Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry, or antagonism between brothers and sisters, may be short-lived or last a lifetime. Sibling rivalry may also cross over into different forms of bullying and violence. This article tells about types of sibling rivalry, causes, and effects of sibling rivalry.

What Are the Different Types of Siblings?

Siblings - brothers and sisters in the same family - may have many different types of relationships based on circumstances. They may be as close in age as a few minutes, if they are twins, or born as much as 20 or more years apart. They may be full siblings, half siblings (if they share a parent), or step-siblings if they are in the same family only because their parents married after they were born. Siblings may spend their childhoods together, even sharing a room, or - in the case of siblings by marriage - barely know each other if one of them has, for example, already left the family home for college. In addition, there are identical and fraternal twins, who may relate to each other differently, and siblings that are boys, girls, or a boy and a girl. The total number of siblings in the house is another variable.

What Is Sibling Rivalry?

Sibling rivalry refers to the negative aspects of relationships between brothers and sisters and may include jealousy, competition, and verbal or physical fighting (or both). Sibling rivalry is often temporary, but in some cases, may last a lifetime. In some cases, the rivalry is over some specific thing, such as a parent's attention - though the children might not be able to articulate that. In other cases, fighting between siblings can come about through the simple fact of emotional immaturity, a dynamic that is difficult for the child to deal with, as well as temporary factors that can make children particularly irritable and unable to work out their issues with each other smoothly.

What Are the Causes of Sibling Rivalry?

There can be a number of different causes of sibling rivalry:

  • Different temperaments and abilities - Children who have very different personalities may clash as a result: a bolder child may think a shy child is a sissy, while a quiet child may think a boisterous child is a brute, and a healthy child may think a sickly child is a whiner, etc.
  • Rivalry over a parent's attention - Sometimes parents, intentionally or unintentionally, favor one child. Even legitimate differences that parents explicitly choose due to children's ages and personalities may be perceived as unfairness. In such cases, it may be easier for the child to fault and go after the sibling than criticize the parent, or a child may actually believe the sibling is to blame for "stealing" the parent's affection. This can be exacerbated in blended families and cause a lot of sibling rivalry.
  • Too much responsibility - An older sibling tasked with helping a younger sibling may rise to the occasion or harbor resentment. If the latter, the child may blame the younger sibling, creating sibling rivalry.
  • Similar temperaments and abilities - Siblings may feel the need to create and defend some individualizing turf - such as a sport, hobby, or other interest - against a sibling whose temperaments and abilities lead him or her in the same direction and be highly resentful of the other's participation: "S/He's copying me!"
  • Justified disparities - In a household in which a child has special needs or an illness, there is a good reason for extra care and attention. This doesn't mean that it will necessarily translate this way to a sibling who may receive less attention out of necessity.
  • Comparisons - If family members, friends, or teachers, for example, typically compare siblings, then they may feel themselves to be in competition as a result, and act accordingly.
  • Personal struggles - One sibling who is having difficulties for some reason may take it out on another sibling. This can result from abuse, bullying, peer pressure, mood disorders, substance abuse, and other types of issues that can interfere with any interpersonal relationships.
  • Family culture - If parents are verbally or physically abusive, or aggression and fighting are viewed as normal, then children will pick up on this and are likely to consider fighting to be normative, not something to be avoided making sibling rivalry even worse.
  • Fair isn't equal - Children need to be taught to understand the difference between fairness and equality. An older child with a larger body and bigger appetite may receive a larger serving. A child with a particular interest in technology may receive a gift that costs more than a child whose favorite pastime is knitting, with both gifts being entirely suitable and equal in every other way.

What Are the Effects of Sibling Rivalry?

Sibling rivalry can have a variety of effects:

  • Discomfort - If going home means being verbally abused or roughed up by an older sibling, home is not a comfortable place to be.
  • Long-term disaffection - Sibling rivaly may last into adulthood and result in siblings who are always at a distance or not speaking to each other. (Note that not all disaffection comes from sibling rivalry: adult siblings may simply have nothing in common or may have disagreements about politics, morality, or religion, for example, that make them less than fond of each other's company.)
  • Sibling rivalry may become sibling abuse - Sibling abuse is an exacerbated form of sibling rivalry and may include emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse. Parents need to set limits for sibling interactions (e.g., no name-calling, no violence) and monitor to make sure that the limits are kept. If violence between siblings emerges, seek professional help.


"Sibling Abuse," University of Michigan Health System:

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