Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life. All children become jealous of the love and attention that siblings receive from parents and other adults. When a new baby is brought home, older children feel betrayed by their parents and become angry, directing their anger first toward the parents and later toward the intruder who is usurping their position. Jealousy, resentment, and competition are most intense between siblings spaced less than three years apart. Although a certain amount of sibling rivalry is unavoidable, there are measures that parents can take to reduce its severity and its potential effects on their children.
An older child should be prepared for a new addition to the family by having the situation explained and being told in advance about who will take care of her while her mother is in the hospital having the baby. The child’s regular routine should be disturbed as little as possible; it is preferable for the child to stay at home and under the care of the father or another close family member. If there is to be a new babysitter or other caretaker unknown to the child, it is helpful for them to meet at least once in advance. If sibling visits are allowed, the child should be taken to visit the mother and new baby in the hospital.
Once the new baby is home, it is normal for an older child to feel hurt and resentful at seeing the attention lavished on the newcomer by parents, other relatives, and family friends. It is not uncommon for the emotional turmoil of the experience to cause disturbances in eating or sleeping. Some children regress developmentally, temporarily losing such attainments as weaning, bowel and bladder control, or clear speech, in an attempt to regain lost parental attention by becoming babies again themselves.
There are a number of ways to ease the unavoidable jealousy of children whose lives have been disrupted by the arrival of a younger sibling. When friends or relatives visit to see the new baby, parents can make the older child feel better by cuddling him or giving him special attention, including a small present to offset the gifts received by the baby. The older child’s self-esteem can be bolstered by involving him in the care of newborn in modest ways, such as helping out when the baby is being diapered or dressed, or helping push the carriage.
The older child should be made to feel proud of the attainments and responsibilities that go along with his more advanced age—things the new baby can’t do yet because he is too young. Another way to make older children feel loved and appreciated is to set aside some ‘quality time’ to spend alone with each of them on a regular basis. It is also important for parents to avoid overtly comparing their children to each other, and every effort should be made to avoid favoritism.
In general, the most stressful aspect of sibling rivalry is fighting. (Physical—as opposed to verbal—fights usually peak before the age of five). It is important for parents not to take sides but rather to insist that the children work out disagreements themselves, calling for a temporary ‘time out’ for feelings to cool down, if necessary. Any form of parental involvement in squabbling by siblings can create a triangle that perpetuates hostilities. Over-insistence that siblings share can also be harmful: to retain a sense of individuality, children need some boundaries from their siblings in terms of possessions, territory, and activities. Furthermore, it is especially difficult for very young children to share their possessions.
Parents should take time to praise cooperation and sharing between siblings as a means of positive reinforcement. The fact that siblings quarrel with each other does not necessarily mean that they will be inconsiderate, hostile, or aggressive in their dealings with others outside the family. The security of family often makes children feel free to express feelings and impulses they are unable to in other settings.
(Author is Pursuing Post Graduation in Humanities)