Are you raising rivals?

Put an end to any sibling rivalry by understanding the causes, and the approaches that work

Parents in a tug of warIt’s sad but there’s often some rivalry between siblings or peers [in case of a single child]. It sometimes even takes on a more intense form–jealousy. Such feelings are harmful as they make children behave in ways that may hurt others [or themselves]—at times in a serious manner. To help children deal with these feelings, it is important to understand the issue in depth.

Why do children feel jealous?

Immediately after birth, an infant is dependent on the mother for all its needs—food, shelter and protection by means of cuddling, carrying and patting. This close bonding between the mother and child serves an important role for the child. It helps the child develop the capacity to trust. It’s the basis of the child’s attachment to the parents. If this bonding does not happen well, feelings of insecurity creep in. This may lead the child to becoming more clingy, attention-seeking or demanding. Behaviours like obstinacy, tantrums or fussiness while eating evolve. The insecurity may also lead to a low sense of self. Such children may feel that they do not have enough. Or, they are possessive of what they have and cannot share it. Both these situations create a fertile ground for the development of feelings of rivalry and jealousy as time goes by.

Do parents unknowingly contribute in generating jealousy in children?

The arrival of another baby in the house is often the beginning for a child to get distressed. When another baby is expected, most children are told that the new baby is for them to play with and care for. Once the newborn is home, there’s a sudden change with the parents becoming protective of the new born, often preventing the elder one from going near, touching, hugging or kissing. They do so because they want to be careful. This care, though important, often gets conveyed in the form of a scolding and setting limits, which confuses the child. It also makes her feel vulnerable as hitherto she has enjoyed undivided attention and pampering. The arrival of the new child may not prove to be the best of news for this little friend of ours.

Thus, unknowingly, parents do contribute to the development of jealousy among siblings. As children grow up, sooner or later some kind of comparison sets in. If the older one is mischievous, then she is asked to behave while the younger one gets concessions. To the older one, this is unfair and discriminative; it raises the question in her mind—“do they love me anymore?” or “because they have a new baby to play with, I am not loved anymore, I am not needed any more”; “all this is because of the young one—s/he has taken my parents away from me”. Jealousy takes root when parents are unable to involve the older child in managing the younger one and making the older feel important while caring for the younger.

Younger siblings too, don’t always get it easy. They are constantly required to measure up to the older sibling. If they don’t, parents constantly compare saying, “why don’t you learn something from your brother/sister”; “look at her, she is such a good girl, she listens to me. You are a bad boy/girl”. Here, the judgment of being a good child is based on the comparison with the sibling and hence the child is labelled as bad. It’s natural then for younger ones to think: “It’s because of her that I get scolded. Why should I become like her? Do you not love me the way I am?” Thoughts like these start gaining a foothold in the child’s mind and create negativity that may go unnoticed. Sometimes it gets noticed and reprimanded, which only worsens it. Unknowingly parents, under the idea of motivating the child, create a rivalry between the two. The one who is so-called ‘good’ gets a chance to tease the one that is so-called ‘not good’.

How to identify feelings of jealousy between siblings?

Some peculiar behaviours are indicative of the jealously children feel towards their sibling or other children.

  1. They are unable to tolerate that parents are praising other children, including their sibling. They may throw a tantrum in such a case or may sulk saying that parents do not love them.
  2. The child goes out of the way to point out the mistakes or negative points of those who s/he feels jealous of. At times, they could be fabricated stories.
  3. Child is unable to tolerate losing at games. S/he may either leave the game midway or disrupt the game by throwing away things.
  4. Such children leave no chance to show that they are better than others. For it, they may go beyond their usual capacity to please parents and display their superiority.
  5. They may either behave extra-good or excessively mischievous—the sole aim is to get attention.
  6. They may secretly or, at times, even openly display hostile/destructive behaviour towards the other child by pinching, hitting, hiding some important thing, tearing books or pages of the books or playing foul to cause some kind of harm to the other child. This may be discovered after some time and is a strong indicator of a deep-seated disturbance in the child’s emotional state.
  7. At times, they withdraw and may minimise interaction with others. Feelings of sadness and jealousy may lead to depression. They may also become indifferent to the other child and stop caring for her.
  8. Sometimes older children start behaving in a childish manner by sucking their thumbs, clinging to mothers and talking in a babble. This is done to attract special attention.
  9. At times, children come down with physical symptoms like—bed wetting, recurrent fever or vague pains, which may not be easy to explain or diagnose. They do not do this intentionally. It is a psychosomatic reaction to the stress they are experiencing inside but are unable to voice.

How do parents deal with jealousy?

One cannot deal with jealousy; we have to deal with the child. Another important thing to remember is—punishments do not work, they only worsen the disturbance of the child and increase aggressiveness. Approach the situation thinking of it as a fresh opportunity to re-bond with the child. Here’s how you can help her cope with her feelings and teach adaptive methods.

  1. Avoid comparison. Each individual is unique. Understand the child’s individuality, his/her strengths and weaknesses. Relate to the child as an individual rather than someone better or worse than others. Comparison between siblings or peers creates more negativity than motivation.
  2. Show your love. Express your love for the first child even after the arrival of the younger one. It is important to continue hugging, kissing and praising the child even though it may need a little extra effort. This will pay great dividends later.
  3. Take the child in. Involve the child in taking care of the younger sibling. Let her feel important and a part of the ‘elders’ that are responsible for the wellbeing of the little one. This automatically makes older children feel good and generates care and affection within.
  4. Teach ways to care. Show the child how to be gentle with the baby rather than keeping her away. Supervise and monitor her while she handles the younger one. Trusting older children with the younger one early, teaches them to be responsible. If you find them doing something to the younger ones that you don’t like, make it a point to understand what they were trying to do rather than shouting in panic. Often children have a good reason for their actions, only they may not know how to go about them the right way. It pays to teach them correct ways of expressing care and concern.
  5. Appreciate. It helps to praise their responsible behaviour. This boosts their sense of self and reduces the competition that they perceive from the other child.
  6. Attend equally. Children in the house should be as far as possible given equal time and attention. If a child is too young or sick, you might tend to attend to her needs more and expect the other child to understand. If it is communicated well instead of taking it for granted, the other sibling feels responsible and helps in management rather than creating a problem.

This was first published in the June 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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