Sibling Rivalry: The Poisonous Tie That Binds

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I recently started watching the television series Downton Abbey, and I am completely hooked. As one of three girls in my family, I particularly enjoy the portrayals of the three aristocratic Crawley daughters. From the first episode, an all-too common undercurrent rears its head and continues to factor into the actions and emotions of the characters. Lady Edith, the rather plain and colorless middle daughter, finds herself completely overshadowed by the older Lady Mary and the younger Lady Sybil, both of whom outshine her. In one scene, after her mother lavishes praise on Lady Sybil for her triumphant success as a debutante, Lady Edith whines “You never say those things about me.”

Ah, yes. Sibling rivalry. Jealousy at its most personal.

It shouldn’t surprise us that sibling rivalry is so common in families. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, Cain’s jealousy of the approval God gave to his brother Abel’s sacrifice led him to commit murder.. Jacob schemed against his older brother Esau to steal his birthright, leading to years of estrangement and bitterness. The jealousy of Joseph’s brothers resulted in them plotting to murder him before Judah’s cooler head prevailed – he convinced his vengeful brothers that selling Joseph into slavery would result in less blood on their own hands.

While the sibling rivalry that exists among our own children is hopefully not quite that extreme, it does exist, even in the most loving families. It can be a frustrating dynamic for parents to navigate, but there are a few steps we can take to help minimize the potential for serious discord and foster healthy appreciation for brothers and sisters.

First, we must acknowledge that sibling rivalry exists among our own children, even if we are not dealing with obvious indications of that fact. It’s tempting to believe, in the absence of any evidence, that no such problem exists – after all, we certainly don’t want to borrow trouble. But in this case, it’s much better to assume and be proven wrong than to turn a blind eye and then be blindsided.

Looking back on our own experiences is a helpful way to start. We can probably all remember at least a few times growing up when we were just sure that brother or sister was definitely our parents’ favorite child. They got away with something we would never have gotten away with. We grew sick of hearing about how smart/athletic/beautiful/funny/kind/perfect-in-every-way our sibling was. For those of us who grew up watching television in the ‘70’s, the image of a jealous Jan whining “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is burned into our brains.

We must also understand that our kids have rather fragile egos. Childhood and adolescence is a time of discovering who we are and how we fit into the worlds where we find ourselves: social, academic, and familial, as well as God’s family. While their emotional intelligence is a daily work-in-progress, kids aren’t there yet, and since the natural, sinful tendency is to filter every word and experience through the lens of “self,” they frequently find it difficult to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Secondly, we must actively appreciate the differences in our kids. “Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3 NLT) Each child is blessed with traits and personalities that are both unique and essential for use in God’s kingdom. I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I have looked at one another in amazement and asked, “How is it possible that three kids with the same parents could all be so different?”

Perhaps one kid is easygoing, and the other is …well, a bit more high-maintenance. For us as parents, it’s nice to be able to relax a bit with Miss Sunshine even as we are always on our toes dealing with Mr. Drama’s latest fiasco. However, Miss Sunshine might interpret our extra attention to her brother as evidence that we care more about him and his problems than we care about her. Meanwhile, Mr. Drama is fully convinced that his happy-go-lucky sister is his parents’ favorite because she never seems to get in trouble.

The truth is that it’s almost impossible to appear completely “fair” when dealing with kids.. We nurture and train up each child in the way that suits his or her personality and reflects our thoughtful consideration of their strengths. While we may grow tired of the constant battles with our headstrong son, his persistent nature may serve him well during his medical residency. And Miss Sunshine’s amiable personality may be the reflection of a heart that is always seeking to show Jesus’ love to those around her.

It helps to demonstrate our awareness of their unique gifts. It goes without saying that we should be always careful to never show overt favoritism to one child. (Perhaps if Jacob had realized the problems that one beautiful robe would cause, he would have thought twice about giving Joseph such a lavish gift.) Comparisons between siblings are natural, but they can be extremely unfair and ultimately hurtful. We should be intentional in encouraging our kids in their unique giftedness and equally determined to stay away from any hint of “why aren’t you more like your sister?”

Simply tell your kids what actions and attitudes they display that you admire. “Kind words are like honey – sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” (Proverbs 16:24 NLT) Be specific: “I really appreciate all the housework you’ve done while I’ve been with Grandma at the hospital,” or “it makes me proud to see how kind you are to all your classmates” can go a long way in showing your teen your love. They may roll their eyes when you tell them, but they hear it. And they appreciate it.

Finally, we should remember that God himself doesn’t play favorites (Romans 2:11). He loves each of his children equally. When we resolve to parent as our heavenly Father does, we demonstrate that our love for our kids is unchanging as well. Reinforcing this idea with your kids assures them that even when they feel a bit overlooked, God’s love for them is as strong as ever.

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