-76). Feelings of jealousy and favoritism can stand in the way of close sibling relationships (76).
For siblings to love each other, they have to feel that they are loved equally by their parents. Otherwise there is deep resentment on the part of the one who feels less loved, and gloating on the part of the favored one. Siblings then feel ill at ease with each other and quarrels are apt to erupt at the slightest provocation (13).
Sometime in the early years siblings have to accept the impossibility of obtaining the exclusive love of a parent. A parent may feel more love for one child than for another, but there is always some degree of love bestowed on each sibling (5). “As siblings realize and accept this, their hostility eases and they are able to acknowledge that each of them will be loved for his or her own qualities and achievements. They do not need to live in constant anger, feeling unloved” (5-6).
Every child possesses the wish to be the favorite, the biggest and the best, but a sibling always threatens this wish (31). “No matter how kind, considerate, warm, and loving parents are, siblings will fight for the parents love” (32). Each child has
struggled for a place in the family at one time. Whether it is a struggle to be heard or seen, or to be understood, we are asking someone else to look away from all others and see us (Cohen, 18). “To recognize us for the moment and to give us a pat on the back. In larger families there are many to compete with, while in small families there is no competition” (19).
Problems between siblings arise with the aspect of birth order. ”If you’re the oldest, your parent learned how to parent on you. You’re the first to experience everything, including discipline” (Bode, 49). The first-born child is disciplined more harshly then any children who come later. Still, this child starts out in the spotlight, they are a parent’s dream for the future. “That means pressure on you to succeed, and first-borns do seem to end up more often in leadership positions” (49).
First-borns grow up wanting approval, admiration and respect. They can demand obedience from those who they feel are inferior to them. “What you have to cope with in terms of birth order is the loss of the attention you’ve gotten when the second-born arrives” (50).
The middle child is always trying to out-perform the first-born. They constantly feel inadequate. To make up for that, middle children become realistic perfectionists (50-51). “While they are considered the middle child, they have the freedom to go about their business without anybody paying much attention to them. They have an older sibling to rely on, and they are the competent one in relation to those who follow” (52). Middle children are also picked on by the older ones and get into trouble for picking on the younger ones. There will always be older children
who are more capable than the middle sibling, and younger children competing for attention (52-53).
“The youngest child arrives into an already complicated family script of who’s getting along with and who is not. How they feel about themselves is very connected to the stability of the parents’ relationship” (53). Younger children need to know that they are appreciated.
The challenge is to defend against the middle child, who tries to pass his or her own feelings of inadequacy. The middle child makes fun of the youngest and insists they cannot do anything right (53). “The youngest child cares deeply about the weak and helpless with whom they can identify. They seek non-threatening relationships and use humor to keep an emotional distance from others” (54).
Parents often admit having a favorite among their children. Sometimes, long after their kids are out on their own, parents may look back and admit one of them was the best. During childhood, most parents try to spread their love and attention equally among the children. There are times when somewhere inside a mother or father may admit feeling different toward one particular child, and often that feeling comes out in unconscious gestures (bragging to friends, extra hugs, special gifts (Cohen, 58). “It is difficult to treat all children equally when one child excels or stands out among the others, either in looks or achievement. Often parents cannot help but admire certain qualities in their own children” (59).
A mistake many parents make is comparing the child to his brothers or sisters. When negative comparisons are made time and time again, damage can be
done to the child’s feeling of self-worth (59-60). “Sometimes kids who want to be noticed by their parents may decide to adopt a negative role just for attention. The child feels that some attention is better than none. The end goal is winning the parent’s favor “ (60).
“When parents show in their own relationship that cooperation is enjoyable and brings the reward of friendship, siblings learn to love each other more than they hate each other” (McCaffrey, E4). Siblings can have an enjoyable, easy, relationship, which lays the foundation for future relationships outside the home. But, they need their parents to show the way. Parents must show that adjusting to society’s demands will bring the greatest reward – love (E5).
To help siblings share, parents need to be convinced that sharing is commendable. How much parents share with each other serves as a model for the children. If parents compete rather than share, their children will compete rather than share. “One of the reasons both adults and children become hesitant about sharing is that they believe sharing means giving up something. If they share parents, they will have less love” (E4).
A child is not merely a mirror of the parents. “Each child interprets, embellishes, and distorts what he or she observes in the parents, hears from them, or imagines then to be. Every child is different in the vast memories and feelings carried since the cradle” (Strean & Freeman, 12).
Each child stands alone when it comes to how they view what happened in their lives – the actual experiences and the fantasies, which fashion their personalities. The differences are shown in the various attitudes siblings have toward their parents. Some children will listen to a parent with more interest than others. Some will idolize their parents more. Some seem intent on antagonizing their parents, others on pleasing them. “The attitude depends on each child’s memories of the parents’ behavior toward him or her” (McCaffrey, E5).
Children reflect not only the relationships between them and their parents but also the relationship between their parents. This latter relationship is perhaps one of the most important issues in the sibling bond.
If a child watches parents solve their conflicts in a warm, loving way, negotiating their differences with a feeling of respect and concern for each other’s point of view, the child will almost automatically assume this way of solving conflicts with others. But if the child witnesses parents in a continual battle, demeaning each other by name-calling, the child will emulate this aggressive way of handling conflicts. It is almost impossible for siblings to share warm, cooperative feelings when they live with parents who quarrel (Strean & Freeman, 27).
Sibling bonds, good ones or bad ones, close or distant, are difficult to put aside or ignore. They run deeper than friendship. When you love a sibling, you do not have to love him all the time, in exactly the same way. You may go for days without speaking to your brother or sister, but after the air has cleared you become
close once again. Each day is different, with good moods, bad moods, pleasant and unpleasant experiences occurring between you.
No one wishes to be torn apart by such contradictory emotions as love and hate so much of the time. It is easier for both children and adults to deny their hate and jealousy. To understand the sibling relationship is to accept that we all possess feelings of love and hate. It is a matter of love being stronger than hate so we can get along with others and feel self-esteem. When siblings fight, they are usually seeking to be the most loved child.