The Psychology Of Sibling Rivalry

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At the beginning of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, we see Moses and Ramses – the two sons of the pharaoh of Egypt – fighting side by side against a horde of marauders. The stage is set for a story of sibling love and friendship.

Except, of course, that’s not how it happened. Moses had been adopted by the pharaoh and the complicated relationship between the future Biblical hero and his Egyptian brother disintegrated, leading to plagues, mass revolt and the parting of a certain sea.

One of the main problems that Moses and Ramses had was they were brothers. A 1970 study called ‘The Sibling’ by Brian Sutton-Smith and B.G. Rosenberg found that sibling rivalry is particularly strong between brothers, especially if they are close in age. In 1968, Bert Adams’ research discovered there was more jealousy and competition between two boys.

But why? Surely they should love and respect each other and welcome their sibling’s achievements, regardless of gender? Not if there’s a sense of dethronement said Alfred Adler in 1959, which is exactly the case in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’. Ramses is the biological son and rightful heir, but his father favours Moses, seeing him as more regal, a better man. Any older sibling who’s been slightly ignored when a younger brother or sister comes along will know the feeling.

You’ll be pleased to know that intense sibling rivalry is not a given. Purdue University psychologist Victor Cicirelli surveyed a group of middle-aged adults in 1981 and only 2% said they frequently envied their siblings, while 93% rarely did.

Where it gets to the levels experienced by Ramses and Moses – the former decides to murder the latter, encouraged rather terrifyingly by his mother – sibling rivalry can be brutal, unequivocal and disappointing to the rest of the family. Izzy Kalman writes in Psychology Today about the misuse of the term “rivalry”, which she believes can be treated too lightly. Siblings argue, she suggests, so parents and social scientists call it rivalry and ignore it.

She contends that everything about so-called usual sibling rivalry is unhealthy and parents need to nip it in the bud. After all, if a kid at school was bullying and tormenting your child on a daily basis, wouldn’t you do something about it? Why should that be different if the bully is your child’s brother or sister?

It may be “normal” for siblings to fight over access to the Xbox or about which TV show to watch, but if you’re not careful that can escalate and in some extreme cases, last people’s entire lives.

A 2012 study in the Child Development Journal by scientists at the University of Missouri noted it is up to parents to keep an eye on conflicts, drawing up a schedule to make sure all children in the family are given and equal footing in the home. If not, say the findings, children are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety later in life.

Nicole Campione-Barr told The Daily Mail, “Our results show that conflicts about violations of personal space and property are associated with greater anxiety and lower self-esteem one year later. Conflicts over issues of equality and fairness are correlated to greater depression one year later.”

This parental responsibility can be difficult, not because they don’t love all of their children equally, but because, as Victor Cicirelli notes, children within a family “may receive qualitatively different parenting”. In other words, a third-born child will naturally not get as much attention as a baby than his or her older brother, simply because of time. An older daughter may already be at school by the time her little sister comes along, which may mean she’s treated more like an adult than she would if she was an only child. As Cicirelli writes, “From birth on, an infant may be treated differently by parents and others depending on its position in the sibling structure of the family.”

Inevitably, these relationships change over time. The battle for the Playstation won’t be so intense when both brothers have their own iPhone. And when siblings edge towards puberty, closeness can intensify as they come to terms with their sexuality. They may not want to ask mom or dad how to snog a girl, but they may not mind asking their brother.

Then again:

Brother 1: “Is that Georgina Slater sitting over there?”

Brother 2: “She’s so gorgeous, I’m going to talk to her.”

Brother 1: “No, you’re not. I am.”

Brother 2: “I said it first.”

Brother 1: “But I’m older. She’d never fancy you.”

Brother 2: “I hate you.”

Perhaps Moses and Ramses isn’t so difficult to understand.