Is There Anything Good About Sibling Rivalry?
Dear Dr. Laura,
When you google sibling rivalry, a lot of conflicting ideas pop up. Some say it causes long term psychological harm in children. Others suggest a little bit of rivalry is a natural par for course and can be good for children. Please can you tell me your take on this?
I don't see how anyone could claim that sibling rivalry is ever good for children. Growing up with siblings can teach important lessons, such as learning to get along with others, to express your needs without attacking the other person, to delay gratification and wait your turn. But those lessons don't come from rivalry. They come from children loving the other child enough to be willing to regulate themselves in the context of the relationship. (AND, importantly, kids will also learn those lessons from their friendships with peers. The research shows they don't need siblings to learn those lessons.)
Sibling rivalry is the feeling of jealousy that all siblings occasionally feel toward each other. That feeling comes from the competition for scarce resources that all children need to thrive -- the parent's time and loving attention.
So that feeling of jealousy is completely within the range of normal. But it's also a red flag that the child is in need of some loving connection with the parent. When a child feels truly adored by his parent, and trusts his parent to meet his needs, he believes that his parent could never love anyone else more. And that child doesn't have much occasion to feel sibling rivalry. When he does, from time to time, his parents will notice and increase their connection with the child, so he can relax into their love.
On the other hand, when the children do not have that closeness with their parents, or feel that another child is the favorite, there is more sibling rivalry and aggression. That can indeed cause psychological harm in each child, as well as a life-long rift between the children. The more these bad feelings result in aggressiveness, the more harm. If one sibling bullies the other, it can definitely cause major long term harm.
So I would encourage parents who notice sibling rivalry to take it seriously as a red flag that they need to strengthen the relationship they have with each child. There are many tools to do that, such as spending one on one time daily, and creating a family culture of support rather than competition. This is all covered in my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Most of all, enjoy each of your children! When kids feel we delight in them, they don't need to be jealous of their siblings.