Chris L. Minnick, M.D.

Sibling Rivalry

I have been in practice now for nearly four decades and sibling rivalry is an issue that never ceases to amaze me in the various ways it comes up with great intensity, at any age, throughout the lifespan. Although it arises in early childhood, it seems to be a product of baby states of mind at any age that those baby emotions are activated. This means that virtually all circumstances or functions that bring families and siblings together, or require their interaction, have the potential to generate intense sibling rivalry.

We will need a simple definition of sibling rivalry before we dive into the subject.

Sibling rivalry is essentially the emotional and behavioral consequences of the feelings of envy and jealousy experienced by any child in relation to an actual sibling, or someone in the functional role of sibling, meaning near one’s same age. Those feelings originate in infancy and early childhood and are most intense when the ages of siblings are less than two years apart. Interestingly, they can also be intense as a function of the “baby core” of the personality, even when the sibling is born after the older child has passed the age of four.

Some Quotes From Siblings at the Arrival of a New Baby:
– “Okay, I have seen the baby, now can you take it back to the hospital”.
– “Mom, I want you to throw it out the window” (or alternately “..flush it down the toilet”)!
– “Dad, can we tie the new baby to the back of the car and drag it on the freeway”?
– “Mom, I want to be the baby!”

Spacing of Births and Sibling Rivalry:
There is a constructive logic to sibling spacing that has powerful reasoning behind it. The ideal spacing between siblings, all other things being equal, and they often are not, would be twenty four to thirty six months apart. When the space between siblings is greater than three years, the older child is doing things that are too advanced for the younger one to join in effectively.

When sibling spacing is less than 24 months apart, the intensity of the envy and jealousy go up logarithmically. At 18 months or less, the sibling rivalry intensity begins to risk significant detrimental emotional impact on the development of potentially either child, but most commonly the older one.

The logic behind these observations follows from several factors in combination. They include the age at which the older child will become aware of the pregnancy, the older child’s language capacity at that time, and how much that older child still experiences his or herself to still be a “needy baby”.

For example, if the spacing turned out to be 18 months, the mother would begin “showing” typically by four months, which suggests that the older child would likely apprehend the pregnancy around 13 months of age, perhaps earlier. It would therefore still be in diapers, have very little receptive or expressive language capability, and would still likely be very intensely invested emotionally in being “mommy’s baby”. The lack of language would make it more difficult for the mother to forewarn the older child and try to prepare it for the arrival of the new baby.

When the spacing gets down to 11 to 15 months apart, and there are several children with that spacing, one will invariably find more serious impacts on emotional development. Because of that, one of the first questions I ask people when I see serious emotional disturbance is how many siblings were there and with what spacing.

It is important to realize that I am not saying all closely spaced children will have emotional disturbance. “Good enough” parenting combined with a constitutional predisposition that is able to tolerate the losses can result in the children all doing just fine. But I am declaratively stating that the risk of “problematic” sibling rivalry impacting development goes up considerably when the spacing is less than 18 months.

Parental unhappiness, disturbance, or divorce obviously adds to the negative impact. Parental favoritism is always assumed by children and any actual trend in that direction is usually a seriously negative factor on the self-esteem and development of the children not receiving the favoritism. Such parental behavior is invariably a sign of narcissism, serious immaturity, or disturbance in that parent. Most parents intuit that they should treat their children as equally as is possible and make them all feel loved and special.

Manifestations of Sibling Rivalry in Ordinary Family Life:
1 – Feeling displaced by a new birth:
Sibling rivalry is ordinarily first evident when, as the name implies, a new sibling arrives in the family. The intensity of the feelings about the new baby seem to be partly constitutional, partly a function of the preparation for the new birth, partly a function of the spacing, and a function of the total number of children already in the family. The mathematical calculation is essentially: “How much of mom is there to go around and how much of a share am I now going to lose?”

In most families, when the second child is born, the first turns to the father, often then becoming his favorite because mother is occupied with the new baby. A total of three children seems to be the maximum number that most parents can manage without serious deprivation of one or more children. At four children, unless they are spaced four or more years apart (which risks making each child functionally an “only child” in terms of playing with each other), most parents cannot divide their time sufficiently for there not to be significant deprivation of attention to one or more children.

My experience of families larger than four has been that even when they are superficially a happy family, I see evidence of significant harm done developmentally to several of the children. It is simply impossible to not have some of the children suffer significant, felt, emotional deprivation.

2 – Envy of sibling’s attention and/or achievement:
This is obvious in childhood, but it can be seen as operative in all families throughout life, and in most workplaces where co-workers are functionally siblings. While it is inevitable, its corrosive effects can be mitigated by a family or workplace that is fair and open in its management and treatment of siblings and issues as they arise on a daily basis. The appearance of favoritism will have a deleterious impact in proportion to the “lack of equitable and fair treatment” of all.

3 – Denial of sibling rivalry by a child:
This is not a natural state of affairs and requires “splitting off” the envy and jealousy. This is often achieved in older children by denying they too are a child. They accomplish that denial by becoming a “co-parent” to the baby while projecting their own baby elements and needs into the baby. In the case of some older girls, this may be genuinely an expression of a constructive identification with the mother and the baby simultaneously. But for every circumstance where it is successful, there are many more where significant resentment is afoot unconsciously.

That “split off” resentment will come home to roost somewhere, sooner or later, often in a choice to never have children of one’s own as an adult. It may also stamp the personality with depression, a masochistic tendency to deny one’s own needs, etc. and is likely to be recreated in a problematic manner in a marriage.

4 – Denial of sibling rivalry by a parent:
I have on occasion been surprised by mothers who were utterly clueless as to why their first child, who always had been so tractable, had increasingly become difficult in the “last six months for no reason”. How that mother could not see the connection to the birth of a sibling six months ago is beyond me.

I should think that such situations imply that the parent had failed to face their own envy and jealousy growing up in their own childhood. In any case, parents who are not aware of sibling rivalry are at great risk to make it worse and more problematic than it need be. The key parental characteristic that can mitigate sibling rivalry is its acknowledgment combined with attempts to be fair and equal with all the children. A parent in denial cannot possibly address the feelings directly in the child and those feelings will go on unmitigated if not intensified.

5 – Resurgence at parent’s death:
The death of a parent in old age is a loss. A premature death of a parent is usually a tragedy. It is a time when siblings need to be of support to each other, and potentially the surviving parent.

The above would lead one to conclude that the siblings, now much older and mature, would not have sibling rivalry still be a problem. WRONG! Because the baby core of the personality is operative throughout the lifespan, the loss of a parent is unfortunately a time when favoritism, past resentment, and human greed rear their ugly heads and often ruin the sibling relations permanently. Commonly, all of the old childhood grievances will resurface as if a day had not gone by since the last repetition of that grievance. All of this is human, but it is also a huge potential problem.

Lack of parental planning, preparing the siblings for the eventual distribution of the family estate, inequitable distribution, and worse, will make sibling rivalry a much more significant problem than it need be. It is axiomatic that if sibling rivalry was a problem in childhood, it will still be a problem later in life.

Parental Contributions to Sibling Rivalry:
1 – Parental ignorance of the existence of sibling rivalry:
This is never good and always a problem. It suggests, at minimum, a parent who lacks contact with ordinary human emotions. It may indicate that they are particularly out of touch with or in denial of negative emotions. But it suggests that they are out of touch with their own “baby self”, and as such, will be inadequately prepared to deal with a baby and all of the feelings it will reawaken in the baby parts of the parent.

2 – Failure to modulate sibling rivalry:
This is commonly evidence of an inability to deal with destructive, angry emotions on the part of the parent. It may be a sign of immaturity, a lack of contact with feelings and “psychological mindedness”, or simply gross inadequacy as a parent due to excessive narcissism, etc.

3 – Favoring a child:
I am regularly impressed with the sensitivity on the part of parents to the pain of jealousy and envy in their children, and the parents’ instinctive ability to take it into account. These parents seem regularly to go out of their way to attend to the feelings and needs of the “left out” sibling when the other is having a birthday, special achievement, etc.

But I have also seen rather breathtaking favoritism and cruelty toward the left out child. Such behavior, when extreme, seems always to be a function of a parent with a very disturbed area of their personality, often psychotic. As a result, when favoritism is flagrant in a parent or grandparent, I am always on alert for possible psychotic levels of disturbance in the caregiver, even if the caregiver is not floridly psychotic.

In less severe situations, it still indicates invariably that the parent is projecting an idealized or needy baby part of themselves into the favored child. This inability to be more differentiated and separate from that child will have problematic ramifications for that child’s development even if those negative impacts are not obvious to the casual observer. The child that is not being favored will have some degree of grievance and sense of unfair treatment that will be remembered and likely impact later life as well.

Sibling Rivalry in the Workplace:
Sibling rivalry is a function of human emotions and the baby core of the personality, so it will be inevitably recreated in the workplace. Coworkers will stand for siblings, and individuals in position of authority will stand for parental figures. The fair and equitable treatment of all will be as important in the workplace as it was originally in the family. All for the above mentioned disturbances in the family on the part of siblings and parents will apply to the workplace.

It is worth noting that “one rotten apple can spoil the barrel”. It is possible in some work settings for an individual to undermine the general attempts by most to keep problematic expressions of envy and jealousy out of the work environment. This is even more problematic if that individual has significant authority.

Sibling Rivalry in Marriage:
Most husbands and wives feel loving generosity toward each other. They do things for each other, share the pleasurable and unpleasant tasks equally, and generally feel all is fair. If sibling rivalry had been an issue in childhood for one or both, they manage it consciously in the marriage by being extra equal and fair.

Unfortunately, once they start having children, there is no longer sufficient time and energy to assure that both are getting their fair measure of time, attention, pleasure, exercise, etc. Strain on the baby core of each individual’s personality appears.

The husbands often feel displaced and jealous/envious of the attention the baby gets. The wives often feel unappreciated for the exhausting effort it takes to mother an infant and resent the husband’s assumption that they have been home all day just reading, drinking tea, and getting their nails done.

A variation on this theme is the marriage that from the “get-go” is based on what I think of as a “sibling-ship”. In such marriages, the two parties band together with a goal of getting through life together, in mutual support, but with a relative de-emphasis of the romantic, sexual component of the relationship. They may devote themselves to careers, parenting, etc.

The rub is that there is invariably an inherent, underlying fear or intolerance of having baby needs. This is typically a product of a childhood in which those baby needs were unmet and a source of pain. That fact implies that those needs are still in existence at the level of the baby core of the personality and will likely come home to roost sooner or later, often in a problematic, destabilizing manner.

There is one final element to be mentioned about marriage and sibling rivalry. I have worked with many couples over the decades and restored many marriages. Those that could be saved had a measure of underlying love for each other that could be rekindled when the problematic projections into each other were removed.

However, virtually all of the marriages I could not ultimately improve had one element in common, assuming that both partners had a capacity for love and commitment in a relationship. That element was that one or both had an area of deeply rooted “envious hatred” of the other, usually operative quite unconsciously.

The husband might hate the wife for being the source of everything he needed emotionally, or the wife might hate the husband for his career and the esteem in which he was publicly held. But in any case, the envy could be seen to have been in evidence in childhood toward siblings and parental figures, and now recreated in the marriage.

Summary and Conclusion:
Remember that separation, envy, and jealousy are the big three of potentially painful, negative emotions in relation to mom in infancy. Mom’s relation to dad activates all three of those emotions and we refer to it as the “Oedipal situation”. Mom and dad’s relationship to other children also activates those three emotions and we call it “sibling rivalry”. The primary emotions of sibling rivalry are “envy” and “jealousy”, but they exist in a context of “separation” as attention is given to another child.

Because everyone has an “alive, active baby core” to their personality, the degree to which the above referenced emotions were intense or a problem in infancy and early childhood, is the degree to which they will be a potential problem throughout the lifespan. That includes marriage, the workplace, and all ongoing family relationships.

Where sibling rivalry was too intense to have been constructively and successfully mitigated in childhood, it will be recreated potentially in all later circumstances that roughly approximate the childhood situations. As a result, any and all awareness and acknowledgment of its existence and operation has the potential to improve the situation in which it appears.