When parents are blessed with two or more children, sibling rivalry may develop.
Many readers may have in fact experienced this family dynamic during their childhood and/or unfortunately even into their adulthood.
One of the most popular theories of this family constellation phenomenon comes from Alfred Adler a pioneer in psychodynamic therapy. Adler (1870–1937) was one of the four original members of what was to become the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
Adler was the first to accept a humanistic-educational model of man in contrast to Freud’s medical model of man. He developed a personality theory most suitable for application in prevention, education and brief psychotherapy.
Adler coined the term “dethroned” and “sibling rivalry,” and theorized that this phenomenon results because the first-born child perceives that he or she has been dethroned by the birth of their younger sibling, setting the stage for competition to win the favour of the parents.
Adler reported that his mother was good-humored, truthful, kind, and totally devoted to the children. However, “when my younger brother was born, she transferred her attention to him, and I felt dethroned, and turned to my father, whose favorite I was.” This illustrates two fundamental Adlerian concepts: those of dethronement and sibling rivalry.
Dethronement occurs when a young child, initially the focus of attention, is replaced in the mother’s affections by a newly arrived infant. The result is one form of sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry, in general, Adler conceived as competition between brothers or sisters for parental approval.”
No two children are born into the same family atmosphere. With the birth of each child, the atmosphere changes because the parents change. They have gained experience bringing up the first child and may take an entirely different attitude toward the way they treat the next child.
A new baby always affects every member in the family (Grunwald, Bernice, M.Ed. & McAbee, Harod, Ed.D. 1995. Guiding the Family: Practical Counselling Techniques). Ms. Grunwald and Dr. McAbee strongly suggest that parents refrain from comparing children by encouraging each to develop his/her own individuality.
They recommend avoiding the following behaviour in front of their children or within ear shot of the their children because it emphasizes feelings of inferiority in the child performing at average or below levels: bragging about one children’s successes and popularity, comparing their report cards or having general discussion of school progress and athletic accomplishments; comparing difficulties or lack of difficulties e.g., John or Mary was such an easy child to care for or John or Mary was difficult from the day they were born; and commenting on comparisons of children attractiveness or lack of it, or resemblance to one of the parents or other relatives if there is any critical element involved.
In extreme cases of sibling rivalry, counseling may be required. In addition to psychoeducation and counselling with the families I encourage the parents to help their children begin to find alternative and co-operative activities, and to disengage when possible to allow the children to work out their issues thereby avoiding the referee role and inadvertently reinforcing sibling fighting.
Here are some helpful books on the subject:
Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate, by Peter Goldenthal. Paperback – Feb 15 2000
101 Activities for Siblings Who Squabble: Projects and Games to Entertain and Keep the Peace, by Linda Williams Aber ideas for games and activities for children aged three to eight. Paperback – May 15 1995.
Please stay tuned for the next topic: Collaborative Problem Solving Interpersonal Conflicts with Significant Others.