A Potpourri on the Nature of Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is like a patchwork quilt. It’s made up of many pieces varying in colour, shape, and size.  Here’s my attempt to describe some of the pieces.

Different Mindsets
Vera Rabie-Azoury in They Love You, They Love You Not, Harper Perennial, Toronto, ON, 1995 suggests

“The difficulties adults encounter when they try to deal with children can be put down largely to the fact that they fail to understand the way a child‘s mind works. They apply their own adult logic and expect the child to think, feel, reason, and behave in ways that they themselves consider rational.”

Rational to parents means behaving properly in the many social environments the child encounters such as home, school, the neighbourhood, and community groups and teams. The child, however, starts off as a primitive selfish being driven to satisfy personal emotional needs which do not include being tidy, organized, logical, and kind or cooperative.

It’s hard to stay self-centered when surrounded by so many other individuals. I am often reminded of the lyrics “… the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone … “ as I consider the other connections influencing behaviour.

Life as a Power Struggle
William E. & Mada Hapworth in Mom Loved You Best, Joan Rattner Heilman, Viking, 1993 states

“… the guiding force for humankind is the desire for mastery and superiority in our efforts to control our universe.”

This is a key belief of those supporting Alfred Adler’s views. Alfred Adler (February 7, 1870 – May 28, 1937) was an Austrian medical doctor and psychotherapist. He founded the School of “Individual Psychology”. He believed a human to be an indivisible whole, an individual, that was also connected or associated with the surrounding world. The term “individual” is misleading. Adler was referring to the Latin term “individuus” which means indivisibility. His intention was to emphasize holism. His School of “Individual Psychology” included social and community psychology as well as a depth psychology.

In contrast, Freud’s theories stressed the unconscious mind, the mechanism of repression, libido, and the use of free association.

Back to “sibling rivalry” … mastery, superiority, control as human driving forces can be simplified into a desire for power in all human relationships, including sibling connections. All brothers and sisters spend their lives in competition with one another.

It’s Not All Bad
There is “good, bad and ugly“ in sibling rivalry. The good is it encourages you to try your best as you attempt to come out a winner. It’s an early experience in social behaviour. When you lose, even if it’s in an ugly fashion, you are better prepared to face the next round. These struggles for supremacy prepare you for the competition you will encounter later in life.

These bouts can provide you with a sense of belonging. As opponents, you must pay attention to each other. As your skills improve you recognize the significance of earning the right to play the game with your sibling.

Rivalry is acceptable – up to a point. It should competitive but not merciless.

Family Systems Theory
Previously conventional “Individual Psychology” is now being replaced by “Family Systems Theory” produced by Dr. Murray Bowen. Bowen’s fundamental premise is:

    the family is a unit and any change in the functioning of one of its member is predictably and automatically compensated for by changes in the functioning of other members of that family unit.

Family systems therapy focuses on the communication processes, the balance of power within the system, the dynamics of influence, how the system resolves conflict, and how it currently functions as a system. Unlike individual therapy where the goal is to make a change in an individual within the system, family systems therapy seeks to make change within the family system and behaviour amongst its participants.

Family systems theory also encourages people to think of issues in terms of a multi-generational family or system. We all carry baggage that we acquired earlier in our lives based on our relationships and observations of the many members of our extended family.

What about favouritism and this multi-generational system? Family Theory recognizes that the desire to nurture children and provide them with the love they need is something that adults do NOT experience equally.

Love-Givers and Favouritism
Rabie-Azoury introduced the concept of a “Circle of Love” within the family unit. This “Circle of Love” includes a “Prime Love-Giver” and an “Auxiliary Love Giver”. The dynamics within the family unit result in one sibling being “Favoured” while the other(s) is “Disfavoured”.

At birth, both siblings have an equal chance of becoming favoured or disfavoured. Most parents try to widen their circle of love to include all children equally, but many are unable to do so.

Differences in temperament or personality can cause a parent to be a weak auxiliary love giver. Experience from the past can also lead to disfavouring a child. The disfavoured child may subconsciously remind the parent of a relative who was particularly difficult.

Life is not fair. Every family has its inequities, and the allocation of the parental prizes of love, acceptance, attention, and approval never comes out exactly even.

The Battle for Affection
From an early age children develop strong attachments to those other people in their lives with whom they have regular contact and who pay attention to them.

Siblings carry on a bitter underground battle for their prime parent’s affection, sometimes for most of their lives. Unfortunately many parents are unable to counteract this underground battle effectively. When they step in they make it worse.

Distinct Selves
Anthony E. Wolf in Mom, Jason’s Breathing On Me, Random House, Toronto, 2003 claims

“Known to all parents yet somehow not recognized as a basic fact of human existence is that we all – kids and adults – have two distinct and separate modes of operating, really two distinct selves.”

Baby Self
We have a self that is very baby-like. It just wants to take it easy and be looked after. That’s not too bad, except it wants and demands  it right away. There is no self-control nor is there the least bit of tolerance for delay. It’s the way we operate at home and with the immediate family.

Mature self
A different self appears when are in the outer world. This self operates at a higher level. It is patient and exhibits self-control and tolerance. Self-gratification is put off in favour of achieving other goals.

Many sibling interactions exist only in the realm of their baby selves. The mature self does not show up. Mature ideas such as am I strong or weak, am I good-looking or ugly, am I  cool or nerdy, do not count. These are self-esteem factors. Concern over self-esteem does not exist in the realm of the baby self.

Luck of the Draw or How Important is Birth Order?
The older child usually becomes more powerful than younger children in the family. Having spent more time with their parents, older siblings tend to identify with adults and parental authority. They are often put in charge of their siblings. They tend to play by the rules. They see their younger brothers and sisters as less able and worthy of leadership.

Youngest siblings can be remarkably perceptive and observant thanks to years of watching the mistakes and successes of their older brothers and sisters. Their older siblings’ mistakes show them which tactics work and which don’t. They use that experience to help shape their own lives.

Sibling rivalry is more intense when children are very close in age, of the same gender, or where one child is more intellectually gifted.

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