Sibling Rivalry

Ask a child therapist: Sibling rivalry

Siblings, whether full siblings, part of your blended family or even if you don’t have any, play a significant role in the emotional world of adults and children alike. And while it might be painful to admit it, all children experience sibling rivalry and jealousy.

For firstborn children, the arrival of a sibling is a monumental change in their young life. Previously, they may have enjoyed the exclusive adoration of both parents or caregivers and the experience of family life being geared entirely around their needs. Additionally, while they may be unable to tell us how they feel, we know that young children are acutely aware of their vulnerability and dependence on their parents. This can evoke strong feelings towards their caregivers.

Imagine that the person you feel so passionately about and depend on suddenly adores someone else just as much as you. To make things worse, this new person needs even more attention than you do, and family life, as you know, is turned upside down to help manage the needs of this other person.

It can be easier to understand these feelings from the position of the eldest child, but they can be created regardless of the child’s position in the birth order. Children following a firstborn child can also see their elder sibling as a rival, even if they have never experienced life without them. If half-siblings and step-siblings are also involved, there’s potential for even more difficult feelings depending on the circumstances that have led to creating a new family unit.

While there are almost always positives from sibling relationships, it’s helpful to understand that these feelings of resentment and rivalry can continue throughout childhood and into adulthood. You may also find that the feelings are unconscious, so the child is unaware of what is happening to them. For example, competitive gameplay and verbal or physical conflict may indicate a conscious need to ‘beat’ a rival for love and attention. In contrast, behaviours that elicit attention from parents without directly impacting the siblings may indicate an unconscious need. These unconscious feelings can also be evident in imaginative play and artwork in younger children. For example, a child may regularly draw pictures of ‘the family’ and leave out their sibling. Or invent situations in which they can be the only child again for a period of time.

As the adults in our children’s lives, we can help them process these difficult feelings by making sure they know it’s normal and acceptable to feel like this, being a role model in terms of how they can deal with the difficult feelings and providing reassurance of your feelings towards them. 

To read more about sibling rivalry, check out the illuminating book by T Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow called ‘Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way’. 

The key takeaway

Sibling rivalry is a really normal part of child development and a key way that children learn about themselves, their feelings and their relationships with others.

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