A Guide to Help Youth with Sibling Rivalry
For years, Sabiha and her older brother Kamal were best friends. They played football and cricket together. They went bicycling with each other. They were much closer to each other than either was to their older sister. That all changed, however around the time Sabiha turned fourteen. Her interests began to change It wasn’t as much fun hanging out with Kamal anymore; instead, she found herself drawn to her sister. She suddenly seemed to have much more in common with her than with Kamal.
It was around that time that Kamal started with the insults.
“He’d call me ‘snout’, then fatso,” says Sabiha. “I hated it, and I didn’t know why he was behaving, the way he was-all of a sudden, he wasn’t my best trend. If he knew something bothered me, he’d keep going on and on about it until I’d get even more upset and start to cry.”
“It really hurt.” she says. “I didn’t know why it was happening- I was really confused.”
Problem of Sibling Rivalry
Sabiha’s experience is not uncommon. Brothers and sisters can be best friends, bitter enemies- or both, depending on the circumstance, the time of day, or their moods. Siblings can be surprisingly loving toward each other, and they can be shockingly cruel.
Trouble between siblings can take many different forms, such as rivalry, strife, or abuse.
Rivalry is natural, perhaps unavoidable, between brothers and sisters. Sibling rivalry is a spirit of jealousy or competition between siblings in a family. For example, thirteen-year-old Mahi makes a nuisance of himself trying to be a part of his older sister Trisha’s social circle, primarily because he’s jealous of the attention she gives to her friends-which she used to give to her brother.
Sibling rivalry can be a devastating factor in family relationships, but it can also be a positive factor. Sixteen-year-old Joshua is the starting forward on his high school football team, primarily because he always worked hard to compete with his older brother, Justin, who set many school records. “Interaction with siblings. . . a way to learn how to negotiate, to compromise, to become goal seekers, and to command and give respect to their peers,” says Wanda Draper, a child development specialist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Sibling rivalry can become destructive instead of constructive, however, when it begins to create sibling strife. Fifteen-year-old Akash seemed to take every opportunity to frighten his twelve-year-old brother Takshak teasing the plump boy about his weight, driving him to tears in front of others and then ridiculing him for being a “cry-baby,” and starting fights for no apparent reason.
Fighting is an effort to try to work out your differences; in abuse, it’s one sibling trying to be more powerful than another.
Relationships between siblings, can sometimes degenerate into abusive behaviors and patterns. Dr Annaclare van Dalen defines sibling abuse as “an emotional and/or physical assault that makes the victim[s] feel bad about themselves.” Siblings are more likely to become abusive if they themselves feel victimized; by turning the tables on a (usually younger) sibling, they regain a sense of power. Such was the experience of Aman with her brother Ayan:
Although the two of them had never gotten along very well, the summer he was 16 and she was 14 was a nightmare. Aman explains. “He was an extremely angry guy, really unhappy in school, and he didn’t have a lot of friends.”
Left alone together over the summer, Ayan was like a bomb, waiting to explode. . . . One time, without any provocation, he chased after Aman with a cricket bat. Aman was totally terrified; “After I crouched down on the floor in front of him, he was like, ‘Okay, okay,’ then calmed down and walked away.” Another time, Aman tells, “He was just trying to mess with me, see how far he could go to freak me out, so he came at me with a big kitchen knife. I ran from him until I was backed up against a wall, and he came at me laughing, then veered the knife away.”
Van Dalen-points out that “Fighting is an effort to try to work out your differences; in abuse, it’s one sibling trying to be more powerful than another.” Abuse can range from of name-calling and inciting fear in a younger sibling to threatening, destroying a sibling’s personal possessions, or physically scratching, hitting or kicking a sibling.
Causes of Sibling Rivalry
Sibling rivalry has to do with many things. To some extent, it is simply the natural result of multiple children in a family setting, vying for attention and affection. It may also be caused by birth order, by parents’ preferential treatment of one sibling, and by a number of other factors, including:
The underlying source of sibling conflict is old-fashioned jealousy and competition.
Writes family advocate and author Dr. James Dobson. Jealousy of a sibling’s talents, friends, appearance, grades, family privileges, parental attention, etc. will frequently create a sense of rivalry, often leading to sibling strife and abuse. Such feelings may have their roots in events and attitudes that neither sibling remembers nor is aware of, yet they are nonetheless real.
Unhealthy or Unfavorable Comparisons
The root of all feelings of inferiority is comparison.
Dr. James Dobson writes:
Lecturer Bill Gothard has stated that the root of all feelings of inferiority is comparison. I agree. . . This particularly true in three areas. First, [youth] are extremely sensitive about the matter of physical attractiveness and body characteristics. It is highly inflammatory to commend one child at the expense of another. Second, the matter of Intelligence is another sensitive nerve. . . Third, children (and especially boys) are extremely competitive with regard to athletic abilities.
Adolescence is, of course a time of many monumental changes. A young person’s body begins to mature, he or she begins to develop new interest and very often, his or her role in the family takes on a different dimension as well. The young person may have more responsibilities at home; he or she may be entering a new school. His or her relationships with friends may become deeper or broader- with members of the opposite sex, for example.
Such changes can have ramifications within a family. Little brother may feel neglected; little sister may become jealous. Or big brother may move on to college, changing the chemistry of the family. Such changes can create or fuel feelings of sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry can become severe due to stress in a family situation. One social worker described how this happens:
When you have something that creates tension and conflict- whether it’s stress in your parents’ marriage, parent/child abuse, an alcoholic parent- and it isn’t dealt with, one child may start taking the frustration he or she feels toward their parents out on a weaker or younger sibling.
Rivalry, strife, or abuse may be ultimately directed at someone or something (such as an undesirable circumstance- other than the sibling); the brother or sister is often simply a convenient target for the release of stress and frustrations.
Selfishness/Difficulty Sharing Limited Resources
From the toddler who doesn’t want to share his toys with his little sister to the teen whose arguments with her sister frequently involve the sister’s constant “borrowing” of favorite clothes, some of the rivalry and strife among siblings is due to selfishness or having to share limited resources (such as the bike, the parents’ time, or money for special purchases). Such situations can be constructive–helping kids learn “how to stand up for [their] rights, how to compete without being hostile, and how to resolve well conflict through negotiation and compromise.” They can also be destructive, however, creating animosity and hurting the participants.
Desire for Attention
Even in teens (and adults, for that matter), strife between siblings is often a means of manipulating the parents.
Dr. James Dobson writes:
Quarreling and fighting provide an opportunity for [siblings] to “capture” adult attention. It has been written, “Some children had rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all”. Toward this end, a pair of [siblings] can tacitly agree to bug their parents until they get a response-even if it is an angry reaction.
Effects of Sibling Rivalry
Not Always Deleterious
Sibling rivalry is almost always deeply disturbing to parents and unsettling for the young people involved. However, it is not always causing harm. Draper notes:
The vast majority of siblings who squabble when they are young outgrow this and become close. The thing to remember is that this is simply another normal aspect of development, and most parents would be wise to back off a bit and let their children develop the ability to handle the situation.
Destructive to Self-Esteem
When the sibling rivalry and strife is particularly severe, however, it can wreak havoc with a young person’s sense of self-esteem that may extend even into adulthood. Nancy was constantly scolded by her older sister, Nilima. Nilima persistently called her sister “ugly clumsy, and “stupid.” Though today Nancy is a refined. accomplished, and beautiful adult and mother of three children, she still struggles with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority-particularly following a visit by her older sister.
Effects of Sibling Abuse
Moreover, sibling abuse produces many of the same results as any abuse: guilt, mistrust, aggression, deficient social skills, insecurity and poor self-esteem. The physical and emotional scars of sibling abuse are not insignificant because they are inflicted by a brother or sibling; on the contrary, they can make a lasting, tragic imprint on a young person.
Response to the Problem of Sibling Rivalry
Someone has said that the only surefire way to avoid sibling rivalry is to have only one child in each family. Such a solution may be amusing but it is not very helpful. There are, however, ways to minimize the kind of sibling warfare that plagues so many youths and worries so many parents. The following measures may help a parent, teacher, or other concerned adult to address sibling rivalry among adolescents or preadolescents.
Often the greatest need felt by a person who is hurting is for someone who will take the time to listen and to care. Let the young person express his or her feelings honestly and openly. Resist the temptation to correct the youth with statements like, “Oh, you don’t mean that about your brother,” or “She doesn’t mean anything by it.” Let the young person express himself or herself without censure or correction.
As early and consistently as possible, turn the youth to prayer, reminding him or her that, even when no one else is around to hear and to care God is. Encourage dependence on Him and His resources.
Faber and Mazlish, coauthors of Siblings Without Rivalry, suggest that:
Intellectually, [sibling rivalry may not be] hard to understand but, emotionally, many of us have difficulty accepting . . . [young people’s] hostile feelings toward each other. Perhaps we might better understand those feelings if we tried to put ourselves in [their] place.
Perhaps some parents or youth workers can recall sibling struggles from their own childhoods: perhaps they can empathize by coming to terms with their own feelings of jealousy and insecurity. Empathetically approaching sibling squabbles will help immensely.
The wise parent, teacher, or youth worker will be alert to every opportunity to offer messages of encouragement and affirmation. Take every opportunity to communicate sincere assurances of your esteem for the young man or woman. You may say:
- I enjoy being around you because . . .
- I like the way you . . .
- You have such a terrific smile (voice, sense of humor, etc)
- You’re so good at . . .
- I love you.
Keep in mind the following suggestion as well:
Remember. . . that siblings are not always fighting. They can be very good friends to each other much of the time. It’s very important to notice and praise them when they do something thoughtful for each other. Try to acknowledge [such things].
There are two important directions in which a youth leader, parent, or teacher can help a young person address sibling rivalry.
- With the teen self or herself. The young person should be encouraged to examine his or her own feelings, why is there a spirit of rivalry? Does he or she contribute to it? What can he or she do to temper the cause(s) of the rivalry?
In the case of sibling abuse, the teen should speak up: he or she should not hesitate to inform the parents (regardless of the threats or intimidation of the sibling) and to continue doing so-loudly-until the abuse is stopped and future abuse is prevented.
2. Within the home. The following tactics may help parents or caregivers prevent or address sibling rivalry:
- Help youth express themselves. Help teens and preteens use words to express their feelings; to say, “I feel like you never have time for me anymore,” for example, instead of sabotaging an older sibling’s friendships.
- Be careful not to inflame the natural jealousy of siblings.Resist the urge to compare siblings, particularly in the three areas mentioned above (physical appearance, intelligence, and athletic abilities). Congratulate and appreciate each child without reference to his or her sibling(s). And never say, “Why can’t you be like your sister?”
- Treat children uniquely rather than equally. Children expect equal treatment from their parents, and parents usually respond by trying to prove they’re being fair. But children are unique, they have unique interests, gifts, and personalities. Parents should spend time alone with each child as well as together as a family. Strive to love children equally, and to treat them uniquely, enjoying their individual strengths and helping their individual weaknesses.
- Erect boundaries of respect, such as a prohibition on name-calling. Dr. Dobson offers several examples he has used in his family:
a. Neither child is ever allowed to make fun of the other in a destructive way: Period!
b. Each child’s room (or portion of the room if siblings share a room) is his private territory.
c. The older child is not permitted to tease the younger child.
d. The younger child not permitted to harass the older child.
e. The children are not required to play with each other when they prefer to be alone or with friends.
f. We mediate any genuine conflict as quickly as possible, being careful to show impartiality and extreme fairness.
- Intervene when siblings’ fighting can’t be ignored. Do so in a way that will not hand the solution to them on a silver platter but will teach them how to negotiate and resolve conflicts in the future.
Engage the young person himself or herself in solving sibling problems. Encourage him or her to decide, “What will I do the next time? How can I prevent conflict before it occurs? How will I approach disagreements differently? How can I negotiate, compromise, or resolve things better?” If the youth themselves work out a plan for countering sibling rivalry, they will be more satisfied with it, and will be more likely to abide by it.
The teacher, or youth leader needs to be sensitive to the home situation of the young person and the necessity of informing or involving the parents in the solution. In severe cases (particularly when sibling abuse is involved), immediate referral to a professional counselor (with parental involvement and permission) is critical.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has the youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.