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Sibling rivalry: Navigating unhealthy sibling relationships
For some people, relationships with their siblings, which are meant to be loving, caring, nurturing, and fulfilling, are a source of great pain and anguish. You share so much history, the same genetic makeup, you share the same parents (or parent), you made so many memories together - good and bad. There is just so much to reflect on and laugh about; what really goes wrong for this unique relationship to become so adversarial?
Rivalry and conflict between siblings are more common than is talked about. As a society, there seems to be reticence to accept it exists, yet it is at the core of my people’s suffering in life. This may be because when sibling rivalry is talked about, it stimulates some powerful feelings, including shame, guilt, blame, anger, defensiveness, sadness and fear.
In some families, there is often a desire to maintain a united front or a façade, while harbouring so much resentment towards each other. In other families, the rivalry turns into an all-out war, dragging others into it, creating an “us and them”. This muteness in not acknowledging sibling rivalry, viewing it as taboo, and not openly addressing it means many people go through life carrying many unseen and deep emotional scars, due to the relationship challenges they have endured, and the emotional damage caused by their own siblings. It is only in therapy that many get to learn to speak about it, and feel safe to do so, without judgment or the fear of being seen as the” troublemaker”.
Having recently read Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, it is clear that the running theme throughout this book is that of rivalry between him and his older sibling, and his feelings of growing up experiencing himself as the “spare”, the second best, the auxiliary. In the public eye, these are boys, now men, who have always been seen as close, united, and the model version of perfect brotherhood. This highlights how prevalent sibling rivalry is; it touches on every family regardless of race, social class, gender, ethnicity and culture.
When there is a perception that parents give one child preferential treatment, or if there is real evidence that the parents are favouring a particular child over the other, it often creates conflict, fuelled by jealousy and envy. Underneath the jealousy and envy are more complex feelings - anger, shame, guilt, sadness, grief, and resentment.
For the subject, there is often a sense of being deprived of something of huge significance (love, affection, attention, nurturance) that was made abundantly available to the other sibling/s. If the experiences that are deemed to be favouritism, or preferential treatment by the parents are not addressed, it can lead to deep-seated feelings of resentment towards siblings, which can breed throughout life.
What lies behind sibling rivalry
Sibling rivalry often originates from very early on in life, and it is fundamentally shaped by some underlying factors and unconscious processes. In some cases, the rivalry creates conflict that is difficult to mend, leading to ongoing relationship tensions between siblings. Here are some of the causes of sibling rivalry.
We are competitive beings; it made us survive through generations where the unfit perished and the fittest thrived. Competition is healthy, and it also happens between siblings, even though we may not be conscious of it. It is however the nature and degree of it which determines whether it is healthy or unhealthy. Despite being born to the same parents, each child is a unique entity in a family, which has its own set of needs, and developmental journey to make.
One’s personality is built through a combination of many factors, the key one being how they experience their relationship with their parents. The proximity to parents, and age difference, can have a huge influence on the perceptions each sibling creates on how they are being treated. We all thrive when we feel loved, cared for, prioritised and we feel seen. However, if one sibling is always towering over the other, the child who is behind is often left feeling unseen and unheard, despite the parent’s efforts - this stimulates competition.
This is common in families where the firstborn tends to become a surrogate parent and, therefore, is seen as the one who gets more attention and exercises authority over the younger siblings. The firstborn child may be experienced by the younger siblings as harsh, controlling and powerful. It is a fact that the first-born child already had an established relationship with the parents before the younger siblings were born. The arrival of a younger sibling/s may stimulate jealousy, and envy, in the firstborn, and being replaced, therefore getting less of the parent's attention.
The firstborn may also experience the parents as harsher on them, as they tend to be more forceful and robust in channelling the first child to success in life. This can stimulate a range of feelings in the subject - anger, frustration, guilt, strife to please the parents. The younger siblings may also perceive this as the parents giving the older sibling more attention, deeply impacting their relationship with the older sibling. All these factors, which may be unconscious, are foundational in the genesis of sibling rivalry.
The last-born child is often seen as the baby of the family and tends to be viewed as the one who gets special treatment. By the time the last sibling is born, it is true that most parents would have become more competent, and confident in their parenting skills, and would have developed their unique parenting style. They tend to be more relaxed and less cautious, which can stimulate feelings of jealousy and envy from other siblings who may have experienced the parents as being harsher and harder on them.
The younger sibling is likely to remain home with the parents, while the older siblings leave home to start university or work. This also means they get to spend more quality time with their parents, which other siblings may not have experienced. This can be a source of jealousy and anger towards the younger sibling from the older siblings for being denied the same level of relaxed and due attention.
The middle child syndrome is undeniable - it is often the middle child who feels unseen and unheard in a family. The first siblings get special attention, the youngest child gets a different type of attention as the baby of the family, while the middle child is often left boxed in these two powerful juxtapositions, deprived of attention.
The middle child tends to develop mechanisms to get attention from the parents, at times through academic excellence, looking after the parents, or just being the good child who doesn’t cause the parents any trouble. This can also mean the middle child not psychologically developing in the same way as other siblings who get the parents' full attention, as they have to mould their needs around others.
Growing up in this position can in later life stimulate feelings of being unloved, and the need to look after everyone else in order to get attention and love. These middle children can also easily become servitude to their other siblings in order to seek to gain their attention and approval. This learned behaviour and internalised way of relating is carried into adult life. Experiencing the other siblings being favoured can be a source of jealousy, and provoke a need to put oneself as secondary in later life.
In some families, the children’s gender determines how they are treated by the parents and other siblings. This is most common in BAME and other minority communities where boys - sons - are seen as tokens in the family, and daughters are viewed as less than, secondary. These unspoken notions are not often explicitly voiced, yet they are powerfully felt.
Daughters are seen as liabilities, and they do not hold the family legacy in the same way as sons do. Some first-born daughters therefore feel the need to strive in life in order to match up the parents’ expectations of a son. Brothers who are in second and third place can also end up feeling competitive and rivalrous towards older sisters. If the son is the first child, daughters who come second are often treated less favourably. Parents' own projection play a big part in how the children relate to each other. Unchecked this can be a source of huge rivalry and conflict in families.
Parentification as a contradiction
Parentification is when the child is given duties and responsibilities that are not age-appropriate. Parentification can occur in two different forms - emotional and instrumental. Some people may experience one of the other, while others experience both.
Emotional parentification is when the child provides emotional support to the adult, while instrumental parentification is when the adult assigns and ascribes adult roles and duties to the child. In practice, the adult may simply offload on the child, confide, ask questions, and seek advice from the child. It can also happen when a child is given adult chores, that are not age appropriate. When this happens, there is a role reversal where the child becomes the adult, the provider of emotional containment to an adult, and an involuntary provider of practical support.
Many a time parentification happens covertly, and the adult may not recognise their emotional and practical dependence on the child. In any situation where there is emotional parentification, there is neither a sensor in the adult nor a recognition of boundaries of what is appropriate to share, how much can be shared with the child and what is and isn’t age-appropriate. Children do not only grow and develop physically, but they also develop psychologically and have certain milestones they need to reach and accomplish. Parentification interferes with the natural development of the child, and accomplishing their own developmental tasks, as they are pivoted into adulthood.
It is not unusual for parents to have a close relationship with a particular child, at certain stages in life, or throughout life. In most families, it is the oldest or youngest sibling. When there is instrumental parentification, it is typically the oldest child who becomes the surrogate parent or the one to whom the parents offload all their troubles. The conundrum is that this may be experienced as a form of closeness with the parents that other children do not share, yet it is indeed a form of emotional abuse-parentification.
In some families, the youngest sibling, the one who leaves home later than everyone else, becomes the parent’s confidant and handyman. Where parents have relationship challenges, or separation/divorce, this child is left bearing a lot of the parents’ own struggles. Again from the outside, this may be a sign of closeness, which stimulates jealousy and envy from other siblings, internally it may not be the same, there is a contradiction.
At times parents may have closer relationships with a particular child than the others due to the child’s developmental journey. When there is developmental trauma for example sickness, disease, disability or some form of injury, accident etc. the parents tend to pay a close eye on that sibling and develop a closer relationship. Temperament from birth, how smoothly the child reached their developmental milestones, and academic and intellectual abilities also determine the quality of relationships the parents develop with the child.
The parents may become overprotective, cautious, and more careful when dealing with a child who is seen as vulnerable than not. This response to trauma can indeed impact the relationship between the other siblings who may feel deprived of the same level of attention developed with the particular child who had a traumatic or challenging upbringing. In other families, it is the brighter child who gets more attention from the parents, overshadowing the not-so-bright siblings. This can also be a source of conflict and rivalry.
Narcissistic parents, generational traumas, and transference
We often forget that parents were children once upon a time, and they remain children at the very core. Despite being physically mature, psychologically, parents may be still growing, and have a lot of psychological maturing to do. No one has a manual or tool kit on parenting; parents learn to parent on the job, and they learn from mistakes. Parents can see themselves in their own children, as they were children themselves once upon a time. It is not unusual for parents to unconsciously project their own unmet needs onto their children, thereby stimulating or fuelling rivalry between them.
Sibling rivalry is common in dysfunctional families. The dysfunction lies in the parents, in their own conflicts, their unmet childhood needs, and how they were parented - it has a generational constellation. Parents who are “narcissistic” are unable to accept responsibility for their own failures or insecurities, they risk having a narcissistic psychic collapse. It is often the case that the drama that the children unconsciously play out is on behalf of the parents who are not able to confront their own traumas and address their own unmet needs from their childhood.
For example, a mother who felt unloved by her own mother can develop a perverse relationship with her daughter where she lives vicariously through her - there are no boundaries and she will do anything to make sure that child is given special treatment over others. Another example is a father who may have had a harsh father himself; he either becomes very harsh towards his own son/s, or too relaxed and unboundaried to the detriment of his relationships with other siblings.
A parent or parents may like a child who reminds them of a past figure grandparent etc. or resent them for the same depending on the type of relationship with that lost person. This is a transference, a way of relating that is based on an internalised early figure. If it is a negative transference, the child is treated favourably and if it is a negative transference, parents can become very harsh towards that child as they remind them of an early life figure.
Freud (1913) described transference as an unconscious phenomenon that is omnipresent in relationships we create with others; it is an act of projecting an internal experience into the external world. With this unconscious drama being played out, rivalry breeds, with the parents being the creators and choreographers. This type of sibling rivalry is very common and most harmful as it often engulfs the whole family with parents taking sides, due to their close identification with one or more of the children. This is a painful place to be, due to the powerful nature of the projections, and how we often act out what is being projected.
Managing an unhealthy relationship with a sibling
If you are someone who has an unhealthy relationship with a sibling, here are some ways to manage it:
- Maintain a respectful and boundaried relationship with your sibling, don’t force things.
- Do not compare your sibling relationships with other families. Each family is different, and it comes with its own unique generational traumas.
- Create healthy relationships with other siblings and family members where you can have mutually nurturing relationships.
- Be curious and ask your parents stories about their own childhood and life. There is a lot to discover from people’s stories and how they grew up which may explain some of the dynamics.
- Remind yourself that not having a healthy relationship with a sibling is not a sign of failure, and it doesn’t mean you do not deserve other loving relationships.
- Consider therapy for you and your sibling if you really want to talk things through in a safe space.
- Consider family therapy if the sibling rivalry spans into the whole family dynamic. This form of therapy can help you all heal as a family and find the language to describe your experience in a more reflective way without blaming and shaming.
- Consider individual therapy to address this form of relational trauma. It can be very confusing and unsettling to not feel loved and valued by people who should be closest to us.
- If you are a first child, try and reflect on the impact of your position and behaviour on your younger siblings, and your relationship with your parents - were you parentified in some way? What is the impact on you?
- If you are a middle child, reflect on your needs and identify what you consider unmet and how it relates to the way to deal with relationships as an adult.
- If you are the last-born child, try and reflect on your position and what it meant to you and your siblings.
- If you are a parent, and you have children in conflict, do reflect on what you are bringing in from your own past. Address it separately, in therapy. That’s an act of love for your children.