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What is Sibling Rivalry?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Sibling rivalry describes the competitive relationship between siblings. Often competition is the result of a desire for greater attention from parents. However, even the most conscientious parents can expect to see sibling rivalry in play to a degree. Children tend to naturally compete with each other for not only attention from parents but for recognition in the world.

There are many things that can influence and shape sibling rivalry. A grandparent who favors one grandchild over another is as likely to influence how siblings behave to each other, as is parental treatment. Birth order is also a factor. No child can quite understand the introduction of a new baby into the house, and even older children may be troubled by this. The feeling of being replaced or supplanted is often the cause of jealousy on the part of the older sibling.

A child’s personality can also have an effect on how much sibling rivalry will occur in a home. Some kids seem to naturally accept changes, while others may be naturally competitive, and exhibit this nature long before a sibling enters the home.

Studies show that children as early as one may be able to exhibit self-awareness and perceive difference in treatment between his or herself and a sibling. This can be complicated when a child is quite young because they cannot understand, for example, mom’s need to nurse a baby or pick the baby up each time it cries. Suddenly, a one year old feels the baby is now mom or dad’s favorite, and this early impression can shape a lifetime relationship with the younger sibling.

Studies have further shown that the greatest sibling rivalry tends to be shown between brothers, and the least between sisters. There are naturally exceptions to this rule, and a brother/sister or sister/sister relationship may be just as contentious, if not more so, than a brother/brother relationship.

Early explanations of sibling rivalry include the Freudian. Freud saw sibling rivalry as an outgrowth of the Oedipal complex. Just as boys competed with their fathers for their mothers’ attention, so siblings naturally competed for attention. The term, sibling rivalry, was not actually introduced until 1941, and was part of an explanation by David Levy about the natural response to introducing a new child into the home.

Though it is impossible to entirely vanquish sibling rivalry, it can be diminished by parental action. Most important is being certain to spend time with each child alone, and also to invest in time spent together as a whole family. Children who have a strong sense of being part of a family are likely to see siblings as an extension of themselves.

Encouraging competition, especially where winning is the object, can provoke severe sibling rivalry. Instead, parents who can model healthy competition, where participation is the object are likely to have children who feel less contentious.

Often, parents may bond more closely with a child that is most like them or their spouses. This may result in preferential treatment, which almost always results in extreme sibling rivalry, or a sibling with extremely low self-esteem. Parents should work hard to find out what wonderful things exist about the child who is not the favorite.

Parents might do well to remember that sibling rivalry today may someday result in siblings being cut off from each other when the parents are gone. Continuing to encourage family togetherness, treating siblings equitably, and using family counseling to help arrest sibling rivalry that is excessive may ultimately serve children in their adult years.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon25122 — On Jan 24, 2009

I'm doing a project on sibling rivalry and was wondering if you could answer a few questions.

What are the different types of sibling rivalry? What characteristics do these types display? Are there any types of families that are more likely to experience rivalry? (e.g, a family with 5 children opposed to a family with 2?).

Can the media ( as in tv shows, movies etc.) influence rivalry? If so how? How can rivalry at it's most extreme level impact the family?

If you could provide an answer to any of these, it would be much appreciated.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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