More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
How to deal with adult sibling rivalry
August 15, 2004
by Offra Gerstein, Style

Sibling rivalry is a well-known and familiar behavior of young children. It is less known that sibling rivalry is also found among adults.
Being a firstborn child in a family often carries with it great advantages. The awe, amazement, love and attention that is bestowed upon a first child stems, in part, from the newness of the experience of parenting.

New mothers and fathers as well as other relatives are delighted with the new baby and are effusive in expressing their pleasure. It pleases the infant, even in the preverbal state, to receive all the love, attention and adulation that is lavished upon her. The baby feels secure and adored.

The arrival of a second child produces great angst for the first child because the period of exclusive parental attention abruptly ends. She can not understand why she was dethroned.

"What was wrong with me that my parents needed another child?" "Why did they stop loving me?" Since it is unsafe for the child to express her anger toward the parents, she redirects it toward the sibling.

Some first children are more traumatized by being "replaced" than others. Yet, it is a perplexing and sad event for most.

The emotions of loss and bewilderment are often accompanied by the joy of earning a sibling and a playmate. The role of a "big brother" or "big sister" is assigned to the first child by parents and relatives. Though the toddler much prefers to be the "only child," she may console herself by the added status and companionship of the new baby.

Initially, it is like having a new toy, but with time, as the infant matures, a new alliance may form between the siblings, and they may become good friends.

This process may not be as acute for the second child once the third child arrives, because the second child has already accepted the sibling reality. At the same time, middle children have to deal with an older companion and playmate who invariably resents them.

Children develop certain characteristics by birth order. Firstborn children are often responsible and more adult-like. Some middle children feel lost and overlooked, others establish their unique role in the family as the mediators between their older and younger siblings. Last-born children are often more carefree due to the abundance of attention and caring they receive from their older siblings and parents.

Some parents unintentionally exacerbate the tension between the siblings by making comparisons. Comparisons are often interpreted poorly by most children who perceive themselves to be less than adequate in the parents’ eyes.

Birth order, gender, innate personality and parental treatment all contribute to the intensity or lack thereof of sibling rivalry. For some children, the experience of having to share love and resources with their siblings leaves a lasting impact that persists in adulthood.

Not infrequently people describe themselves in terms of their perceived role in their original family that distinguished them from their siblings. To maintain individuality and solicit unique attention, they assign roles to themselves, some of which serve them very poorly.

"I was the rebellious one — my brother was the perfect one" or "my sister was the pretty, popular one, and I was the shy one."

These roles and self-perceptions contribute to people’s lifetime self-definition. People who believed that their sibling was preferred by one or both parents may carry the pain of inadequacy. They are more likely than secure people to be drawn to others who re-activate their sense of unworthiness and become disadvantaged in love and work.

The need to restore one’s worth in one’s eyes may take the form of lifelong competition. If I "win" and my brother "loses," then I may prove that my parents were wrong in favoring him. This may not be a conscious thought but the action may reflect this motivation.

Hidden resentments about what your sister received from your parents that you did not, may block registering the love you feel for each other. It will also block the chance of a lifetime friendship with an intimate family member who shared your childhood with you.

Some sibling rivalry expresses itself in adulthood as ongoing competition. To outdo your sibling with success, material possessions or a better lifestyle may be sought to reduce the losses of childhood. No material accomplishments are a good substitute for a low sense of self-love.

Other people feel a sense of entitlement to be compensated by their sibling in adulthood for their suffering of youth. "My sister owes me all the help and caring now for what I did not get as a child." The sister may not share this "entitled" expectation.

Some common emotions involved in sibling rivalry are resentment, pain, hurt, jealousy, ill will and even vindictiveness. Some people are so bound by the old losses that they terminate contact with siblings. This is a terrible loss of opportunity for reconstituted family support and love.

Adult sibling rivalry is a misconstrued childhood perception that went awry. If you feel these feelings, please consider:
  • Childhood sibling rivalry stems from a child’s misunderstanding about losing his exclusive parental attention or favoritism. It does not reflect on the worth of the child or his lovability.
  • Holding on to resentments against siblings for perceived parental misconduct is inappropriate and hurts all parties.
  • Family relationships can be of great value to you, your partner and your children.
  • The committed connection of siblings may be deeper than many other relationships and needs to be fostered, not obstructed.
  • Our birth order, personality, gender and parental treatments were beyond our control. The past is gone. The present and future is within our control to handle with love and goodwill.
  • If you are consumed with anger, hurt, hate, begrudging feelings or resentments, you are hindering your own joy and shortening your life.
  • If you feel unable to sort this out, please get professional help. You deserve to be free of the past and happy about your present relationships with your siblings.[/list:u]
    Offra Gerstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Cruz for the past 25 years and an Internet talk show host at
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