Defusing Sibling Rivalry

Dr. Robert Ritzema

November 30, 2022

What is the longest relationship with another person you will have your whole life? Likely as not it will be with a sibling. "Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk," wrote novelist Susan Scarf Merrell. That may not be entirely true, but for many of us it seems that way. And for some of us, that longstanding relationship will be plagued with conflict and dislike. Sibling rivalry is common and often lasts beyond childhood into adulthood. Parents can help resolve or reduce these rivalries, though.

Examples of Rivalry

Laura, a young adult, was still affected by sibling rivalry. "My brother always called me stupid," she lamented. "I think he got it from our parents. They always acted as if I couldn't do anything right. They didn't treat him that way.

Howard was also affected. His two siblings were both involved in sports, and family outings often consisted in going to his brother's or his sister's athletic competitions. Howard had no interest in sports, but was envious of the parental attention his brother and sister gained from their athletic prowess.

Then there was Margaret. Rightly or wrongly, she was always convinced that her parents didn't buy as many things for her as they did for her siblings. This became a lifelong complaint, culminating in a battle to garner as many of her parents' possessions as she could after both her mother and father died.

Two of the most prominent sibling relationships in the Bible were between rival sets of brothers in whom envy was prominent. In the world's first sibling pair, Cain envied Abel when Abel's sacrifice, not his, was acceptable to God. Jacob and Esau both contended for their father's blessing after both parents showed obvious favoritism for one or the other child.

Addressing the Causes of Rivalry

As with Jacob and Esau, at least some cases of sibling rivalry result from parents treating children unequally. Parents realize early on that children are different, and this means that they can't always be treated the same. Unfortunately, efforts to treat children differently but equally may be misperceived by them as favoritism. Regardless of their differences, there are some things all children need--attention, approval, and affection. As much as possible, these should be distributed freely to every child in the family. Also, it's important to recognize and affirm the unique, God-given dispositions, interests, and gifts of each child so that the message they receive is not just the generic "and you're a good kid too," but the more specific "I really value this about you."

If you're a parent troubled that your children are rivals, try to refrain from lectures about showing brotherly love--these seldom are fruitful, and may drive momentary anger underground, where conditions are favorable for it to molder into longstanding resentment. Instead, encourage expression of feelings, acknowledging that the child's desires for attention, approval, and affection are normal and healthy but noting that there are good and not-so-good ways to seek after such things. This strategy is similar to God's response to Cain when the latter was enraged at both God and Abel. Eugene Peterson translates God's words as follows:

“Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it" (Genesis 4:6-7, The Message).

Helping Children Relate to Each Other

Parents can also foster improved relationships between siblings who have become rivals. Teach children to bring their complaints to one another; help them learn how to respect each other's feelings and negotiate compromises rather than always seeking parental redress. And try to foster joint interests; even siblings who are quite unlike each other can usually find something they like doing together, and a little pleasant time spent with one another can remarkably improve their attitudes towards each other.

Just as sibling relationships are a fact of life for most of us, conflicts and rivalries are also common, both in childhood and beyond. By addressing the roots of sibling rivalry and helping siblings resolve issues with one another, parents can help improve sibling relationships.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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