Sibling Rivalry

​​​​What is Sibling Rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is a kind of rivalry or competition among siblings and sisters, in order to gain attention, love or affection from parents or other members of the family. It can manifest in the form of verbal or physical hostility, disappointment, persevering need for attention, or as regressive behavior. Competition happens between most, if not all, siblings to a differing degree. At the point when taken care of appropriately, sibling rivalry among children will prompt the growth of social, relational and psychological aptitudes that are imperative to the improvement of the children

Sibling rivalry is a typical piece of day to day life in a family. All children are envious of the time and love that their siblings receive from parents. Envy, hatred, and rivalry are generally intensified between siblings who are under three years apart in age. As children continue to grow, sibling rivalry can prompt seriously competitive or hostile behavior, which may also spread to other parts of life, like academics or career. It is in no way inescapable, yet appears to depend to some degree on how the parents balance the occasionally overlapping requirements of children.

Oftentimes, sibling clashes can go past usual rivalry and become extremely harmful. In any situation, there is generally no fixed definition or separation in the terms like bullying, violence, aggression or hostility. This has prompted a lack of exploration in the zone of sibling rivalry.

Sibling rivalry is seen as an anticipated, typical and healthy reaction to the introduction of another sibling. In many families, it shows that the elder sibling is more connected to the parents and is receptive to an apparent danger to the parent-child relationship. It is an ordinary reaction to having your place as the child of the family being ‘taken away’. In this specific circumstance, the development of behavior that reflects sibling rivalry should be seen in a positive sense. Sibling rivalry is not abnormal, but an appearance of mental wellbeing. It has been discovered that sibling rivalry usually reduces in adulthood.

Behaviours Involved in Sibling Rivalry

  1. Aggression: It is directed typically towards the mother, but it might also be generalizable towards the sibling, father, peers, self or play. Hostile behavior most often comes out when the elder sibling is still a toddler. Intensification of this behavior will occur when the new sibling starts socially engaging at the age of four to five months, and again when he starts to gain mobility during the end of the first year of age. Aggressive behavior might get decreased to more subtle acts directed towards the new sibling, for example pulling out the pacifier from the infant’s mouth or taking away toys.
  2. Rebellion: Performing acts that go against family rules, might be more frequent at times when the mother is with the new sibling. This strategy helps create tension in the household and increase the continuing power of the elder sibling to be able to change the behavior of those who are around. An analysis of the occurrence of such behaviour might help highlight to the family that it is not a random event, but actually a calculated move by the elder sibling.
  3. Over Compliance: Some children are overly compliant to the new sibling. Perhaps they are intimidated by the fact that they might be replaced due to aggressive behaviour. This leads to them being extra good to verify their position in the family. Then again, they may be so afraid of their own hostile and angry emotions that they start suppressing them. This may become harmful and evolve into a continuously hostile pattern or even an irritable and depressed state.
  4. Dependence or Regression: This is usually seen in the form of overly attached behaviour and demanding things. Other probable kinds of regressive behavior involve stuttering, disturbances in sleeping patterns, baby talk, refusing to eat, sucking thumbs, or wetting the bed. These behaviours serve to observe whether one can receive the same amount of attention and care as the sibling. It is also the expected reaction to any stressful situations and need for appropriate adjustment.

Why does this Phenomenon Occur?

In children, the deepest requirement, their greatest goal, is to be loved by their parents. Due to this dependence, children often fear that the love that their parents show to others will equate to, love being taken away from them. The first born’s response to a new sibling is an alteration in behavior which is either hostile, or regressive. Children with the strongest bonds with their mothers, exhibit the most amount of anger after a sibling is born, while those with a strong attachment with their father appear to behave better.

The child’s age might affect how well they are able to share their parents’ love. Each child in a household fights to define their position as individuals and to exhibit that they are different from their siblings. Children can feel like they are receiving smaller amounts of their parents’ love, attention and responsiveness. Distress in parents’ and children’s life might lead to increasing conflict and thus, more sibling rivalry.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides an explanation for sibling rivalry, as it shows us that siblings are biologically motivated to be in competition for parental favor. It is a fact that siblings share half of their DNA. They are expected to compete for limited resources when the advantage of doing so is more than twice the cost to their sibling. In general, a child’s idea of equity is to keep two thirds of any limited resource for himself and offer only one-third to his sibling. Competing for parental favor is the main cause of sibling rivalry.

Fighting for their parent’s love and attention has been a vital driving force in human evolution, and so have parent’s decisions regarding investment in their children. Before the 1800s, half the children unfortunately could not survive their childhood, and even the smallest variations in their parent’s favor would really have increased their odds of reaching adulthood.

Even if it is true that parents do not prefer one sibling over the other, sibling rivalry affects the dynamics of a household, as the competition tries to reduce favoritism. One of the most astounding findings in psychological research in the last two decades, has been the discovery that brothers and sisters who have been raised together, are just as distinguishable in their personality traits, as the ones who grew up in separate households.

Differentiated Emotions of Children who experience Sibling Rivalry

Second-born and middle children often feel inferior to their older sibling, as they do not understand that their lower or underdeveloped levels of achievement is a function of their age. They will try to achieve success in areas in which the older sibling does not excel in. Middle-born children also have a relatively higher level of excellence in sports, and both and last-borns are said to be better emotionally adjusted if they come from joint families. Studies have also found that middle children are sensitive to unfairness, and more likely to have aesthetic hobbies. They are also generally more trusting, receptive, and  people centered. They are found to maintain their interpersonal relationships successfully.

On the other hand, the last born child, who is always known as the baby of the family, often shows a stronger sense of security and cooperation. Typically, last born siblings are most socially acquainted, and have the highest level of self esteem out of all the other siblings. One study found that last born siblings are more likely than first born children, or only children, to join a communal living setting like a fraternity or sorority. With solely adult models to observe within the household, only children are very achievement and goal oriented and are most likely to attain academic excellence and strive towards higher education after high school.

Another study stated that sibling rivalry is a roadmap through which limited birth intervals affect mortality, with the passing away of the previous sibling eliminating the fight for scarce resources, and resulting in less risks of mortality than if they were still alive. However, studies state that only children have the highest number of problems with their interpersonal relationships, and the lowest requirement for affiliation. They are also the most likely to seek help with psychiatric issues in later life.

When Sibling Rivalry Extends into Adulthood

Sibling rivalry does not always outgrow childhood, but in a few cases, it only intensifies with passing time. While most tend to think of sibling rivalry as solely a childhood phenomenon, adult sibling rivalry is quite common, in which adult siblings face difficulty getting along, and argue, or even get estranged from each other.

Studies say that at least 80 percent of siblings who are over the age 60 prefer close relationships with each other. Rivalry that develops during childhood and gets carried out into early and middle adulthood, becomes less and less significant with time.

While some adult siblings sever their ties totally, approximately one third of them explain their relationship as competitive or rivalrous. They face difficulty engaging with their siblings or have very little in common, spend less time with each other, and use words like hurtful, competitive and humiliating to explain their childhood.

The intensity with which previous quarrels reduce these adults to children once again inhibits them from viewing each other in a newly formed or different light. They do push one another’s buttons without knowing the reason, or how, and reposition themselves in their childhood roles that were never feasible in the first place.

When all the siblings have their adult lives, they must comprehend their participation in familial traditions, holidays and events. Tensions might arise surrounding varied expectations for their redefined positions roles.

Bringing their partners into their family can be seen as disruptive, or the new family members may provide help in fixing long-standing familial traditions and bridge the divides. Favorable outcomes in new relationships and the workplace might make unresolved conflicts reemerge, or can bring more cooperation, support and cohesion among siblings who are invested in one another’s success and joy.

Sibling Rivalry Disorder

The International Classification of Diseases (10th Edition) identifies sibling rivalry disorder as a psychological disorder in children. It describes it as:

A major part, or a majority, of younger children exhibit some degree of emotional disturbance after the birth of a younger sibling. In most situations, the disturbance is found to be rather mild, but rivalry or jealousy after the birth of a new sibling might be consistently prevalent.

Diagnostic guidelines

This disorder is characterized by a combination of:

  1. Evidence of sibling rivalry and/or jealousy;
  2. Onset after the birth of the younger sibling;
  3. Emotional disturbances that are abnormal in intensity and/or prevalence and are associated with psychosocial issues.

The ICD-10 further states that sibling rivalry or jealousy may be shown by marked competition with siblings for the attention and affection of parents; for this to be considered abnormal, it must be associated with an abnormal degree of negative emotions. In severe cases, it can be accompanied by hostility, physical trauma or maliciousness towards the younger sibling. In rare cases, it can be shown as strong reluctance to share, lack of positive regard, and no friendly interactions.

The emotional disturbances can take any form, often including regression with a loss of previously acquired skills (such as bladder control) and a tendency to childish behaviour. Frequently, the child would want to copy the baby in things that provide for parental attention, like feeding.

Confrontational and oppositional behavior might increase with parents. Temper tantrums and persistent sadness in the form of anxiety, or social withdrawal can also occur. Sleep can become disturbed and there is often increased pressure for parental affection.

How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry

1. There are several ways to prevent the unavoidable envy of children whose lives have been disrupted by a younger sibling. When others visit the new baby, parents can make the older sibling feel better by giving him special attention, like a small present to offset the gifts received by the new sibling.

2. The older sibling’s self-esteem can be increased by including him in the care of the baby in modest ways, like helping out when the newborn is being dressed, or by pushing the carriage. The older sibling must be made to feel proud of the achievements and duties that go with his older age, like things that the new sibling cannot do yet as he is too young.

3. Another method to make older sibling feel loved and appreciated is to fix some amount of quality time to spend with him or her on a daily basis. It is also vital for parents to prevent openly comparing their children to each other, and certain efforts must be made to not practice favoritism.

4. Temperament (traits attained before the age of 18) and personality (fixed traits after the age of 18) have a considerable impact on a child’s capacity to deal with their feelings, especially anger and frustration. Some children have difficulty dealing with their anger and may trigger a response or reaction in the other sibling.

5. Fights between young children usually decrease as they grow and learn advanced language, tolerance and appropriate social skills. Some siblings might get along with each other all throughout their lives, but some might have years of getting along and years of not getting along. However, a few siblings with variable personalities, temperaments and other problems between them may never like each other or be able to get along.

6. Typically, the most stressful situation in sibling rivalry is the fights. It is very important for the parents to not take sides, but instead, to insist that the siblings work out their disagreements between themselves, and call a temporary time out for them to calm down, if necessary. Any kind of their parent’s involvement might create a cycle that develops hostilities in the family.

7. Continuously insisting that the siblings share things can be harmful. In order to retain a feeling of individuality, siblings require some boundaries set, from each other in terms of their territory, activities and possessions. Moreover, it is tough for really young children to share their things. The fact that most siblings fight with each other does not always mean that they are aggressive, hostile or inconsiderate in managing things with people outside of their family. The security provided by a family often makes children free to communicate and express their emotions and their timely impulses that they are unable to express in other situations.


Sibling rivalry often emerges in families with two or more children, fighting for the affection, attention and time of their parents. The age of the children, and the number of years between them, can affect the intensity of competing and fighting.

First borns often resent the duties and responsibilities that are placed on them in terms of their siblings. Middle children, on the other hand, may feel left out while the last borns play on their younger position in the household. Sibling rivalry, in the history of research, has been found to be more common between children of the same age and gender.

The rates of sibling rivalry are found to be lower in households where children feel like they are treated fairly by their parents, and where their position in their family is respectable and valuable. Mental health experts have advised most parents to pay attention to their children’s emotions instead of denying their feelings or convincing them to feel otherwise.

It has also been identified that the birth order, gender, marital status of their parents and  whether one lives with their sibling, are said to all influence various aspects of their sibling relationship. Results also stated that conflict among siblings peaks in childhood and then in adolescence. To reduce the distress, studies suggest that parents must find ample time to spend with every sibling and to share in the children’s hobbies and interests.


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Sushmitha Subramani

Well conceptualized and well iterated. I liked the fact that you have explained how sibling rivalry can become very serious and u have given an appropriate solution to enable parents to help their children. It’s essential to spread awareness on commonly neglected topics such as sibling rivalry.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sushmitha Subramani