Sibling rivalry is a term that is casually used when describing the unharmonious relationship between siblings. When an only child is about to become a big brother or sister, parents are often concerned about sibling rivalry and, in particular, how their child will react when they are no longer the only child. Most children, nearly 80% in the United States, have at least one brother or sister. This transition to siblinghood (TTS) is seen by some experts as one of the most traumatic events a child experiences. Mothers and fathers of only children express concern about their child’s behavior prior to the arrival of a new baby and often worry about how their child will react and respond. Because most children who experience TTS do so at a critical time for emotional development, between the ages of 2 and 3, experts have suggested that this stage is a time of extreme stress for children and parents, with some even stating that many children experience a crisis during TTS. To determine if TTS poses a threat to the well-being of a child, Brenda L. Volling, of the Center for Human Grown and Development at the University of Michigan, recently analyzed 30 studies devoted to child development and behavior during TTS.
Her examination revealed that although some children exhibited changes in behavior after the arrival of a sibling, others did not. Overall, the results were mixed, providing evidence that the changes in attachment, emotion, and behavior were positive or negative depending on the child’s individual circumstances at the time of the TTS. For some children, becoming an older brother of sister did cause added aggression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances, while for others, the TTS caused them to become more affectionate and independent. Volling did not find evidence of generalized distress for children after the arrival of a new baby. Additionally, she discovered that parental expectations were often unfounded. Parents who thought their children’s behavior would significantly decline after the birth were usually pleasantly surprised at what little difference they saw in their firstborn. Volling noted that although overall behavior did not change, specific problems did emerge for some of the children.
When parents seek clinical help for their children, it is most often to address targeted behaviors. Volling believes future research should be aimed at finding solutions for isolated behaviors that manifest as a result of TTS. She added, “If the ultimate goal of TTS studies is to identify subgroups of children having more or less difficulty in an effort to provide assistance to families and recommendations for prevention, it will be far more beneficial if researchers focus on specific behaviors (e.g., sleep problems, noncompliance, aggression, withdrawal and anxiety, eating difficulties, somatic complaints) than to utilize broadband assessments of internalizing and externalizing symptoms.”
Volling, B. L. (2012, January 30). Family Transitions Following the Birth of a Sibling: An Empirical Review of Changes in the Firstborn’s Adjustment. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026921
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