Updated: Jun 27, 2021
Article written by Nikki Davis
Published in Body + Soul, The Sunday Telegraph July 8, 2007
A little rivalry between siblings is common, but sometimes it can spill over into adulthood and affect our relationships and life.
Rivalry between siblings isn't uncommon and often dissipates as we get older, but what happens when this conflict continues into adulthood and family get-togethers become war zones?
According to research being conducted in the US and Europe, our relationships with our siblings could be the most important in our lives. We teach each other all sorts of lessons, from how to make friends to how to deal with the opposite sex. We also learn how to fight, how to negotiate and how to stand up for ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes this normal conflict can be compounded by rivalry and set us up for a lifetime of resentment.
Sibling rivalry, according to Sydney-based psychologist Amanda Symboluk, most often comes about when a child is favoured or disfavoured by a parent or parents. "When a parent compares, contrasts or is obvious about a child's similarities to others, sibling rivalry is bound to happen," she says.
"Sibling rivalry begins when children feel that they have to compete for the resources in their families," agrees Sydney-based author and psychologist Amanda Ferguson. "These resources ultimately boil down to the love or attention that is available to each child from the parent or carer."
Kate, a 35-year-old teacher, says her mother always rewarded success with praise and special treatment. "So my sisters and I were always competing for her attention: who got the best marks, who did the most to help around the house, who was the most popular. Now it's all about who earns the most money and works the hardest. We all want to be the one she boasts about to family and friends."
THE STRUGGLE FOR RESOURCES
One of eight siblings, Brisbane-based psychologist Deborah Wiggins says that in her family it was largely the older five siblings who experienced the most difficulty, while the youngest three didn't seem to have the same struggle for attention. "The older ones always seemed to be left out from receiving attention," she says, "and I was made responsible for the behaviour of all those under me, so they knew I was going to cop it if they misbehaved."
This kind of dynamic can cause vindictiveness as siblings struggle to place themselves securely within the family and to get their fair share of attention, particularly if there are other factors involved. "Other problems include abandonment, neglect and rejection," says Ferguson, "When any of these things happen, insecurity, competition and jealousy tend to result."
Abuse, according to Ferguson, puts extra pressures on siblings as they jostle for what little attention and affection there is. "It was definitely about trying to get my parent' attention," says Wiggins of her family's dynamics. "However, in our case, because of our parents' abuse, it was more about getting their love - or trying to, anyway."
RIVALRY BEGINS AT HOME
Susan De Campo, a relationship counsellor with LifeCare Consultancy in Brisbane, says it is normal for all relationships to involve conflict as well as warmth, love and companionship. "Sibling rivalry, however, is less prevalent in families where children feel they are being treated equitably, their sense of self is positive and the parents do not compare and contrast their children on a regular basis."
Since our relationships with our siblings form who we become, when rivalry continues into adulthood, it can affect not only our relationships with our siblings, but our relationships with others, too. "The same feelings of jealousy and competitiveness in sibling rivalry will be exhibited through destructive patterns with business associates, subordinates, spouses and children," says Symboluk.
As an example, Peter Lewis, a Melbourne-based accountant, says he used to compete with colleagues for accounts in the same way that he competed with his brother.
SEEING THE WOOD FOR THE TREES
So is it possible to break a lifetime of bad habits and form positive relationships with our siblings? "It can take a lot of assessment for us to be able to piece together, understand and accept what has happened to us as young siblings," says Ferguson, "and it may require the help of a professional psychologist."
"Identifying the origin of such feelings is always useful," agrees De Campo. "It may be that the resentment or jealousy has been caused by the inadvertent behaviour of a parent who was unaware of the negative consequences of their actions. I would certainly recommend counselling as it is possible that the issues can be resolved fairly quickly - especially if all parties can imagine the possible benefits of having a caring and supportive sibling relationship."
Ferguson says it's important that during this stage of assessment we try to gain more information from our parents and other family members and friends about our relationships with our siblings at various stages of childhood. "Once we gain a clear perspective of our role in the family and that of the others, we are better able to let go of the past and relate to our siblings in the best possible way," she says.
This was try for Wiggins, who has struggled with relationships for years. "Most of us continually try to be validated by our parents, especially if this did not happen in childhood," she explains. "I gave up years ago after I began a journey of healing." The death of her mother also changed things. "The rivalry continued until my mother passed away. Her death changed the dynamics of the family and altered the interactions that had previously taken place."
For Kate, distance has been the best way to heal. "I made a decision to move well away from them all several years ago. It was just better for my mental health."
So how can sibling rivalry be avoided? "Children need to have their own special time with their parents," says Symboluk. "One-to-one attention is vital and it is important to know that sometimes one child may need more attention than another. Don't try and treat all your children exactly the same, because they are separate individuals, with different ages and unique needs."
It is important, however that conflict and competitiveness aren't smothered by parents. "Competition can be healthy," says Symboluk. "When children, teens and adults have had explore to conflict resolution skills at home or among peers, they learn how to accept that they will not always get their own way and that it doesn't threaten who they are as individuals or their space in society."