by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
A plethora of books, articles, videos, and advice about how to prevent or
to handle sibling rivalry is available for parents with two or more children.
But to what degree is all this information useful? How valuable is it really?
fact, many experts fail to do what is perhaps most important when it comes
to dealing with sibling rivalry: look at what is happening through the child’s
emotional eyes. And so the parents they advise also fall short in this way.
Parents try hard to be helpful, but they do so from the point of view of a
caring parent. They don’t always understand what their children are trying
to tell them.
For a moment, imagine yourself as an infant. Look at and feel
things as they’re
experienced through an infant’s emotional eyes. A baby can’t do anything
for itself. It is completely vulnerable. It depends on its primary caregiver
for its safety and for the fulfillment of all its needs.
Starting as infants,
children need to learn with whom they can feel safe. They need to learn whom
they can trust. They need to feel fully secure in the love of significant others
so they are resilient and don’t feel overly vulnerable
when another child comes along. Although research shows that children need this
kind of responsive and consistent pattern of love to develop security, these
finding have been insufficiently emphasized by most child development experts.
the cause of sibling rivalry is the only way parents can prevent or reduce
it. And the child’s sense of security is the key to this. The
cause of sibling rivalry stems from the idea that the young sibling is a threat
to the older child’s secure sense of self.
Let’s look more closely
at what I’m calling the child’s secure
sense of self. The sense of self—secure or insecure—is how
the child feels as an individual and as a family member. It is the emotional
picture each child has of himself or herself. A child’s secure sense
of self develops gradually through interactions with the child’s primary
caregivers. How parents respond to their infant’s or young child’s
very existence is the crucial determinant of that child’s sense of
two mothers who are on the phone when their 18-month-old daughter begins fussing.
Jill’s mother holds her phone with one shoulder as she prepares
and hands a bottle to her daughter. Jill sits on the floor and feeds, while her
mother talks to her friend. On the other hand, Jane’s mother promises her
friend to phone back later. She takes Jane on her lap and smiles at and talks
with her while she feeds, and is alert to any other unmet needs that might cause
her daughter’s fussing. It isn’t hard to imagine which child feels
more loved, relaxed, valued, and secure.
It is very
important for parents to realize that if an older child feels his or her needs
will not be met, that child will feel frustrated. This frustration can grow
quickly into an anger that this child then takes out on a younger sibling.
Parents who think 3-, or 4-, or 5-year-old siblings already feel completely
secure greatly misunderstand the normal developmental needs of preschool-age
children. These parents sow the seeds of sibling rivalry.
Consider how this happens. A child
is 2 or 3 years of age, and onto the scene comes a new baby. The older child
still has strong needs to feel secure in the parents’ love, still feels
vulnerable, still is learning to build trust. But the baby is far more dependent
and its needs are stronger. And, in the eyes of the older child, the baby gets
all the affection and attention. Mommy’s
always soothing its cries! Mommy’s always holding and rocking it! The very
care-giving behaviors the older child still needs within the family are now being
given regularly to the younger sibling. So the younger child is perceived by
the older child as a threat to his or her security.
The older child thinks, “I
was receiving all that love and attention from my parent. It made me feel special.
I felt safe. Now everything’s going
to the baby, not me. I feel bad. I’m scared. I’m angry! When the
baby gets everything because it is more dependent than I am, that threatens my
sense of self.” Of course, the child’s thoughts aren’t so articulate,
but this is the gist of his or her feeling. The threat to the older child’s
sense of self can be felt especially severely if that child’s powerful
early needs for love, attention, recognition, and a trustworthy environment were
frustrated and not adequately met.
This is the cause of sibling rivalry: the
older child perceives the younger sibling’s
very existence as a threat to his or her security. If this is the cause of rivalry,
then inherent in the cause is its prevention or cure. Sibling rivalry can be
prevented if the older child learns to see the presence of the younger child
as something that enhances the secure sense of self of the older child.
But how, you
might ask, can this be done in day-to-day life with children? If you are able
to see through the emotional lens of the older child, what to do becomes obvious.
Here are some examples.
aged 3 to 5 are in day care or preschool and know a teacher. These youngsters
see teachers as important and helpful people. They feel proud when a parent
likens them to a teacher. This parental expression of love and recognition,
therefore, builds the older child’s secure sense of self and reduces or eliminates
For instance, when your baby begins to crawl, you can approach
the older child and say in a pleased manner, “Look, your sister is starting
to crawl. Guess who taught her how to crawl? You did! She’s copying you.
The older child is getting love and recognition from you.
What is the cause for these good feelings? From child’s point of view,
it’s the baby. Why
would the older child continue to be contemptuous or feel rivalrous toward
a younger sibling when the older child sees the younger sibling as the reason
he or she is receiving affection, attention, and recognition from their parents?
the younger child starts to use a fork or cup at the dinner table, you can
go to the older sibling and whisper excitedly, “Look, your brother’s
holding his cup by himself. Who do you think showed him how to hold a cup? Your
brother learned from watching you! He likes you and imitates you. You’re
important. I’m proud of you.”
When the younger child appropriates
the older child’s toy, to stave off
World War IV, you can give the older child a hug, look into his eyes, and say, “Your
sister has been watching you play! She’s imitating how you do it. You’re
a great older brother. Maybe you can play with her and show her what else you
Another way to counteract sibling rivalry is for parents to model
cooperation. You can show your children how to cooperate and can articulate
the value of cooperation. For example, at dinnertime, the mother might cook
while the father sets the table. Often this is done silently. An important
opportunity for teaching values is missed. Instead, the father can say to the
in this family we’re a team. We believe in working together. I could use
your help setting the table. Which color napkins would you like to put on the
table tonight, the pink or the green?”
As they grow older, the children can participate in
more advanced cooperative tasks and chores, as well as fun activities, either
together or with adult family members. When one child helps a sibling, you
can acknowledge that behavior by saying, “See, cooperation makes it happen.
I’m proud of you kids!”
and talking about cooperative behavior can improve interpersonal relationships
within the family. But the single most important thing for parents to understand
is that the older child must realize the younger sibling is not a threat. Parents
must ensure the older child feels the younger sibling is an asset to the older
child’s secure sense of self. This is the basic remedy for sibling rivalry.