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So much for sibling love

Martin Rupf
Translation: Julia Graham

Relationships rarely last longer than those we have with our siblings. But this kind of bond isn’t necessarily characterised by love; it can just as often be about rivalry and jealousy. But why is that, and how can parents deal with it? We invited an expert to weigh in.

Take my sister and me, for instance. 42 years ago we saw and valued and loved each other. Then it all came to a stop. Did we really learn to love each other? In the platonic sense, of course. Yes, she means a lot to me. And even though we’re not particularly close today, I always like seeing her and her family. The question is, does my sister also see it that way? Her view of our childhood may be somewhat clouded. That’s probably not least because I was jealous of my sister, who was two years my junior, and I’d take every opportunity to tease her. In fact, a lot of people could probably tell you a thing or two about how they either pestered their sibling or vice versa, in that they were the ones that kept getting bullied by them. Things like a brother getting «accidentally» pushed down the stairs in his buggy, a beloved toy suddenly nowhere to be seen or a Backstreet Boys poster being torn off the wall as if by magic. Sibling jealousy manifests as tantrums – but it can just as easily take the form of meanness or indifference. These are things parents should be on the lookout for in particular. Maya Risch (site in German), educational consultant and mother of two teenage sons, reveals what jealousy among siblings is all about and whether there are favourable and less favourable sibling situations when it comes to jealousy.

Do you have siblings, and if so, how did you get on when you were younger?
Maya Risch: I have a sister who’s three years younger. I distinctly remember being jealous of her sometimes, and that’s why we argued off and on. I also have a clear recollection that our mum could barely stand our arguments and she wanted to put a stop to them. I’d often hear: «Come on, you’re the older one, please be reasonable.» I thought that was unfair and it fanned the flames of my jealousy. I often got the impression that my little sister was the apple of my mum’s eye, and I was expected to be kind to her. But what happened was actually the opposite. I’d often start to annoy my sister surreptitiously.

What’s your relationship with your sister like these days? Is the jealousy still there?
No, I wouldn’t say so. We’ve both chosen a fairly different way of life. We keep in touch, even though we’re not very close any more.

Are there actually favourable and less favourable sibling groupings that can affect jealousy?
That’s a good question, and a lot has been written about it already. For example, the received opinion is that there’s more jealousy between same-sex siblings than between a girl and a boy, and that siblings with a small age gap are more jealous of each other.

You say «the received opinion». Does that mean your experience of it is different?
Yes. Ultimately, I think jealousy can come and go depending on the individual and how they interact with their environment. Let me give you an example. A friend of mine already had an eight-year-old son when his partner gave birth to their daughter. The son found it incredibly difficult to have a little princess there all of a sudden – in spite of the large age gap.

While we’re on the topic of sharing spaces, how important is it to prepare a firstborn for the arrival of their sibling?
Preparing them is actually really important. Parents often put a lot of emphasis on this stage, including getting their kids to understand the concept of the firstborn. But if we as parents don’t yet know how the arrival of our second child will affect family life, how can a toddler grasp this? Once the baby has arrived, the advice is to integrate the firstborn into activities. That way they can also help with things like caring for the newborn. But there’s something you need to be aware of. If the firstborn is a bit rough with the baby, it doesn’t mean they’re jealous by a long shot. It’s just that toddlers usually don’t have any sense for what’s too much, so they need affectionate support and guidance on how to deal with the new arrival. However, it’s not just the parents who can play a part in making the firstborn less jealous.

What else is a factor?
Their environment also has an impact. For instance, if you’re visiting a family with kids, it could mean turning to the firstborn initially rather than automatically heading straight towards the baby and giving it all your attention. If the older sibling sees the other child getting all the attention every day, it’d be perfectly understandable for them to feel like they were second place.

At what age is sibling jealousy usually most noticeable?
It’s impossible to make a sweeping statement like that. If we take my two sons as an example, they were born three years apart. At first, the older one was thrilled and very interested in and loving towards his sibling. We only really started noticing the older one’s jealousy when his little brother began to walk. That’s probably not least because this was the moment when the older one realised his autonomy, his room – even his toys – were under threat.

Maya Risch: «Challenges often arise when the second-born suddenly gets faster, smarter or more courageous and therefore threatens to turn the natural hierarchy on its head.»
Maya Risch: «Challenges often arise when the second-born suddenly gets faster, smarter or more courageous and therefore threatens to turn the natural hierarchy on its head.»

What does sibling jealousy stem from in the first place?
There are, of course, many causes. If we’re talking specifics, it comes down to the resources at the parents’ disposal. Round about the time of the birth, the parents’ bandwidth might be tied up with other things and they might be able to withstand stress to varying extents. It often gets challenging when the second-born suddenly gets faster, smarter or more courageous and therefore threatens to turn the natural hierarchy on its head. And of course, it’s always a big readjustment for the firstborn when they suddenly have to share everything with their sibling. The late family therapist Jesper Juul) once put it like this: Imagine you’re a guy and one day your wife brings a second man home and says: «This is Peter. He lives here now. But I like you both the same, so please give him a warm welcome.» That’s kind of how firstborns feel about the arrival of their sibling.

Siblings squabble regularly and that’s normal. Why is a healthy level of friction and rivalry good for siblings?
Disputes and arguments are also down to jealousy, but they actually prove to be a great opportunity for siblings. Specifically, for them to learn to assert themselves and set their boundaries. You don’t choose your siblings; you just have them. That’s why parents shouldn’t automatically assume their children should and will love each other to a great extent. Conversely, the very fact that a sibling relationship is a given is what allows siblings to cross boundaries once in a while. When it comes down to it, no matter how big the argument or dispute, the relationship is still intact. Sometimes my boys had such intense arguments that it actually went too far for my liking. When I asked them if everything was OK, they’d often say «yes». With boys, conflicts are often physical, while with girls, they more often resort to verbal arguments. Especially as I grew up with a sister, it’s not and hasn’t always been easy to determine if and when I should wade in during a dispute my boys are having.

This leads to the question of when it’s appropriate for parents to intervene in a conflict or to counteract a pattern of jealousy.
As always when it comes to raising children, the key thing is to verbalise and name things. I often hear from older people, but also experts, who explain that in the past there just weren’t words to express jealousy and many other feelings in family life. Being able to recognise that there’s jealousy amongst siblings is already a big step. Once parents are aware of this, they realise that sentences like «let the little one do that» or «don’t be like that – the little one can have a go too» aren’t a good idea.

Comparisons should probably be a no-go anyway. It’s not like you want to fuel jealousy amongst your children.
Absolutely. Instead, parents should try to see every child as having their individual strengths and weaknesses and avoid making comparisons. There’s something else parents shouldn’t do. Any ideas what it is?

No, tell me.
Trying to be a referee in an argument or dispute. As parents, we can’t really be objective in any argument. That’s because we rarely see what came before that dispute. In fact, what tends to be the case in an argument is that both children are in need and don’t know what to do. So, it makes the most sense to be sincerely interested in the children and show empathy for both of them. Kids need support to regulate their strong emotions.

Do you have any specific tips on what to do if, for instance, a child always feels like they’re being neglected or always getting the smaller piece of the pie?
Recently, a grandmother took part in one of my workshops. She told me that her older grandson was jealous of the younger one and wouldn’t let him play with his toys. She took the older one aside and asked him which toys he thought he’d outgrown and whether he could possibly share them. He then put some of the toys into a box for the younger one. The point I’m making is this gran took her grandson’s jealousy seriously and picked him up on it in a good way.

So, just talking to the kids about it helps?
It’s complicated. Arguing logically doesn’t usually help with jealousy as there are just too many emotions involved. Jealousy is always subjective and emotional. I recently heard a good joke about it. A mum divides a piece of cake exactly into two equal parts and gives it to her two boys. The older one shouts: «That’s not fair. The two pieces are the same size.» Sometimes it’s supposedly small things that make children jealous. For instance, I always used to put our little one to bed first. The older one got jealous of it, but couldn’t vocalise what was bothering him. It was only when we asked him about it that he explained he wanted me to take care of him first when it came to the bedtime routine.

Do siblings who were rivals as kids usually find common ground with each other as adults? In other words, is it usually the case that when jealousy stems from childhood it can have a negative effect on the relationship in adulthood?
That can indeed happen, yes. There may be situations where one sibling constantly feels secondary or is actually neglected and the parents have never done anything to counteract this perceived imbalance. It’s true that this can leave more serious damage. What can then happen is that siblings avoid each other for the rest of their lives as soon as they’re able to. Conversely, it’s also not good for parents to always intervene in everything at the slightest sign of an argument.

Why is that?
Because this makes it impossible for siblings to build their own relationship with each other. As I mentioned above, it’s not just that children learn something from each conflict they have, but that these conflicts and shared experiences allow them to actually forge a relationship with each other in the first place.

One last question: it’s not uncommon for parents to hear the sentence «You don’t like me as much as you like my siblings.» What if that’s actually true? What if I do have a better connection with one of my children and the other can sense it?
This happens way more often than you’d think. But it’s also a big taboo, which is why parents don’t like to talk about it. Because as parents, we claim to love all our children the same.

That’s me.
We all do that. Here’s the thing: first off, it’s totally normal for there to be phases where you have a better connection with one of your children than another. I couldn’t help it either. There was a time when I had less of a connection with one of my sons, which made me sad. But what’s important is that you accept this and don’t try to pretend this imbalance isn’t there. The fact that the «less loved» child is aware of it is all the more reason to try to talk to them about it. «Yes, I do feel closer to your siblings right now. It’s also very difficult for me at the moment. I hope we’ll go back to feeling close.»

You say that one of the factors is phases we’re all going through. What’s the other possible cause?
It’s normal if there’s a stronger connection between a parent and one of the children. This is called an intuitive connection. It’s just a fact that we get on better with some people than with others. If it’s in the context of an association or work, we don’t consider it a bad thing. So why should it be any different in a family setting? What’s crucial is that we’re aware that this can happen and also be able to adapt our behaviour to this scenario. Simply put, we need to grapple with how we can relate more to the child that we feel we have less of a connection with.

Maya Risch is a family counsellor, Familylab (linked site in German) seminar leader and forest kindergarten teacher. She lives in Oerlikon, Zurich with her husband and two sons.

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Half-Danish dad of two and third child of the family, mushroom picker, angler, dedicated public viewer and world champion of putting my foot in it.

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