Siblings are two or more individuals who share a parent in common. They are referred to as brothers or sisters depending on gender.
When it comes to child development, sibling relationships can be incredibly important. Siblings represent a child’s first social network, and these early relationships provide a training ground for social learning and relationship building. Because of the intimate nature of these relationships, conflict is almost inevitable.
Qualified family therapists and other mental health professionals can help individuals work through sibiling issues and other family-related challenges.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 80% of children in the United States grow up with at least one sibling. American children are more likely to grow up in a household with a sibling than with a father. The quality of sibling relationships can predict mental health later in life.
Learning to navigate sibling conflict is an important aspect of social development. Yet some siblings are unsuccessful in this arena. Sibling rivalry originates from an evolutionary drive for resources, particularly parental attention. When children’s needs are not adequately met, this drive can push kids beyond common sibling rivalry.
There are many factors that influence why siblings fight. Sibling issues can depend on sibling demographics, family dynamics, and unexpected life events.
Psychiatrist Alfred Adler believed birth order plays a role in personality development. Adler theorized that a first-born child feels dethroned by the second-born child. To win back parental affection, they may fixate on the desire to outperform their younger sibling. The second-born child may then become hypercompetitive to keep up with their more experienced sibling. If unchecked, the kids’ insecurities could fester into a rivalry that goes beyond what is considered to be typical or "healthy" sibling rivalry.
Differences in age and gender can also influence sibling relationships. Same-gender siblings often compete more than children of different genders. Siblings with an age difference of less than two years may have a relationship characterized by more conflict than children at different developmental stages. Thus, brothers who are only a year apart will likely fight more than a brother and sister who are ten years apart.
Family composition can determine the intensity of sibling issues as well. Single-parent households may deal with more sibling rivalry due to the challenge of sharing the attention of only one parent. Blended families are also likely to experience unique challenges since not all the siblings grew up in the same household. Differences in family resources and parenting styles can cause problems for stepsiblings.
Parental dynamics play a huge part in how successfully siblings negotiate conflict. Parents who negotiate disagreements teach their children problem-solving skills. Meanwhile, siblings exposed to domestic violence may model aggressive behavior when they fight.
No family is immune to circumstance. Family-wide issues are also likely to influence sibling relationships as well. Such factors include:
Generally speaking, sibling conflict is a normal part of family life. Experts instruct parents to let siblings resolve their differences whenever possible. Yet when sibling issues consistently impact daily functioning, more attention may be required. The following scenarios are typically cause for concern:
- Fights happen anytime, anywhere: When siblings fight intense, long-standing battles, it may be time to seek support.
- Mental health is impacted: If a child is experiencing a mental health condition like depression or posttraumatic stress, it makes sense to get outside help.
- Sibling abuse: A small amount of teasing or aggression between siblings is typical. When siblings bully or physically attack each other, caregivers should find help.
- Estrangement: Sometimes conflict becomes so intense that siblings cut off their relationship altogether. Without help, the disconnect can last decades. (Note: This refers to situations not characterized by abuse or other harm. If abuse of any kind occured in the relationship, a counselor will typically work with the sibling who experienced the abuse but is not likely to advise they repair the relationship, as this may be harmful to the sibling who experienced abuse.)
It’s never too late to seek help. The following therapy options can help with sibling issues:
- Family therapy can teach parents how to repair their family dynamics.
- If neglect or abuse have harmed family bonds, caregivers may find parent-child interaction therapy beneficial. This treatment can help parents provide children with the extra attention they need.
- Mental health professionals who provide couples counseling can offer similar support to adult siblings who want to reconnect.
Therapy can not only improve sibling relationships, but also offer psychoeducational tools to address the root of the conflict.
Maneuvering around sibling conflict is part of the growing-up process. When caregivers anticipate issues, they are better equipped to deal with problems as they occur. Caregivers can employ supportive tactics that reduce tension and teach children problem-solving skills. The following strategies can be useful in addressing sibling issues:
- Consistency: Uncertainty often leads to stress. The more parents consistently enforce rules and consequences, the more children know what to expect.
- Attention: Caregivers can establish regular one-on-one times with each child. Routines for family time and alone time can help ensure everyone’s needs are met.
- Nonintervention: Parents who refrain from solving every squabble allow their kids to learn negotiation skills. Unless the fighting deteriorates to name-calling or aggression, caregivers practicing this strategy will stay out of it.
- Separation: If conflict does become physical, parents should consider separating the children. Designated time apart can help kids learn how to calm themselves down. Kids can regroup later to discuss their needs in a calmer state.
- Compromise: Treating kids equally isn’t always possible: sometimes one child needs more attention than the other. Instead of focusing on “fairness,” parents can resolve disputes with compromises that satisfy all parties.
- Adult siblings are seeking therapy together to heal old wounds and to strengthen their bond. (2017, March 26). The Globe and the Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/adult-siblings-are-seeking-therapy-together-to-heal-old-wounds-and-to-strengthen-their-bond/article570287
- Feinberg, M. E., Solmeyer, A. R., & McHale, S. M. (2012). The third rail of family systems: Sibling relationships, mental and behavioral health, and preventive intervention in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 15 (1), 43-57. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3288255
- Helping children and families address and prevent sibling abuse. (2017, February 28). Counseling Today. Retrieved from http://ct.counseling.org/2017/02/helping-children-families-address-prevent-sibling-abuse
- How birth order affects personality. (2010, December 9). Retrieved from https://www.education.com/magazine/article/Ed_First_Born_Only_How
- Sibling rivalry. (2016, February 16). WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/sibling-rivalry#1
- Sibling rivalry. (2016). KidsHealth. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sibling-rivalry.html#
- Siblings heal family rifts through therapy. (2016, August 3). CNN U.S. Edition. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/26/living/siblings-in-therapy
- Stepsiblings. (2015, November 21). American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/Pages/Types-of-Sibling-Relationships.aspx