Sibling Rivalry In Our Middle Years

Sibling rivalry is as old as the Bible, with Cain and Abel’s competition for God’s affection leading to the infamous first murder in the Christian and Jewish faiths.

Sibling relationships have defined some of the most intense rivalries in professional sports, business, and politics. Intense sibling relationships, both in rivalry and in cooperation, have produced remarkable results.

Two birds at the ocean, fighting. Maybe not sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry. Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

At one point three brothers in the Watt family were active on NFL player rosters – one of the most notoriously difficult jobs to get. Twin brothers Julián and Joaquin Castro have been appointed or elected to roles in federal government, like Ted, Robert, and John Kennedy, or George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, (Jeb hasn’t yet won a national seat but served as Governor of Florida.)

The recent Dodge commercials dramatize a sibling partnership that built an enduring major car brand.

So sometimes these relationships are positive and constructive.

However, sometimes siblings seem resigned to a lifetime of intense arguing. Or, some siblings spend a lifetime in an enduring cold war that makes holidays and get-togethers almost unbearable for them and everyone else.

What are the causes of sibling rivalry? What are steps we can take when dealing with sibling rivalry?

And, most importantly, how can we resolve a rivalry that has persisted into middle age?


What are the causes of sibling rivalry?

There are many, many causes of sibling rivalry. Generally, however, they boil down to 5 key factors.

  1. Labels or unfair comparisons, spoken or implied

Unfortunately, a primary cause of sibling rivalry comes from well-intentioned parents. Eager to show that they know their children’s strengths, they can accidentally label them. They might use phrases like “he’s the good student,” or “I can trust her to tell the truth.” These words get internalized by siblings who are still seeking their place in the world.

These labels limit what a child can do or be, or feel limiting to children. Coveting a different label, or seeking to be recognized, can cause a lot of conflict.


  1. A need for attention or affection

Not surprisingly, the heart of sibling rivalry often comes from the need for attention or affection. Similar to the use of labels, parents can unwittingly send signals to their children by how (and whether) they spend time together doing what the child and/or the parent loves to do.

Sure, not every child will play softball like mom, but every child craves some time alone with their mother and/or father, doing something special together. Children are attuned to parental affection and sensitive to differences in quantity and quality.


  1. Parents and others accepting fighting as “normal” sibling behavior

Some of the longest-lasting and most damaging sibling rivalries occur when no one steps in to say that it needs to stop. In some cases, parents accept the fighting – even physical fighting – as a “natural” part of the sibling experience.

This simply is not true. Certainly conflict is part of living together with another person. However, handling that conflict with loud arguing or by damaging or hiding another person’s belongings is not appropriate. Fighting or harming the other person is never an acceptable way to resolve conflict.

The parent who normalizes or excuses this behavior sets all of their children up for a lifetime without the dependable support that should come from family member throughout one’s life.

Two ibexes lock horns in a dusty field
Two ibexes lock horns in a sibling quest for dominance, or parental affection. Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
  1. Stress – especially around parent health or change of circumstances

Of course, there are times when even the smallest rivalries or regrets come to the surface of a sibling relationship. This is most likely to happen when parents are aging and starting to experience some of the changes that can transition them to needing more help.

Falls or illnesses can often create a moment of crisis which brings tensions to the forefront. A hospitalized parent reminds children that their lifelong guide and longest-lasting companion is mortal and will soon be gone. This heightens the need to resolve issues that will impact not just the parent, but perhaps the quality of life for the siblings, who must take on debt, or responsibility, or perhaps an inheritance, when the inevitable occurs.


  1. Unresolved childhood conflicts

Siblings often talk with their therapists about specific events that happened in childhood where they felt their sibling was unnecessarily thoughtless or intentionally cruel. Many times, through open conversation, we learn that this event was not perceived the same by both parties. Hurtfully, often times the aggressor does not remember the incident.

Sometimes the conflict is far more out in the open. Siblings who once competed for academic awards or athletic achievements to capture the approval of one or both parents, continue to compete into adulthood. They can, perhaps, be unaware that the competition is at the heart of their conflict, and it can emerge in daily interactions.


What are some solutions to sibling rivalry?

  1. Develop, model, and practice empathy

Address sibling rivalry as a parent, or as an adult in a rivalrous relationship, by modeling empathy. Specifically, ask each sibling to consider the position of the other person fully, and think about what that person is seeking and how that person feels after a certain action. Just this simple exercise can help people understand the harm, or folly, of their own actions or feelings.


  1. Openly discuss and agree upon what equality looks like in parental treatment

Parents can help reduce the chance of sibing rivalry by having conversations with each other and with their children about equal treatment. What does it look like? Is the treatment of your children fair? What seems unfair? Just these conversations can open up some simple solutions that help every child feel loved, and lessen the rivalry.

One particular set of grandparents worked very hard to promote a sense of equality. They did this by giving gifts only at Christmas, and then providing equal amounts of money as the gift. They made slight differences based on which generation the children and grandchildren were in. While this is an extreme example, it does show intentionality in creating equal treatment.

It sent a strong message to the whole family that they all were cared for the same amount.


  1. Positive feedback 4:1 over negative comments

As a parent or a sibling, providing more positive than negative feedback is a great way to develop a strong relationship. Researcher Brene Brown calls this the relationship bank account. We all must make withdrawals occasionally – offering harsh feedback, or needing an emergency intervention – but this is less harmful to the relationship when most of the feedback and interaction is positive.

There is general agreement that giving 3 or 4 pieces of positive feedback more than cancels out 1 negative. This can be in the form of sincere compliments, warm greetings (even simply smiling when you see someone counts), or doing someone a favor – small or large.

Two red crabs lock claws on a dark stone.
Red crabs probably resolving a dispute about which one was loved more by their parents. Photo by Jim Strasma on Unsplash
  1. Provide space and resources to come up with solutions to problems

When a conflict boils to the surface, it is helpful to set up a time to solve it. Handling conflict in the moment might work for some problems. Other problems might require a family meeting. Either way, an effort to intentionally involve everyone in coming up with solutions, and to even agree what the questions are, helps prevent rivalry.

For instance, a family seeking the best living arrangement for aging parents might set a meeting. Here they can agree that the sibling who lives closest will take their parents to various options. A sibling living out of town might agree to join for some visits, or help organize the research. A third sibling might agree to subsidize lunch for those trips, as he is unable to actively participate from the other side of the state. The important part is coming to an agreement of what is fair, and agreeing to support the outcomes.


  1. Spend intentional time together, sometimes solving problems, sometimes agreeing not to talk about them

Some people complain that Thanksgiving is a terrible time of year because of their one loud-mouthed uncle who supports [insert political candidate or party here]. While family political discussions can be stimulating and educational, some individuals take it too far.

Instead, set rules for specific gatherings. Make the Thanksgiving dinner table a no-politics zone. This can help change the dynamics, and allow for some positive interaction. Resetting the 4:1 account (see above) can help make the conflicts easier to resolve.


Implementing these solutions in middle age

It is never too late to try and reduce or eliminate sibling rivalry. Your sibling relationships are your longest and should be your strongest bonds in your life. Your shared memories and experiences and values can help weather future storms.

Taking a few of these solutions might help make your life better – and your siblings’.

Don’t know where or how to start? Maybe start by talking to Sakina Issa, a trained therapist who can help with issues including parenting, relationships, and self-improvement.

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