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Why you shouldn’t ignore sibling rivalry

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Mama Diaries

Why you shouldn’t ignore sibling rivalry

/ 11:18 PM February 07, 2012

A friend once told me shortly after I gave birth to my second child, “When there’s only you, you’re single. When there are two, you’re a wife. When there are three, you’re a mother. And when there are four, you’re a referee.” I would have forgotten her comment were it not for tonight’s episode of what I call the “Adriana and Juanmi Show: Never a dull moment!”

Things always start off well in that show, until one of them decides that the other toy looks like more fun. The interested party will swoop in on the toy in one swift move and the other will, naturally, react. Sometimes, the reaction is nothing more than a simple shout of disapproval. Then there is the response that makes me wonder if my kids have secretly been watching UFC behind my back.

Maybe I’m in denial, but I’ve always been hesitant to call it sibling rivalry, as I’ve always associated that term with a less-than-healthy relationship.


Obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about. Growing up as an only child meant sibling rivalry was nothing more than a vague notion to me. But raising children with less than two years between them has a way of making what was once just a notion become concrete reality.

According to the handbook of the American Academy of Pediatrics, sibling rivalry boils down to competition between children in a family. It is perfectly natural. “All children want parental affection and attentions, and each child believes he rightly should receive all of yours… when he realizes he has no choice in the matter, he may become jealous, possibly even violent, toward his sibling.”

Similarly, “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care” defines it essentially as jealousy between siblings. Jealousy can be manifested in different ways and can evolve as the children get older. This jealousy is also described as natural but not something that parents should treat lightly.

Friendly competition

Handled properly, sibling rivalry can be used to develop generosity and tolerance, and it eventually simmers down to healthy and friendly competition.

Unfortunately, parents can also unconsciously exacerbate things through their actions or by ignoring signs of an unhealthy rivalry, which can lead to strained adult-sibling relationships.

Both sources state that sibling rivalry may begin as early as the pregnancy. An older child may resent the little changes that come, such as no longer being able to have mommy carry him. The older child may also notice the fuss over the nursery and equipment being prepared and wonder why the same is not being done for him.

While I was pregnant with Juanmi, I remember reading a portion on “What to expect when you’re expecting” that suggested refraining from using the pregnancy as a reason not to carry Adriana. It suggested that I sit down instead and put her on my lap.


Once the baby comes home, don’t expect things to get any easier! AAP says that, “among all siblings, the demand for attention is usually greatest when the parents are actively and intimately involved with the baby—for example, during breastfeedings or bath time.”

Another possible reaction would be regression. An older child may suddenly want to do the same things the new baby does, such as being nursed by mom. Other children become seemingly naughtier or just plain needier, in their bid to get your attention.

We tried to head off that rivalry by explaining, in the simplest possible terms, her role as an “Ate” to the coming baby. We were hoping that by seeing herself as a “little mama” to Juanmi, she would believe that they weren’t in the same league and she wouldn’t feel the need to compete with him.

There were times she would happily play with him and sing lullabies to him. Whenever she would ask to carry him, we would oblige by sitting her in the middle of the bed and then laying her brother in her arms. She would happily smile and very gently kiss him.

But of course, there were many times, too, when she would show us her frustration and resentment over the new addition. I remember one afternoon when Migs took Adriana to the park to give me some undisturbed quality time with Juanmi. At the park, she excitedly picked a flower to bring home for me.


When she got home, she was greeted by the sight of Juanmi sleeping on my shoulder. I watched as she wordlessly threw the flower down on the floor (and even stepped on it!) before turning around and walking away. I turned Juanmi over to Migs and spent the next few hours trying to play with a toddler who refused to even look at me! She was a little over two years old then and already displaying a classic case of tampo.

According to a number of articles I encountered, it helps to include the child as much as possible when taking care of the baby so that he doesn’t feel alienated. Of course, constant reassurance, both through words and actions, is necessary, and sometimes, alone time with the older child is just what you need to keep him feeling safe and secure.

As they get older and the dynamics change, so does the face of jealousy. Once the baby starts moving and becoming more mobile, usually making a beeline for the toys and things of the older child, the jealousy is manifested by the refusal to share. This stage marks the beginning of years of quarreling.

This is the stage we are in right now, and not a day goes by when I don’t have to step in and referee. To make things easier for the kids, I only have two rules for them—no grabbing and no hitting. When Adriana was very young, she didn’t quite know her own strength yet, and poor Juanmi didn’t stand a chance.

Once, I got very upset at Adriana and while scolding her, repeatedly reminded her that Juanmi was still a baby and that she had to take care of him because she was the ate. I felt like I had been punched when she suddenly burst into tears, and in between sobs said, “but I’m also your baby! You take care of me also!” I realized that I had thrust her into a role that she never asked for.

Eventually, Juanmi learned how to put up a fight, around the same time that Adriana learned how to control herself around him. So now the tables have turned and it is she who gets harassed by her little brother. Though she is careful not to hurt him, she still manages to find ways to get back at him, and before I know it, the screaming and crying start all over again.

Reacting to quarrels

Recently, I found a useful chapter in the AAP on reacting to the quarrels of siblings for parents. Don’t. That’s right. Don’t react. I thought this was counter to common sense. Stop the fight, get to the bottom of things, reprimand the guilty party and make him/her apologize. Right? Wrong.

In taking sides, one child will “feel triumphant and the other betrayed” which is often what they really want— get a parent to pay attention and “win” them over to their side. The recommended approach is to stay impartial and make them both responsible for whatever they’ve done.

The goal of such a reaction is to make the children realize that their fights will lead to nothing and hopefully minimize the incidences. If things start getting violent, that’s a different story, and you will have to make sure the aggressor understands that his behavior will not be tolerated.

Another helpful tip I found in Dr. Spock’s book was was to avoid comparing and typecasting siblings. Comparing may cause resentment of both the perceived “better” sibling as well as the trait or accomplishment you would like for the “lesser” sibling to have.

Meanwhile, typecasting may cause them to also feel that they are only worth the title you have bestowed on them, and that if they do anything different, they will lose their identity or the only reason why they are loved.

He goes on to remind parents that while all children need “equal love,” they also have different needs; therefore, loving them equally doesn’t necessarily translate to treating them all equally but rather, treating them the way they need to be treated in order to feel your love.

Eventually, the children will outgrow the toys and quarrels and, hopefully, the rivalry. Unfortunately, sometimes, it carries on into their teenage and older years.  This kind of sibling rivalry may lead to an unhealthy rivalry, unsupportive behavior, or even aggressiveness and damage the relationship of the siblings and, in the process, tear a family apart. This is why it is important to control sibling rivalry as early as possible.

One of my best friends once told me that giving your child a sibling is the best gift a parent can ever give them because long after we are gone, at least they can always look out for one another. But as parents, we have to make sure they grow up loving one another for life.

As a parting tip on sibling rivalry from Dr. Spock, the best way we can do this is to make sure that each child is shown enough love and affection so that there will be no reason for them to feel jealous. Knowing that you are loved for who you are and accepted wholeheartedly by your parents is the key to feeling secure in the family.

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TAGS: Children, Family, Lifestyle, Sibling Rivalry
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