Sibling rivalry…the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sibling rivalry…the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sibling Rivalry…Where there’s a sibling, the potential for conflict, rivalry, envy is always there…Wherever there is the strongest love, is also the potential for the strongest hate…As the song goes…it’s a thin line…

What’s bubbling in the melting pot of your changing, developing children as they grow together? Stronger inter-personal skills? Or sibling toxicity…or even sibling abuse?

This article seeks to explore and contextualize conflict and rivalry between siblings, and provide fellow parents with a framework to understand and reflect on the dynamics between their children. To look out for the good, the bad, and take effective and decisive action on the ugly. And reflect on the entangled intergenerational elements of the ways our past experiences in our families of origin can show up in our present family life.

We are primed to expect sibling in infancy particularly. But it’s a dynamic that can be activated and re-activated with ease, with intensity, both predictably and unpredictably…The ignition of sudden flashes of hatred, wrath, envy, can and do co-exist with love and sibling companionship.

This can happen with siblings from birth – who gets the toy, who gets the love? Through childhood – who gets to be the golden child? There’s often an intense re-emergence in the teenage years where change is afoot and there are struggles emerging from the allocation of fixed roles in the ‘Spice Girls’ family model. Lots of roles up for grabs…the sporty one, the scary one, the wild one, the clever one, the fragile one, the sensitive one…

And it continues through adulthood…who gets the trophy job, gets married first, has children…and into middle age…where the golden child crown comes up for grabs again as parents become vulnerable in age. The rivalry continues even after adult children are orphaned – acrimony and disputes over inheritance can stretch out and distract from the hard, hard work of grieving.

Everyone’s story of who they are and how they were treated in their family differs. We all have a natural tendency to tune into ‘head winds’ – where we were disadvantaged, and underplay our ‘tail winds’…

Sibling Rivalry in Infant and Young Child Observation. A sample overview

Birth spacing can play a significant role in sibling rivalry. Certainly in my postgraduate training, ‘Psychoanalytic Observational Studies’ – undertaking the Infant (2 year observation) and Young Child (1 year duration) Observation modules at the Tavistock Clinic, within my seminar groups there was a glorious mixture of only children, twins, and siblings to discuss. Very frequently, siblings came along at around the 18 month or 2 year mark.

Observation material frequently centred on the journey of the baby (0-2) or young child (3-4) and their family adjusting to the pregnancy, the anticipation, and the reality of a new-born. The expansion pack of family life! In observation studies, as a trainee Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, one is tasked with finding a family willing to be watched for an hour a week for one or two years. And the work itself involves sitting still, being present, observing, but not interacting with the baby or other family members.

You are seeing what happens when the baby or young child is interacting with their parent(s) or care-givers. And you are seeing what goes on for that child when the parent turns away, changes their focus, leaves the room.

It was fascinating, hilarious, touching, heartbreaking, you name it. It was an emotional rollercoaster. Both were life-changing experiences and I will forever be in the debt of the two families that allowed me to bear witness to the highs and lows.

After each observation, you had to write up a detailed account of what you saw, heard, and felt. And then take turns presenting observations with fellow students over the course of 6 or 7 weeks.

The discipline involved is opening yourself to be available and present to the emotional dimensions of other people’s lives. To identify, project, entangle, disentangle, experience transferences with the child, the parent, the situations as they unfolded. You learned to observe life at its most vulnerable – from birth. And, of course, you began also to learn how to observe yourself.

I was lucky enough to observe a baby from birth to 2 years old who had a brother 2 years older than her, and twin boys from 3 till 4 years old…At the same time, I was learning the ropes of parenthood with a 2 year old who was – and still is – an only child – though now she is 14. 

With smaller gaps between siblings, there is the sense of the next child, quite literally, physically, separating baby from mother. As the bump grows, the child- often still a baby or toddler themselves- is pushed towards the end of the knee and off Mum’s lap – later displaced by the baby. With twins, there is always the dual focus. Growing together, sharing space, time, feeds with parents.

Watching ‘my’ twins, I saw some of the sweetest play and loving togetherness that it is possible to imagine. One of their favourite things to do, was climb inside delivery boxes together, or swirl together, buried in nests of blankets, recreating their womb experience perhaps.

Equally I saw the intensity of envy erupting, where one twin couldn’t help but destroy or spoil a project involving separate achievement, or their twin’s special moment with Mum. And of course, it is rare that twins will hit their milestones simultaneously, so there was always an edge of competition. Only one of the twins could have been the first to walk.

I was there when the first successful use of the potty happened and saw the triumph and tragedy happen simultaneously…The potty was more like a throne, in the middle of the play-room. It was a very snazzy potty. You could pretend to flush it and it would make a noise. It had some sort of sensor, so that if you sat on it, and then actually used it, it played an enormous fanfare! How wonderful! How special!

All eyes and praise on the child who did it – scooped into the arms – held aloft as the hero of toilet-time…For the one who didn’t…it was not the same. Even though his parents were hugely skilful and mindful of his feelings in the moment. The clarity of his insight, his disappointment at being the observer rather than the fore-runner was palpable.

Other observations were revealing of childhood – as Tennyson put it so memorably – like ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Quite frequently parents would be wary of leaving babies in the unsupervised company of their 2 or 3 year old seniors – and rightly so lest there was some rather pointedly over enthusiastic ‘hugging’ that looked more like a WWF manoeuvre – or a covert bite…Sibling rivalry, jealousy, edging on savagery in the younger years, is not unknown – but rarely openly discussed.

Refereeing sibling rivalry in family life – a challenge like no other!

It’s a struggle, for parents to referee, and be surrounded by children we love so much squabbling, bickering, hitting, name-calling, whining…Alongside of that is that sense of parent perfectionism and guilt. What have I / we done to deserve this? Is it our fault? When is it too much? Is it going too far? Is it just sibling rivalry, when is something darker present? When does sibling rivalry tip into sibling abuse? How can I make this stop?

Alternatively, sometimes parents become so worn down with the pattern over time, or they are so hard-pressed by other understandable pressures, that they accept it as a way of life, and can become ineffective, or even permissive. Refereeing sibling warfare is about as tricky and high-pressured as officiating in the Premier League, and rarely is there a linesman or video ref on the spot to make an accurate call.

Similarly your judgment can be disputed with vehemence and contempt turning on you instead! It’s no easy job! It’s so unfair! You’re so unfair! Can be all too familiar refrains from the child ending up on the wrong side of parental law…

Sibling Rivalry – it’s in the DNA of our relational, familial story!

Few, if any, can light our fuses and set us off like family. As the eldest of three, some of my least proud moments have emerged with sibling conflict. And I am not just talking about childhood – where we could be incredibly close, and also pretty foul…and the same dynamics reverberated through the teenage years, into young adulthood…and even through to middle age.  

I remember returning from my first term at university to discover my siblings had raided my bedroom, helped themselves to my clothes – and worst of all – had cut down my sacred Levis 501s. An unparalleled violation. I’m ashamed to say I hunted down my brother and wreaked a loud and completely undignified revenge which took the form of a full-blown physical attack.

Games of chess on holiday ended badly – once a Bishop was thrown at my temple so hard it bounced off and dented the ceiling. I wore the bruised lump for the next few days as a badge of pride in my superiority, having won much, much more than the game of chess. Again, not my finest hour given that I am the eldest by some four years…

And then there was the completely casual violence between us that passed the time when bored. Chinese burns – of course. Tests of force, courage, endurance. There was a ‘game’ we invented in the back of the car on long journeys to break the boredom…it was called ‘grinding’ – where you’d agree to have your hand trapped and for the other person to scratch harder and harder the top of your hand until you broke the skin or snatched your hand away…

We must have driven our parents crazy. Mum developed an ‘Elastic Girl’ kind of superpower, where she could snake her arm round to the back seat and minister a short, sharp slap.

Sibling rivalry – when is enough, enough…?

Sibling rivalry is practically inevitable if you have more than one child and the flashpoints can come out of nowhere. It’s hard for parents not to lose it and compound the situation. And it’s not just when they are pre-school where their primary impetus is to find their feet within their family and bond with parents.

It very commonly re-emerges in the teenage years where once again the preoccupation with belonging – who am I? Am I loved? Am I lovable – dominates and can result in anxious reactivity and hard-to-love behaviours…

One moment, one child is victim, the other aggressor, but it can switch so easily and frequently with a well-aimed low blow – physical, or verbal. Despite these ‘switcheroo’ dynamics, it’s important not to mistake the behaviour as harmless. I have written before about the common-ness of estrangement in family life:

For many adults who take that hard left from their family of origin, poor sibling relationships and unresolved sibling rivalry and conflict are part of the picture.

What might look like six-of-one and half-a-dozen of the other behaviourally on the tip of the iceberg – is not the same as the impact of the behaviour and the sense of self, or the meaning being made internally and that will be different for each child…and very much worth checking in with so that you can keep an eye out for psychological safety and have better accountability around toxic dynamics.

Whether the aggression is one-way or mutual, it affects both wellbeing and the relationship as well as impacting the nervous system of the home. Yes. That the home…the ‘safe’ haven you all return to, to ‘rest-and-digest’ and recover from the stressors of life ‘out there’ at school, with peers, at work.

It can’t all be sweetness and light…

I’m not saying that all must be harmony. A pinch of aggression and conflict every now and then certainly adds some spice – and doubtless helps young people hone their relational skills and feel their feelings in the safety of their family with an intensity that the world ‘out there’ cannot afford.

Nonetheless, as parents we cannot shirk our responsibility for the health and safety of our homes and homelife. It is our observation, our values, our leadership, that are needed to set the tone and raise the tone, when needed. It’s about impact, accountability, and the ability to navigate conflict in more skilful ways. To act on needs and boundaries authentically, effectively, in ways that are clear, safe, and pro-social. It’s also about developing the skills to make repair in long-term relationships.

Full disclosure here. I myself, am a parent of an only child – so as a parent, I have no direct experience of this at home. Where I do have experience is in my own experiences of siblings in my family of origin. Also in my many years of working in school as a safeguard lead where from time to time, disclosures would require mediation with parents and support with framing the dynamics between the siblings more clearly and strategies for setting boundaries. Over the past six years it’s a theme that emerges frequently in my coaching work.  

You can’t change what you can’t see, and it’s hard to see sibling rivalry clearly or cleanly…

Our notions of sibling behaviours – what’s good, what’s bad, what’s ugly – are not very clearly defined. Growing pains, experiences of developmental challenges in that hard, long journey of ‘becoming’ are different for every child. And every combination of siblings is just as unique, with the timings they hit milestones, or hit the buffers in some way of other, being entirely unique to them.

Added to which, we have the template of our own family experience to contend with. We can look back both consciously and unconsciously at what triggered us then, and how it comes up for us now. We may identify very strongly with one child or other, depending on how a fast-moving situation that we are dealing with on the hoof brings up our own childhood wounds.

We find our parental ‘back-up’ behaviours coming out of the bag…where we find our selves speaking and doing the very things we hated our parents doing and swore we would not do. Being able to pause, reflect, untangle, and process this in a non-judgmental space, including within our own minds (where unfortunately we experience the harshest judgment) can be hugely helpful.

From time to time, quite naturally in the tween and teen process, dysfunctional conflict loops of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling (The Gottman Institute – see resources link), can become a regular feature of family life – between adolescent and parent, or adolescent and siblings – or both! As tension, anxiety, or sometimes controlling behaviours emerge in one child, and the parent spotlight goes to where the need is greatest, comparisons can emerge. Why can’t you just be like your sister / brother?

Incremental impacts, and taking action when things get too much.

As an educator, and working closely with families over many, many years, I have seen patterns emerge around a challenging and serious situation with one sibling – like physical or mental illness – result in other children feeling marginalised but unable to speak to those needs because they feel that to do so would be a guilty or shameful thing. This can mean they act out on their suppressed feelings and needs. It’s an awful burden to feel resentful of a brother or sister who are suffering .

Sometimes what is ‘normal’ in family life, gets lost in heightened patterns of anxious activation – cycles of worry, cycles of conflict. It can be a gradual process of habituation, like the frog-in-hot-water syndrome. If you put a frog straight into hot water, it will leap out. If you put the frog in water and gradually heat it up, then the frog tolerates a lot more discomfort without realising it. This is what happens in family life reasonably often – and sibling dynamics can be a fairly big part of it. When one or more people come to a realisation that something needs to change, that can take many forms.

A child may realise that they don’t actually feel safe any more. Or that the wear and tear caused by the conflict is damaging for them – maybe preventing them sleeping, or working. Something may come up for them in their school experience. A conversation with a peer, an accountability situation emerging with a teacher, a book they are reading or a class activity that might give them the spur to take stock and talk to someone.

Sometimes one or both parents feel something has to give. Sometimes a parent will experience a clinching moment – where they realise they have lashed out and said or done something harmful and something needs to change. At other times, the alliance between parents under pressure is weakened by kids playing one parent off against the other…These can be and are common catalysts for action.

If they can, in an ideal world, parents and carers take stock and come together and set a plan in motion. Alternatively, they get help from the school via pastoral leads, or accessing advice from the school counsellor. Sense checking with non-judgmental friends and trusted advisers can be a very vulnerable thing to do, but it can be hugely helpful – especially if you can get that sense of not being alone.

There are, of course, lots of books and blogs from Dr Spock onwards…Scrolling, reading, podcast listening and informing yourself can be so very helpful – but it is vital that it doesn’t delay action when your spider senses are jangling and telling you things are amiss. I liked hearing Michelle Borba talk through her  ‘Rule of Too’ when talking about mental health and resilience in young people – when should you take action and get help? What’s the threshold for intervention?

  • When things are too different
  • When things are too intense
  • For too long.

Michele Borba – Author of Thrivers (2021), The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (2022), Unselfie: Why Empathetic kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World (2016)

Or parents can come to a professional – a therapist or counsellor, or seek out family therapy and get the whole family involved in some mediation. Consultations with people working in the field of relationships in family life, people like me – a life-coaches or parenting coaches – can help take stock and develop a strategic approach to making change in what can feel like a ‘whackamole’ situation. Not only in terms of the events coming up – but also the emotions that are coming up for you when they do…And these are what actually drive us when in the moment. Direct contact with a professional adviser can give you perspective, enable you to feel heard without being judged, and able to navigate an informed path that will feel right for you, that will work for you and your family.

How has this article helped you in your reflections on family life and how things are in your home? I hope there is some reassurance and perhaps some ways of clarifying what you see from the ideas here. Do get in touch, or look around my website for further help. And always feel free to share or recommend to friends who may find this thinking helpful.

With love and gratitude,


Further reading:

Criticism – Defensiveness – Stonewalling – Contempt – Applied here from couples therapy – John and Julie Gottman’s 4 horsemen of the relationship apocalypse –  linked here:

Michele Borba – Author of Thrivers (2021), The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (2022), Unselfie: Why Empathetic kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World (2016)

Linked articles

Endings, and new beginnings…The stories we tell ourselves in family life… – Emma Gleadhill

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