How to understand sibling rivalry and improve your relationships

Many of us have felt the twinge of sibling jealousy at some time in our lives, whether these feelings are long past or still tender. But with understanding, our siblings can be a source of mutual support, love and pride, says Xenia Taliotis

Three sisters with long dark hair

The only time my name was mentioned in the media was as the less successful Minogue sister,” lamented Dannii, when she was yet again asked about sibling rivalry. No matter how vehemently she declared her love for Kylie, the insidious insertion of the word “insists” or “claims” in every article – as in “Dannii insists/claims she feels no resentment,” implied that the journalists were onto her: that they could see past her words to the raging jealousy within.

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The Minogues are not the only ones to have their siblinghood scrutinised through the prism of suspicion and assumption. Anyone who has a successful sister or brother will face similar questioning, particularly if they have followed the same career path, and even more so if they are deemed to have done less well. Serena and Venus Williams get it all the time; so do Cara and Poppy Delevingne, psychiatrists Susan and Steven Pinker and David and Ed Miliband, who caused media meltdown when they stood against each other for the Labour Party leadership.

For unfathomable reasons, we like to see siblings at war: in Roman mythology, Romulus kills his twin Remus; in the Bible, Cain murders his brother Abel, and in the book Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, sisters Baby Jane (a former child star) and Blanche (a successful actor in adulthood) destroy both their own lives and each other’s through envy.

Perhaps it is because of these associations that no one will ever admit to being the teeny tiniest bit jealous of a sibling. “The moment we shake hands we’re done with the match, we’re sisters,” says Serena Williams. “I don’t compare myself with my sister. We support each other, we’re both in the industry – that’s the end of the story,” says Dannii Minogue. Yet a little healthy competition is an entirely natural and inbuilt response to having to share. All of us with siblings, no matter how well we get on now, will remember fighting at some point during our childhood. As psychotherapist Phillip Hodson explains: “Siblings fight because one displaces the other. They enter an evolutionary struggle for the milk supply (also known as the love supply) and a contest for endorsement. Underneath this is the fear of parental rejection.”

Although this all sounds rather negative, this rivalry is nothing to be worried about, or to try to prevent. “Competition between siblings is universal and unavoidable,” says clinical psychologist and parenting expert Linda Blair, author of Siblings: How to Handle Sibling Rivalry to Create Lifelong Loving Bonds (White Ladder Press, £12.99). “People view it as something dreadful that should be eliminated, when it’s actually beneficial, pushing children to achieve and teaching them invaluable skills.” According to Linda, healthy rivalry between siblings builds emotional intelligence. “When a new child arrives, the older ones have to learn how to negotiate, compromise and share if they are to retain parental approval. These are essential life skills they will need throughout their lives.”

Our sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring of our lives. Our brothers and sisters share our genes, our history and our memories. As Jeffrey Kluger so beautifully put it in his book, The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us (Riverhead Books, £12.59): “Our siblings are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counsellors, sources of envy and of pride. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them.”

Given this intensity of feeling between siblings, it’s not surprising then that implosions can occur, as sisters Chris* and Sam* found out after their mum died. “Things became toxic when mum left Chris a bracelet,” says 44-year-old Sam. “Apart from her wedding, engagement and eternity rings, it was the one thing she always wore, so we both wanted it for that reason. I thought I’d inherit it because I’d always loved it – it was even my ‘something borrowed’ on my wedding day. Chris and I have a great relationship, but when she got the bracelet, the resentment I’d secretly harboured towards her – because she’s so bloody good at everything – avalanched. It stemmed from feeling like the also-ran – from thinking that my achievements were always second-best because Chris had already done them, and done them better. I saw the gifting of the bracelet as a reward for her perfection.”

For her part, Chris felt as if she had spent her whole life looking after Sam. “I adore her and have always been protective of her. Even though the age gap between us is small – 26 months – I’m definitely the responsible big sister. I helped her with her homework, organised her first job in the firm I used to work for – we’re both architects – and gave her a room and a shoulder to cry on when she left her marriage. It was so tough when our mum died; I had my own grief but still felt I had to make things better for Sam, which I couldn’t do. And on top of that, I had her squawking about the bracelet, which, incidentally, dad had bought for mum to mark my birth – it’s studded with peridots, my birth stone. I snapped. I told her she should grow up, that I was sick of carrying her and that I already had two children and didn’t need a third.”

The sisters didn’t talk for a year, during which time they re-evaluated their relationship. “I expected Chris to lead me out of the grief,” says Sam. “I thought she’d forge ahead, cutting a path through the sorrow with her rationale, and I could limp along behind, hogging the sadness and the sympathy. But she was bereft. It took me a while to acknowledge how much I’ve dumped on her over the years. Our rift changed our dynamic – I feel less dependent on her now and more able to support her.” As for the bracelet, Sam now has it. “We both realised that it didn’t hold any magic power that would bring us closer to our mum,” says Chris, “and once that happened, it became an object – one that Sam loved and I didn’t, so I gave it to her when we made up.”

Chris and Sam’s situation is a paradigm of sibling conflict. “While it’s hard to comment without knowing them,” says Linda, “this does seem to be a copybook case. Chris conforms to what we know about first-borns: she is high-achieving, focused, nurturing and responsible. Sam, meanwhile, displays classic last-born traits, relying on Chris and following in her footsteps, but feeling overshadowed by her. When a sibling relationship is based largely on one person helping and the other being helped, tensions can arise, and that’s what happened here.”

Linda has studied how various different family configurations affect the relationships that develop between siblings. “The gender of the children is a huge factor, as well as their personality, the age gap between them, where they are in the order of birth, how many children there are and their parents’ temperament,” she explains. “We know, for example, that first-borns often forge strong but controlling bonds with their siblings, that in-betweeners are good social levellers who don’t crave attention, and that last-borns will initially look up to the older children, but pull away in their teens.”

In terms of the size of the family, the most competitive dynamic is between two siblings. Once there are three or more children, the rivalry becomes less intense because the kids are born into a ‘sharing’ situation. Other issues may surface, though, such as one child being left out or, in bigger families, sub-groups forming where, say, two of the children will form a close bond.

Julie Preece, 53, is the third-born of four sisters, and agrees that being part of a large family meant rivalry wasn’t an issue. “I feel so blessed to have my three sisters, particularly now that we’re all older. When I was younger, there were times when I wished I was an only child, so I could have my own room and more material things that my parents couldn’t afford. But when I look back, I realise how lucky I was to be part of a large, close-knit family and value all the benefits this has brought throughout my life.

“Our parents treated us all the same so there was never any rivalry between us – except for when we needed the bathroom. My eldest sister was always first in the queue!

“I suppose I suffer a little from middle child syndrome. I’m number three – the ‘middle of the sandwich’ as my mother would say – so whatever I did or achieved was often overlooked as my elder siblings had already done it. I don’t think it did any lasting damage, but I do remember times when I felt invisible.

“That said, the support we give each other as adults outweighs any perceived childhood injustice. We all have children around the same age now and have had some wonderful family holidays together. It’s lovely for the children to grow up in big group of cousins.”

Linda also points out that an age gap of fewer than two years will increase sibling rivalry when the children are tiny, but should quickly lead to a strong and enduring bond because the first child won’t remember having been displaced. A two- to four-year gap will likely create acute childhood jealousy but closeness in adulthood, while four years or more might give one more of a carer role, while the other is cared for, which can potentially endure through most of adult life. In this case, the bond may be tight in childhood, but less so as the siblings move through different life stages.

One of the most favourable configurations, apparently, is the one I am fortunate enough to be in. I have one brother, Nikos, who is three years older than me and, partly because we’re different genders but mainly because he is an outstanding human being, there has never been any rivalry between us. Everything about our relationship works, and always has done. I don’t know if he ever resented my arrival – I suppose he must have done, but my parents certainly never mentioned him showing any resentment, and we’ve never felt the need to compete on any level. All I have ever felt from him is unconditional love, and I sincerely hope that is what he feels he has had from me.

Of course, we cannot choose our sibling status, that is something our parents choose for us, but understanding how this can affect our relationships with our siblings is often a first step towards a deeper connection, and the opportunity to offer each other love, support and friendship when we need it most.

Two sisters smiling at each other
Unsplash/Eye For Ebony

How birth order influences your personality

Only children

Only children are in a very privileged position. They’ll have had their parents’ undivided attention, which means they probably developed excellent linguistic skills, and were quick to learn. Their status should have made them self-sufficient and independent, and providing they are exposed to other children from an early age, they should also have strong social skills. “I would have liked a sibling,” says 23-year-old Sarah,* “but I don’t think I missed out through not having one. My mum had loads of friends who had children at the same time, and my two cousins lived round the corner, so I have always had a great social life. I have one friend who I’ve known all my life, and that friendship means the world to me – maybe on a subconscious level I sought out and found my own surrogate sister.”

First borns

The first-born sibling can often be more anxious and conscientious than their younger brothers or sisters, mainly because new parents can be over-protective. They will have a strong drive to achieve – born from striving to regain any parental attention they felt they lost when the second child came along. According to Linda, first-born siblings “love to act as teachers and carers. Given the chance, they’ll take charge of their younger siblings, issuing instructions and making decisions about who does what, giving them a sense of control.”

Middle children

Middle children are usually quite well-balanced and will be able to communicate with both younger and older children easily, meaning that they often act as the bridge between their siblings. As the social levellers of the family, they tend to be people pleasers. Nine-year-old Felix, who is sandwiched between two sisters, says he sometimes feels he is in a lose-lose situation – having neither the privileges of the oldest or the indulgences of the youngest, but his status as the only boy probably minimises any negative effects of being in the middle.

Last borns

Those born last tend to have more freedom than their siblings, because their parents are more confident and relaxed about their parenting skills. They can be more disorganised than their siblings, and may also give up on tasks they find difficult, expecting others to step in and finish them for them. While they may enjoy being looked after, there will probably come a time when they rebel against their siblings and want to step out of their shadow.

5 ways to stop sibling rivalry among your children

1

Be a good role model

Of course we all endeavour to treat our children fairly. When there is an argument try not to take sides or lose your temper. If possible, let them sort out their differences, but do step in if things are escalating, and give each child the opportunity to tell you their side of the story. Linda also suggests keeping your children away from ‘conflict’ situations – keep arguments with your partner out of sight and sound, unless you’re sure you can handle them calmly and constructively.

2

Celebrate their differences

If the age gap between your children is small, it can be helpful to highlight differences between them in a positive way, in particular praising each child’s unique achievements.

3

Make time for them

Spend time alone with each of your children. This is particularly important when a second child arrives – if possible, ask someone to look after the baby while you take your eldest to the park for an hour. Don’t abandon rituals that your first-born loved sharing with you.

4

Communication is key

While sibling rivalry isn’t necessarily bad, it’s important not to let it get out of hand. Find non-confrontational times to talk about situations that have arisen, and deal with any emotions or feelings that are still causing problems.

5

Co-operation, not competition

Show your children how co-operation can be rewarding. Set co-operative tasks (such as building something together) rather than competitive ones (who can tidy their room first). Play to each child’s strengths Find an activity that each child is good at – it might be art, sport or colouring in – and encourage them to develop their own interests.

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Featured image by Unsplash/Suhyeon Choi.

This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 17. Discover our latest subscription offers or order a back issue.