Sibling Rivalry


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A patient of mine has just had a baby and her three year old exploded. This beautiful, highly intelligent, social child, now, doesn’t want to go to his half-day nursery school, refuses playdates and screams at his mother that she’s a doody head and he hates her and he doesn’t even want to look at the baby – why can’t they give him back? The mother, a very sensitive, caring, smart woman, who has been prepared for this, nevertheless, does not quite believe it and struggles daily and hourly with her rage, her frustration, her impatience at her older child and her fantasy that he will embrace this sibling with love and delight.

Why should he? Eda le Shan once came to speak at my school, when I was a young teacher, on the subject of sibling rivalry. “Suppose,” she said, “that your husband came home one day and said, “honey, I love you so much and I have so much love to give that I’ve gotten myself a second wife. What do you imagine you would feel and think?” We quickly got the point. And we were grown-ups. Children think in terms of splits and absolutes. A child who has been king or queen of the household for 2 or 3 years – who has reigned supreme and has been the apple of everyone’s eye does not understand why that isn’t enough and why it can’t continue forever. “If you love me so much and I’m so special and wonderful, why is that not enough? Why do you need another child? If you’re having another child, it’s because I’m not enough, I’m not special and wonderful, I’m not loveable, I’m bad and you’ll give all your love and “goodies” to the new child and I’ll be abandoned and have nothing and, maybe, not even anyone to look after me and I’ll die.”

Children who are presented with brothers and sisters may be curious and delighted but they will also be jealous, angry, scared, worried, powerless and frustrated.

Not all of them will present in the overt way that the little boy did in the story. Some of them might show only love and helpfulness but suddenly, there are nightmares, a new need for the bottle or the nipple, a desire to sleep in the parents’ bed, a shadowing of mother wherever she goes and tantrums when parents leave the house. In these scenarios feelings have been repressed and are being “acted”-out in symptoms and behaviors.

Sometimes, the feelings are so repressed that they don’t emerge until years later. One of my colleagues recounts that her older daughter received the new baby as a hostess does a guest, treated her with patience and gentility and showed her off to all the company as a precious object d’art. Twenty years later, with no understandable scenario, she is not speaking to her sister. Another colleague relates how surprised she was that her son showed no hostility when the new baby came. Three years later, she walked into the children’s’ room to find that her son had put a helmet on her daughter’s head and was hitting her helmet with a baseball bat and screaming, “Who needed you? Who needed you?”