Children’s sibling rivalry is a common early form of competition for primacy. When a young child observes a positive engagement between his/her mother or father and the new baby, the toddler instinctually feels disempowered and wishes to recapture the attention he/she has previously received. Some parental handling of this early jealousy, only tends to exacerbate this conduct. How can parents handle siblings’ rivalry more effectively?
Sibling rivalry is not a new phenomenon, but is centuries old. The book of Genesis (4:1-8) recites perhaps the earliest human recorded act of murder as a result of sibling rivalry with the story of Cain and Able. Cain kills his brother Able in the fields out of jealousy since he believed that God was more pleased with Able’s offering than with his own. Jealousy themes between siblings did not only occur in traditional Biblical stories or exclusively among men but was reported in literature and in life histories of famous women as well. It is our earliest demand for recognition and necessary for human psychological survival.
Early sibling rivalry often subsides for many, but for others, may persist for a lifetime. In therapy, some mature adults who battle over the division of their deceased parents’ estate often discuss the issue of favoritism and debate about who among them was the most loved or favored by their parents. The pain of feeling less well-regarded than a sibling may start in childhood and often lasts a lifetime.
I actually remember as a three-year-old pointing out my infant brother’s ineptness to my parents with the hope of persuading them to send him away. What I craved was their reassurance that I was a “big girl” and valued for my earned skills that he was yet to possess.
Needing, at any age, to know that we matter to others is probably an instinctual survival program that begins in childhood and persists through our lifetime. It may propel us to hone our skills and earn others’ esteem for success and survival.
Some parents who are inclined to reprimand the toddler for trying to hit the baby by praising the child for being a “big girl” or a “big boy” as compared to the infant, are using a rationale that is incomprehensible to the toddler and thus does not avert him/her from repeating this undesirable conduct. This comparison may actually reinforce the toddler’s misperception that the baby has actually usurped his/her parental attention and love.
What the older sibling needs is empowerment through praise by highlighting the child’s competence as compared to the infant and by being provided with reassurance about how loved he/she is. Demeaning the baby’s capacity is not helpful to the young child since this is an intellectual response to an emotional fear.
To manage your toddler’s rivalry:
• Abstain from reprimanding the toddler as a “bad boy/girl”.
• Firmly state, “Hitting the baby is not nice for a good child like you.”
• Have the toddler practice the gentle touch as you praise him/her.