Sibling rivalry can be defined as a sibling conflict, competition to vie for caregiver attention, or aggressive behavior between siblings. Although rivalry can occur between children, some siblings might experience it as adults and may not know how to proceed or find support. Family therapy, conflict resolution techniques, or individual counseling may be beneficial in these cases. These and other methods can help us to understand why these feelings come about. So, where does the thought “I hate my sister” and other aggressive emotions about our families come from?
"I Hate My Sister" And The Beginning Of Sibling Rivalry
According to child specialists Alexander K. D. Leung and Lane M. Robson, rivalry can occur between many siblings during childhood. This behavior might occur at a very young age, in some cases as early as two to three years old.
Regressive phenomena in children can include thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, emotional outbursts, baby talk, throwing fits at meals, and other forms of demands for attention. Children might also spend time running to their parents after a sibling argument or lying about a sibling's transgressions or comments.
The rivalry between adult siblings may include behavior like stonewalling, open aggression, arguments, cruelly manipulative behavior, or avoiding each other. Adult children might also vie for a parent's attention through work, accomplishments, or emotional needs.
Sibling rivalry may be caused when a child or adult feels they must compete for their parents' love and attention. This feeling might lead to animosity, which can grow over time. The perception that this parental favoritism exists might manifest early in a child's life, with dire effects if left unaddressed. For example, one study showed that siblings might have better relationships later in life if their parents did not partake in favoritism when they were younger.
Children who feel they must compete may seek parental attention through negative behaviors, such as lying, triangulating conversations, or bringing up conflicts. These conflicts can manifest in a number of ways, sometimes involving a child saying “I hate my sister” or even worse statements. These behaviors could cause mental health and behavioral challenges in children and teens and continue to have adverse effects in adulthood.
Researchers at Cornell University conducted multiple interviews with mothers and their adult children in a recent publication, who were asked about the following:
- Their emotional closeness
- Excessive arguing or conflict with a specific child
- The mother's expectations regarding which child will care for her if she becomes disabled or ill
Results demonstrated that only 15% of children felt they were treated equally by their parents compared to their siblings. In cases where the mother assigned a specific child the task of taking care of her, the children in the family showed more significant symptoms of depression. However, the children in the study didn't link their mental health directly to the perceived unequal treatment.
"It doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not; the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings," said Dr. Karl Pillemer, a professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "The less favored kids may have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling, and being the favored child brings resentment from one's siblings, as well as the added weight of greater parental expectations."
If you're an adult and feel resentment or hatred toward your sibling because of favoritism by one or both of your parents, it could be wise to contemplate the source of your ill feelings. Consider what occurred as a child and whether your feelings resulted from your sibling's behavior or how your parents treated you. If you're unsure how to proceed, consider the following techniques.
Analyze The Relationship With Your Sibling
Think about your relationships with your sibling. Do you feel that you had a better connection as children, or was your rivalry always an issue? Do you feel that your hatred means a lack of love, or are you feeling shame, hostility or anger? Do you have any pleasant memories with your sibling or feel they treat you poorly?
If your sibling's behavior toward you has been unhealthy, anger may be a natural response to being subjected to unhealthy behaviors. However, if you and your sibling have partaken in rivalry due to a family dynamic or pressure from your parents, you may benefit from repairing your relationship with your sibling and re-examining your connection with your parents.
Although it could be challenging to reconnect with a sibling after many years of conflict, a conversation could open the doors to a better and healthier connection. You might also find that you and your sibling bond over how you grew up and your efforts to try to heal from complex family dynamics.
If you or your sibling were a child who experienced favoritism, you might find that hostility comes from envy or jealousy. These feelings might be benefited by learning to accept and deal with your feelings, possibly through counseling.
Try Journaling Prompts
If you're struggling to understand how to proceed with your feelings, journaling has been proven to be a healthy way to release challenging emotions and achieve a higher level of understanding about yourself. You may realize you want to improve or change your relationships based on your journaling. If you're not sure what to write about, consider the following prompts:
- What are five aspects about my relationship with my sibling I feel fortunate for and five aspects I want to change?
- Are there any areas of our relationship or personalities that I haven't considered?
- How did our family life growing up impact my relationship with my sibling?
- Would I forgive them if they apologized to me?
- Am I avoiding the possibility of being friends with my sibling?
- Do I have any attachment-related concerns causing me to feel anger toward my sibling?
- Would a relationship with my sibling be healthy, meaningful, and beneficial overall?
- What steps would I take to feel comfortable repairing conflict with my other family members?
As you journal, try not to judge the thoughts that come to mind. Write everything down as it comes to you, and then leave it for a few days. Come back to it with a clear mind and consider what you've written. If you want to further the practice, write a list of 3-5 goals to change the situation you've written about.
Partake In Mindfulness Practice
Studies show that mindfulness practice can lower attachment-related anxiety and avoidant behaviors. If you are struggling to feel attached to family members, struggling to cope with certain aspects of your relationships due to your connection with your sibling, or feel anxious or avoidant about your relationship, consider the following exercise called self-soothing from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). To practice, find one activity to partake in for each of your five senses, like the following:
- Sight: Look at an album of photos, wear a beautiful outfit, put on makeup you enjoy, watch a film or TV show, people watch, look outside your window, go to a beautiful natural area, read a book
- Scent: To engage the sense of smell, light a candle or incense, smell a book, bake pleasant-smelling goods, cook an aromatic dinner with many spices, wash your clothes and smell them out of the dryer
- Sound: Listen to your favorite song or spoken word album, listen to a Spotify playlist, play white noise, listen to nature sounds
- Touch: Wear comfortable pajamas, change your bedsheets, wear slippers, pet your animals, hug someone you love, put on soothing lotion, partake in a facial routine, take a bath or shower with soaks
- Taste: Spend some time trying a new dessert, order takeout, eat a healthy snack, practice mindfulness with taste, try a new food
Consider When It May Be Time To End A Relationship
In some cases, working hard to heal family relationships may feel too challenging. If your family is treating you unkindly, disrespecting your boundaries, or acting with anger most of the time you interact, it may signify an unhealthy relationship. In these cases, it can be healthy to get some distance or even consider cutting contact.
Mental Health America defines a dysfunctional family as a family where conflict, misbehavior, or abuse is present. If you're struggling to decide whether certain relationships or friendships are unhealthy, you might also consider family or individual therapy to discuss your options. If you believe that you may have a mental health condition relating to your family dynamics, you may want to consult a licensed clinical psychologist.
If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
Try Family Therapy
Family therapy may allow you and your siblings a safe and therapeutic location to discuss your rivalry, conflict, or any hurts from your life together. If they are willing to go, consider meeting for a couple of sessions to see how it might benefit you.
A therapist is a neutral mediator that can monitor your conversation without judgment or favoritism. In some cases, individuals might also bring their parents. However, if you don't feel an entire group session would be beneficial, you can attend with just your sibling.
Individual counseling may also benefit you if you feel your family relationships are affecting your peace of mind or ability to function. If you face barriers to treatment, such as a busy career or difficulty finding time to commute, you can also try online counseling. Research has found that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy. Whether you want to talk about your siblings, work on coping strategies for family gatherings, or want a space to be yourself, a therapist can help you find a healthy resolution. You can also chat with a specialist about any relationships, even if they don’t have to do with your family. That includes a relationship with a partner, or interpersonal issues you are having with colleagues at work.
You can choose between video, phone, and live chat sessions with online counseling. If you're interested in signing up, platforms like BetterHelp offer direct connection to a growing database of counselors specializing in various topics, including family rivalry and trauma.
If you require a crisis hotline or want to learn more about therapy, please see below:
RAINN(Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) – 1-800-656-4673
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline– 1-800-273-8255
National Domestic Violence Hotline– 1-800-799-7233
NAMI Helpline (National Alliance on Mental Illness) – 1-800-950-6264
For more information on mental health, please see:
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health),
APA (American Psychiatric Association)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are a few frequently asked questions on the subject of sibling rivalries.
How Do You Deal With A Mean Little Sibling?
Young children are often still learning emotional control, healthy behaviors, and empathy. If your sibling is a child and lives with your parents, but you no longer do, they might be struggling with living alone or watching their adult siblings leave home. It is also possible that they are picking up behaviors from your parents. Try to respond with patience, kindness, and empathy.
If your younger sibling is an adult, consider meeting up to talk. You could choose a potentially less emotionally charged environment like a restaurant or a café. Try to come into the conversation with patience. If your sibling is unwilling or continues to be unkind, consider reaching out to a therapist for further support.
How Do You Discipline Siblings That Fight As A Parent?
When discussing rivalry with children, try not to yell. The New York Times shows that yelling at your children can negatively impact their mental health. You can also offer the children a project or problem to solve together. Teamwork may help them feel more connected. If conflicts arise, discuss them and be a mediator.
Consider encouraging your children to take a break when angry. Let them know it can be okay to take time alone and return to a conversation when they feel ready to talk.
How Do I Get My Sibling To Stop Being Jealous?
Sibling jealousy may happen when one sibling feels they aren't treated fairly compared to another sibling. If your sibling is jealous of you, try to understand where they might be coming from. For example, if your sibling is distant from your parents, but you have a close relationship with them, ask yourself whether your sibling may be distancing themselves out of an attempt to care for their mental health.
Although your relationship with your parents may feel healthy, there could have been a different dynamic with your sibling. The Survey Center on American Life found that 70% of those who felt their parents favorited the other sibling went on not to have a close relationship with their siblings as adults.
How Often Do Siblings Argue?
Siblings may argue from time to time. Frequent arguments may not be healthy, but a few arguments could be standard for some families.
Is It Normal For Siblings To Hit Each Other?
Physical violence between adults is considered abuse, even in familial relationships. If children hit each other, this behavior might be stopped through family therapy or individual child counseling.
Is Sibling Fighting Normal?
If your sibling has hurt you, or if you are a parent of children who fight, ask yourself the following questions to determine if what is occurring could be considered sibling violence:
Is there a pattern of physical aggression?
Is the fighting meant to inflict harm?
Are aggressive acts motivated by a need for power and control?
Is one sibling commonly the victim?
How often does sibling fighting occur?
How long do the fights last?
You may benefit from family therapy or family coaching if your children are engaging in sibling violence.
How do you deal with a hurtful sister?
How do you deal with a selfish sister?
What causes a toxic sister?
What does a toxic sister do?
How do you live with a difficult sister?
How can I deal with a jealous sister?
What to do when your sisters ignore you?
Should I cut off my toxic sister?
How to ignore your sister?
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