A child’s life is busy investigating, experimenting and discovering what interests them, what they are good at, and what they like to do. They hope their uniqueness is obvious and welcomed. They want to be recognized as different or separate from their siblings. And so the competition begins to make sure they are noticed and appreciated.
The biggest roadblock in their way is favouritism. They perceive that their sibling is hogging the limelight and getting positive attention, while they are being ignored. They feel they are getting unequal amounts of your attention, discipline, and responsiveness. It can begin with the arrival of a new baby. The first born may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened. Stress and frustration sets in.
How they react and get along with their sibling and parents depends on the their progress through the developmental stages leading to maturity. If they haven’t yet learned positive ways to get attention or start playful activities with a brother or sister, they may sulk, argue, or start fighting.
Sibling aggression can serve as an acceptable outlet for frustration. Children cannot hit or attack the parent or teacher who makes them angry, so they strike out at their sibling. Hurting a sister or brother may bring some sense of relief from fear or frustration, after all doesn‘t “misery love company“?.
Family dynamics are clearly at play. Carol C. Nadelson in her book Sibling Rivalry, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000 states:
“mothers and fathers have a great deal to do with their children’s tendency toward sibling aggression. Parents who are rarely available, either physically or emotionally, are more likely to have children who are overly aggressive with each other than are parents who are regularly on hand to supervise and help resolve conflicts.”
Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings is normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts. Peter Goldenthal, in Beyond Sibling Rivalry, Henry Holt & Company, New York, NY, 1999 introduces the concept of a vicious cycle of unfairness, anger, and conflict. When the child feels he is being treated unfairly, he become angry, uncooperative and even aggressive. The parents jump right in to keep the cycle going. They too become angry at the child’s bad behaviour. They blame, punish, and yell.
What’s the child to do? His parents’ behaviour is proof enough to him that he is being treated unfairly. He’s becomes hurt and even angrier. Why not follow the parents’ example and shout, blame and punish the parents with rude comments?
Parents Under Pressure
These days parents are under considerable stress. It’s hard to find time, let alone spend “quality” time with the rest of the family. With nerves already on edge it becomes difficult to set an example of compassion, kindness, and civility.
Parents may also be carrying baggage from the past. Their own experiences with siblings and parents may be negative … and that’s the way they learned to deal with these conflicts. Even worse, the child’s temperament and behaviour may be reminiscent of a relative who was particularly obnoxious. Subconscious influences lead the parent to treat the child with less respect.
Life Isn’t Always Fair
Some children are dealt a tougher hand. They have trouble doing what other children can do easily, such as learning to read, making friends, or playing ball. They may not take it in stride. Instead they feel the unfairness, get angry, look for someone to blame, and lash out.
Children, like people in general, are not at their best when they are hungry, tired, or bored. Their defences are down. They may be easily frustrated and quick to react aggressively.
What’s a parent to do?