Sibling rivalry

While often wonderful, sibling relationships can also be frustrating, especially where rivalry is concerned. So, what lies behind this particular type of competitiveness?

Words: Sarah Rodrigues
Illustration: Kuba Ferenc

Why are siblings competitive?

Consider the following childhood scenarios. It’s the annual school sports day. Because you and your sibling have the same surname, you’re on the same team, both wearing your red shirts with pride and participating in cheering other pupils on when they throw further or run faster than the yellows, greens and blues. Except that, at the end of the day, your sibling has six medals clanking around their neck, while you only have two.

Next, it’s Christmas Day, and your auntie, who you rarely see, is greeting you both fondly. ‘My, haven’t you grown to be lovely and tall!’ she exclaims, as she hugs you. Turning to your sibling, she adopts a gently pitying look and says: ‘Never mind, darling, I’m sure your growth spurt will come soon.’

As close as some siblings are, the urge to compare and compete can hover at the corners of relationships, exacerbated by other people’s observations, even when these are made without ill intent. The pressure cooker of home life adds another dimension to the scenario, as siblings are so frequently in the same place at the same time. Additionally, depending on the make-up of your family, there might be similarities in appearance and character, the existence of which can prompt people to remark on the differences, which can then be perceived as positive or negative.

Even without all of this, siblings can be both each other’s best friends and biggest tormentors. Fun games in childhood can swiftly degenerate into shrieking fights. Teasing that was tolerated and playfully returned one day can spark hurt feelings and violent accusations the next. And close familiarity means knowing exactly where the barb will penetrate the most. In some strange way, these behaviours are proof of safety and trust. ‘You always hurt the ones you love,’ goes the saying, and it’s frequently true – we speak to our siblings in ways we’d never dream of speaking to our friends, because we tend to know that the bond of family will deny any severe repercussions.

How do parents create sibling rivalry?

Yet these early tensions aren’t just expressions of untamed childishness and can frequently persist into adolescence and adulthood – and parents often play a role in this. Psychotherapist and author Eloise Skinner explains: ‘Siblings will usually look for equal treatment from parents, so if they feel as though one child is being preferred, this can result in feelings of rivalry.’ Even when parents claim not to have favourites, they may be perceived as giving preferential treatment to one child over another – in fact, one piece of research has indicated that around 40 per cent of American adults felt that their parents had a favourite among their offspring – a statistic that helps to explain the lingering resentment that often simmers between adult siblings.

Dee Johnson, therapist at the Priory Hospital in Essex in the UK, agrees that ‘parents can be perceived by a child as showing favouritism, even if that is not the parents’ intent or they are totally unaware’. In fact, she says: ‘Some people believe that comparing their children to each other is a way of motivating them, wanting them to be the best they can by learning from each other’s attributes and skills.’ Children and young adults, however, may read this as a sign that their sibling is better than they are, no matter what the situation, which can be harmful to their relationships.

Does labelling children create sibling rivalry?

Parents and carers may also play a role in assigning labels to young people, which can set up rivalry. Some labels aren’t ostensibly hurtful, but might still affect how individuals see themselves. For example, when one child is labelled the ‘sporty one’ and the other the ‘academic one’, this can have a limiting effect, with the former feeling that they’re not seen to be clever, and the latter thinking physical activity isn’t for them.

Other labels are more damaging – for instance, being told that you’re the ‘naughty’ or ‘disruptive’ one. American sociologist Howard Becker developed labelling theory in the 1960s, with the idea that negative labelling can cause poor behaviour by changing the way an individual sees themselves. In other words, if a young person is regularly told that they’re naughty, this might result in them thinking that there’s no point in trying to be good, and they may behave badly as a consequence. Similarly, when another child is labelled as ‘good’ within the family, this can negatively impact sibling relationships.

How does birth order affect sibling relationships?

The stirrings of competitiveness are often down to birth order – a younger sibling may, for several years, take up more time and attention because of their needs – time and attention that used to be an older sibling’s alone. The tides may then turn when the older sibling becomes a rebellious adolescent, and parents shift their focus to them, leaving the younger sibling feeling abandoned and resentful. As siblings grow up, there are likely to be times when one or the other may seek or attract more attention from their parents, because of the ebbs and flows of their own lives – and these times can easily stir up feelings of unfairness or rivalry from the past.

Adult sibling rivalry

Leaving the family home and beginning an independent adult life can ease the tensions. Living separate existences, away from the gaze of those who see them as someone’s sister or brother, can help siblings feel close and regard each other as friends rather than rivals. ‘As we grow up and forge relationships outside the family network and have more autonomy, the individual can create their own sense of identity and not feel they’re being compared to anyone anymore,’ says Dee. ‘There is a real freedom in this, especially when rivalry has been so visceral for so long. This can, for example, be seen when a younger child doesn’t want to go to the same college or university as any older siblings, or when they have different tastes in activities, style, music and career.’

Yet jealousy and former tensions often bubble to the surface as some of life’s big events start to re-establish competition. Relationships, parenthood, home ownership, career success – all of these can affect siblings who perhaps feel that they’re not reaching milestones swiftly or well enough.

Sibling rivalry when caring for ageing parents

And then there’s the matter of ageing parents. ‘These deep-rooted belief systems can manifest again when parents are older and vulnerable and the children have become the caregivers,’ says Dee. ‘Comparisons can restart – which child will be the one to have the solutions, give support and take control?’

Inevitably, this creates fertile ground for old rivalries to resume, even when each sibling’s circumstances dictate how much and what they can do. The one who lives the least distance away will almost certainly do more on a day-to-day basis, but may resent the sibling who lives overseas and is therefore unable to help with these responsibilities. The one who has three children under the age of five may claim that they have less time to navigate the care of parents than the one who is childfree. The one whose job is stressful and demanding may say they’re too busy and look accusingly at the one whose lifestyle is more relaxed. In truth, of course, this is difficult and uncomfortable for everyone to navigate, no matter what their personal circumstances. The person doing less or living abroad may feel a mix of emotions – gratitude towards another sibling for picking up the slack, but also resentment and anger, stemming from their own feelings of guilt about not doing enough.

Ultimately, the reality of ageing parents can serve as a reminder that your siblings are the people you’ll probably know for the longest over your lifetime. Your parents won’t be with you when you’re in your twilight years, but your siblings might be – and they’ll have known you through all of the other stages of your life, too. For this reason alone, it’s a relationship worth nurturing and celebrating (see Eloise’s tips, below) – even if, yes, they drive you mad sometimes.

How to reduce sibling rivalry

Eloise’s tips on managing competition between siblings

  • Try to figure out what it is, exactly, that results in the feelings of rivalry. Is it a particular type of habit or behaviour? Or is it a more general, ongoing conflict? Figuring out the root cause is the first step to finding some kind of resolution.
  • Once you’ve determined what the root cause might be, try to take steps to remedy it. For example, if your sibling has a particular habit or behaviour that causes an issue, adopt a rational, calm approach to talking to them about it.
  • If it’s more of an ongoing issue, take a look at the feelings that arise when you think about your sibling. Is there any work you can do on your own to reduce these feelings – for example, journalling about them or talking to someone you trust?
  • Focus on the positives. Sibling rivalry can equip people with important skills, such as conflict resolution, negotiation, compassion and empathy.
  • Try to see things from your sibling’s point of view and be compassionate – both to yourself and your sibling(s). No one is perfect. Accept that this applies to you all, and forgive them for past misdemeanours, and yourself for your feelings of resentment and frustration.

To find out more about Eloise, visit

You can read more articles about wellbeing in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.