Few relationships are as complicated, as close, as glorious and infuriating as the ones we share with our siblings. Even our romantic relationships, as textured and occasionally rocky as they are, pale in comparison; at least we get to choose who we create family with. Our siblings are simply there, foisted upon us without our consent. They can be wildly different individuals yet they know us better than anyone else—our strengths, our weaknesses, our shames. Is it any wonder they sometimes drive us up the proverbial wall?
While single-child families are on the rise throughout the Western world, the most common experience for children is still to have one or more siblings. More than 80 per cent of kids live with at least one brother or sister. And for many of us, these are the most pivotal relationships we’ll ever have. Research has shown that positive sibling relationships help foster empathy, build social skills and boost academic achievement. However, when our bonds with our brothers and sisters go south, the consequences can be catastrophic. Uneasy sibling relationships have been linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse in teenagers, while all-out bullying can lead to self-harm and even psychotic episodes.
However, parenting expert and doctor of psychology Justin Coulson, say this doesn’t mean rivalry and conflict between siblings is dangerous in and of itself.
Sibling rivalry serves a purpose
“Conflict in sibling relationships actually serves a really important function for kids,” he says. “It teaches them to navigate the cycle of breakdown and repair that all relationships go through. The reason we focus so much on sibling relationships is simply that this process is so magnified by the closeness of the family environment.”
Certainly, the rivalry between siblings is one of the most foundational stories we, as humans, tell ourselves. Cain and Abel, the very first sibling relationship—at least according to the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions—ended in fratricide. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris, the god of life and death, was also killed by his brother, Seth. The Hindu epics Bhagavan, Mahabharat and Ramayan all revolve around conflict between siblings. The Confucian concept of hsiao, or filial piety, demands a harmonious relationship between siblings as a measure of respect for their parents. Although, it’s an obligation that only lasts as long as the parents are alive. And what was Game of Thrones if not eight seasons of increasingly destructive family bickering?
All siblings fight, some animals just start earlier than others.
The prevalence of sibling rivalry likely has more to do with simple Darwinian biology than it does culture. Sibling competition is evident throughout the animal kingdom. It's a by-product of the basic reproductive drive that powers all DNA-based life. You can see it in mammal litters, where the smallest babies will be shut out from the best milk supply by their siblings. Chimpanzees will desperately compete for their mother’s attention when a new baby is born. Out-and-out siblicide is tolerated in many bird species because it suggests that the victor is the strongest child and has the greatest chance of continuing the genetic line. Sand tiger sharks get started even earlier: the largest embryo will consume its siblings while still in the womb.
Obviously, the truth is rather more complex in humans, but it reinforces how common and how natural sibling rivalry is. “To argue that you’re not going to have sibling rivalry, well, you’re only going to have that if you don’t have siblings,” says Coulson. And for many animals, there’s a greater purpose to these rivalries than the mere competition for resources.
Sibling relationships offer opportunities for play and education, as well as protection from predators. Intra-family competition ensures that animals are prepared for their inevitable transition to independence. “That’s one of the central benefits of sibling relationships: they do tend to push you a bit harder,” Coulson says.
Rivalary can push you to exceptional places.
Certainly, our own history is filled with examples where competition between siblings drove them towards exceptional achievement. Venus and Serena Williams changed the way women’s tennis is played. The Emanuel brothers—Rahm, Ari and Zeke—respectively became President Obama’s chief of staff, Hollywood’s most powerful agent and one of America’s leading oncologists. For much of their lives, they could barely stand to be in the same room together. Sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine didn’t speak for years, but they were two of the greatest actresses in Hollywood’s Golden Age. “As fraught as these relationships can be, they undoubtedly pushed each other to brilliance,” says Coulson.
How parents can help.
Rather than avoiding conflict, explains Coulson, “our job as parents is to help our kids get along by teaching them how to repair their relationship when it does break down. And to minimise the need for repairs in the first place. It’s why people who don’t want their kids to have conflict are missing out on the very purpose of that conflict: to teach children the skills of restoration and repair, to teach them empathy.”
The idea that sibling rivalry was something parents needed to actively concern themselves with only began to emerge in the early twentieth century. Prior to that, sibling rivalry tended to be seen as both natural and inevitable, a force that shaped families but couldn’t itself be shaped. However, the arrival of psychoanalysis and so-called scientific parenting techniques—an almost comically harmful field of study that essentially portrayed children as machines who could be programmed for virtuousness by their mothers—led to a new obsession with curtailing jealousy and rivalry in the home. Adding to the mix was the emergence of the American nuclear family. Smaller family units and greater leisure time allowed mothers to spend more time caring for—and worrying about—their children.
Sibling rivalry: a Western preoccupation?
Even today, managing sibling rivalry remains a particularly Western preoccupation. Almost all the available research is conducted in Western institutions and focuses on middle-class, primarily white families. A 1994 analysis of this phenomenon drew a contrast between the discretionary sibling relationships visible in richer, developed nations—i.e., you only have to hang out with your brother/sister if you want to—versus the more obligatory understanding of the family unit visible in emerging economies. To put it another way, while the dynamics of sibling rivalry may be universal, the way we as parents comprehend our role in it is a product of circumstance or, in this case, privilege.
Nevertheless, the benefits of a positive sibling relationship are clear—as are the dangers when things career out of control. So, what exactly is at the root of conflict and tension between siblings? To Coulson it’s a result of “trying to navigate complex social interactions with limited social, psychological, cognitive, emotional and behavioural repertoires”. Conflict is the almost inevitable by-product of working within such limitations.
What parents should be aiming for, says Coulson, isn’t a conflict-free environment. Rather, it should be one founded on two principles: enjoyment and empathy. “When siblings have fun together, they learn to value the relationship. So, when the relationship inevitably breaks down they’ll make whatever efforts necessary to restore and rebuild it. That usually involves putting themselves in their sibling’s shoes to work out what went wrong.”
Five tips for managing sibling fights.
When it comes to actually managing blow-ups between siblings, Coulson has a few guiding principles:
1. Don’t try to fix every conflict:
“In fact, stay out of them as much as you can. You only want to intervene if somebody’s being hurt or going too far. Even then, only intervene in order to stop the conflict and give the kids time to get their emotions in check. Your job isn’t to fix whatever’s happening, but to facilitate the repair and restoration of their relationship.”
2. Don’t ask who started it:
“It doesn’t matter. They’re always going to blame each other and you’re never going to know exactly what happened. All you’re doing is teaching the kids to lie and not take the other person’s perspective.”
3. Don’t get angry:
“If you go into a fight with all guns blazing, you teach them that’s how you resolve conflict. The big person steps in with the power and they fix everything.”
4. Do say what you see:
“First, tell them what you’re seeing—not what they told you has happened. Second, name their emotions to tame their emotions: you guys look like you’re really frustrated; you guys seem really angry at each other. You’re simply describing the behaviour and the emotions you’re seeing, and you’re doing it in a non-judgmental way.”
5. Do offer assistance:
“Ask what you can do in order to help resolve the issue. With a bit of guidance, they should be able to work it out themselves—you’re just there to mediate and make sure they’re okay.”
“If there was one thing I wished parents understood better, it’s that sibling relationship are meant to be a learning laboratory,” says Coulson. “Often it’s not about you, or what kind of parent you are. It’s about them decoding what’s important in interpersonal relationships. Because when you look at what makes a successful adult, it’s not academic success. You could have all the academic success in the world, but if you don’t have the skills to navigate relationships with empathy and compassion, and care and kindness, then you’re going to find that your progress will be stifled in any number of different ways.”
When kids are fighting or otherwise acting out, Coulson thinks it can be helpful for parents to check what he calls the HALTS: are they hungry, angry, lonely, tired or stressed? “If your children are behaving in challenging ways, those five triggers are usually a pretty good indicator of what might be going wrong.”
The prescription is simple enough. If they’re hungry, give them some food. Angry: sit with them and talk about what’s making them angry. If they’re lonely, take the time to connect with them, or help them feel more connected with others. Offer them a nap if they're tired. Or, if they’re stressed, try and find out why they feel so on edge.
“When your children are behaving in challenging ways, it’s usually because they’ve got an unmet need. Our job as parents is to help them articulate that unmet need so together we can begin to satisfy it.”