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Quibbling siblings

By Dhara Thakar Meghani


It’s the end of a long day, you’re finally settling into a good novel while your spouse finishes washing the dishes, and the kids are quietly playing a game down the hall.

Somehow, this idyllic scene always lasts longer in your daydream than in reality. The quiet play soon escalates to a shouting match and flying game pieces, and you’re forced to put down that book to investigate.

Sibling rivalry, or the intense competition between siblings for resources, parental approval, and attention is a well-known phenomenon with evolutionary roots. Ironically, parents often choose to have additional children based on the anticipation their children will be friends, share, and take care of one another.¹

Although we all went through bouts of sibling conflict and rivalry in childhood, it can still be surprising and frustrating to see the relationship between your children riddled by animosity at times. Take a little comfort in the fact that you’re not alone by any stretch of the imagination – even other species experience it, often with graver demonstrations of conflict.²

Children, even those who can’t wait for the birth of their new baby sister or brother, learn quickly that parental attention (which is a proxy for parental love in a child’s mind) is limited. The configuration of their world has changed and it’s disappointing to discover that mummy or daddy has eyes for another ‘baby’.

Regression in older siblings is likely since they long to reclaim their parents’ displaced attention – which can help explain why, after Jay’s birth, his 2 ½-year-old brother Rohan suddenly insists on drinking milk from a bottle in his mother’s lap even though he had retired this habit six months earlier.

Parents often try to prevent sibling rivalry by planning on treating their children like equals, but if you’ve tried this strategy, you know it’s impossible to be completely consistent given each child’s differing needs. In addition, the parenting experience gained with the first child nearly always gets applied to the subsequent children.

Rohan and Jay’s parents may have allowed Jay to go to sleepovers at an earlier age than when Rohan was allowed, while they may have decided against buying as many toys for Jay as they had for Rohan. Even though this parenting response is adaptive, siblings (older and younger) can feel like they each got the short end of the stick at one time or another. This rivalry is usually more palpable when children are closer in age and of the same gender, although it’s dependent on each child’s personality and the parenting messages they receive.

How do you help your children through these moments of perceived (or sometimes, authentic) unfairness and mitigate the chance that every night will turn out like the scene above?

• Remember that comparisons can do more harm than good. It’s all too easy for parents to start sentences with, “if you were a little more studious like your brother…” that clearly convey their preference for one approach (read: sibling) over another.

• Encourage each child’s style, talents, and overall identity. In fact children may strive to differentiate themselves from their siblings in effort to reduce the tension that arises when they are constantly compared with one another. Researchers have found that warmth increases and conflict decreases between siblings as each child gradually finds his/her own ground to stand on.³

• If you’ve determined your children aren’t going to harm each other during an argument, let them find a resolution on their own before you step in – while a big plus is certainly fewer interruptions for you, a larger advantage is what your children will learn about managing conflict and their own emotions, skills that will serve them in other relationships, too.

Barring families who have only one child, sibling rivalry is an inescapable fact of life. Luckily, for most of us, the consequences of these dynamics are eventually trumped by the rich, unique sibling histories that are created, shared, and cherished well into adulthood.

Dhara Thakar Meghani is grateful for an older sister who provided her with ample and frequent opportunities throughout childhood to develop amazing conflict-resolution skills.


¹This certainly does not negate the possibility that siblings will eventually be friendly, share, and take care of each other, which is often the case!

²Sulloway, F. (2001). Birth Order, Sibling Competition, and Human Behavior. In H.R. Holcomb (Ed.), Conceptual challenges in evolutionary psychology: Innovative research strategies, (pp. 39-83). Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

³Feinberg, M.E., McHale, S.M., Crouter, A.C., & Cumsille, P. (2003). Sibling differentiation: Sibling and parent relationship trajectories in adolescence. Child Development, 74(5), 1261-1274.

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