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30th Mar 2017

Everything you ALWAYS wanted to know about sibling rivalry

Alison Bough

Muuuuummmmmmmm she pinched me! Sibling rivalry is a powerful force (just look at the Kardashian sisters and the Gallagher brothers) and a real headache for us parents.

But with all the downsides such as endless rows, competition and bickering, there are also lots of positive aspects in the relationships between brothers and sisters (no really there are I promise!).

Please mind the gap. Is sibling rivalry worse when children are closer in age?

Sibling relationships are usually based more on shared history, home environment, culture and family values than on age. In some cases, the age gap between siblings can make a significant difference to their relationship with each other – for example if there is a large age gap it can mean that they have never even really lived together. Second and later borns have always had a sibling present and have no experience, or memories, of being an only child, unlike some firstborns who may have had their parents’ undivided attention for a number of years. Some experts believe that sibling attachments, which develop at a very early age, may be stronger with a closer age gap; with the smaller gap providing an extra, secure attachment outside of a parent. But the bottom line is that sibling relationships develop and change throughout siblings’ lifetime, regardless of age, or age gaps.

Does sibling rivalry have a negative impact?

Even very young siblings, as young as one or two, form very strong bonds, which are the basis of a trusting relationship which develops as they grow. Unfortunately, as every parent knows, as much as siblings are capable of empathising with, and caring for, one another, they are often just as aware of exactly what pushes their brother or sister’s buttons. While it’s completely normal for kids to use their developing social abilities to fight with each other it is distressing for parents, especially on those days when the bickering seems non-stop and you have to lock yourself in the loo just to get five minutes peace. A lot of children deal with sibling rivalry by finding their own ‘niche’ – such as a talent or specific sport – that is theirs and theirs alone. This can be an excellent way of getting parents’ attention but it can also have negative long-term consequences in that it can create life-long jealousy and competition between siblings. Also, if one child does well in their chosen ‘niche’ (e.g. academically) other siblings may worry that they will not be as successful and simply opt-out rather than sit in their brother or sister’s shadow.

Are there any positive aspects to sibling rivalry?

Ok, ok, so we have jealousy and competition but is there any good news? Yep. Sibling rivalry is, for the most part, a very healthy, normal, part of the developmental process. It is also an important part of forming who we are and how we respond to others and to conflict as grown-ups. Having to negotiate and compromise with our brothers and sisters through various social, emotional and physical battles as children is the best possible training ground for navigating the complexities of grown-up life! So you can stop hiding in the loo now.

Should parents turn a blind eye or intervene?

‘Normality is a bell-curve’ as psychologists are fond of saying; basically there are very wide-ranging differences in how siblings interact with each other and what is considered ‘normal’. Some siblings may be constant playmates, always together, some fight constantly, and there are others who barely acknowledge each other’s presence. But if a sibling relationship seems to be one of constant emotional, physical aggression, or conflict then there is probably an underlying issue that needs parental attention in order to be sorted out. By and large, children don’t have the emotional skills to fix fractured relationships by themselves.

Can you encourage a closer bond between siblings?

As human beings, the way in which we interact with others, our immediate environments and the world is influenced by so many factors – everything from genetics, to temperament, personality, and our personal background. Sibling relationships are just one of these ‘shaping’ influences that tends to forge its own path and have a natural progression. So the bottom line is that there is very little parents can do to change the complexities of their children’s relationships with each other, bar always keeping the lines of communication open so that each family member feels free to express how they are feeling at any given time. The very nature of sibling relationships is that they endure the ups-and-downs in life and find their own level – so trying to force ‘closeness’ can do more harm than good.

What about adult siblings?

As we grow up, the differences between brothers and sisters usually become much more obvious. The relationship inevitably changes as people have their own busy lives, families, jobs, and live further away from each other. Research tells us that, even when siblings are not in frequent contact with each other, they still say that they feel ‘close’ to each other. We also know that adult sibling relationships follow a specific pattern of contact that peaks in childhood and adolescence, drops significantly in mid-adulthood and then increases again in old age. The siblings who tend to stay closest to each other as adults are those of the same gender and who are closest in age. Families that have at least one sister tend to maintain better family ties and men are statistically less likely to be in close contact with each other. All that being said, sibling rivalry can often lay buried for many years and come back to the fore when adult siblings are required to deal with issues like caring for elderly parents, death and inheritance. In these circumstances it helps to remember that as adults you can still ‘play nice’ while maintaining a distance, you don’t have to share a bedroom anymore!

As we age, siblings often become our only remaining family and link to our childhoods and the past so think carefully before putting too much distance between you – even if they annoy you just as much as they did when you were nine.

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