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Parenting blog

A blog for parents with effective techniques based on developmental psychology. 

Sibling Rivalry

Sara Zaidi

“From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and coconspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our protectors and our tormentors, playmates and counselors, sources of envy and objects of pride.”

Siblings are a valuable rehearsal tool for later life; adulthood is, after all, defined by peer relationships - at the work place, in a marriage, or the parent committee. Siblings may argue through the day but invariably return to the same shared room at night, and that’s where they learn how to navigate a relationship between equals. 

When children are alone, there is an automatic response for a younger sibling to reach out to his older brother for help and the older one to protect him. Unfortunately though, somewhere along the way this natural instinct is lost and sibling rivalry sometimes becomes sibling envy -- a secretive, insidious, corrosive feeling -- where who gets married first, who gets promoted first or who buys a house first becomes more important. 

It often begins when a new baby is brought home. Between all the excitement and exhaustion, the older child often gets lost; the only goal for him is to be kept out of the way. Feeling left out and being on the outside can activate pain centers in the brain, triggering jealousy. The part of the brain which detects real physical pain also detects emotional pain causing chemical changes that result in aggressive and impulsive behaviors.

Conflict between brothers and sisters stems from two main sources: 1) the invasion of personal space which has a negative impact on trust and communication between siblings, and 2) the feeling of fairness and equality which may lead to feelings of resentment toward parents. 

Parental influences that either ameliorate or exacerbate such conflicts can be categorized in two three groups: expectations, labels and favoritism. Regarding the latter, it doesn’t matter whether individuals feel themselves to be the favored or the unfavored child, the simple perception of parental favoritism is enough to undermine the sibling relationship. 

The goal for parents is to avoid such sibling dynamics and instead nourish an equal, nurturing and meaningful relationship, which has life-long benefits. Indeed, indicators of well-being during middle and old age such as mood, health, morale and life-satisfaction are directly tied to how you feel about your siblings. You gauge whether an event gives you pain or pleasure not by how you did, but how you did in relationship comparable to others. 

In addition, important familial connections can be a source of fun, reward and meaning, reducing the long term symptoms of anxiety and depression that correlate with tense sibling relations. Brain cells receive dopamine squirts when something pleasurable happens making you want to repeat it; therefore, if children enjoy being together, it will increase their desire to be with one another and consequently, enhance bonding. 

Once parents realize the magnitude of their impact on sibling dynamics, it can lead to either a lifetime of happy, fulfilling relationships or a constant source of comparison and envy.