SIBLING RIVALRY
AND WHY EVERYONE
(AND NOT ONLY PARENTS)
SHOULD CARE ABOUT THIS AGE-OLD PROBLEM

by
William Antonio Boyle, Ph.D.

Part 2 (Back to Index-Part 1)

[En español]


COMPLICATING FACTORS

         One of the factors that greatly tends to complicate these problems is that these patterns of behavior or schemas are recorded into each child's mind when they are still so young.  At this time the mind is still in its formative period, so these schemas become a part of the child's PRE-conscious mind (and this lays the foundations for all kinds of "destructive psychological games" in later life).  The fact that these schemas are "pre-conscious" means that the child (or adult) is usually not aware of when he or she expresses them, and if he or she should become aware of them, he or she will perceive them as a completely "natural" way of acting and being.  It has to be this way, as it is by means of such pre-conscious structures that each mind builds its conscious thoughts.

         As the child grows and develops socially, these ready-made schemas will be used within his or her peer group, with his or her friends and schoolmates.  And, when the child reaches adult life, he or she will use these same destructive schemas with his or her social or business associates and subordinates, and eventually with his or her spouse and his or her own children. 

         So, the emotional environment existing within the family during each child's first years of life has important "delayed effects" with respect to his or her behavior with others in adult life.  Even worse, these destructive schemas and effects are passed on from generation to generation.

         For example, a girl-child who feels hate and fury when her new sibling is born, is likely to feel the same way, as an adult, when her own children are born.  Children are emotionally quite perceptive.  A child that feels that even his own mother doesn't love him or her, will in turn have difficulty in forming loving relationships.  A boy-child that feels hated or victimized by his mother can very easily develop a hatred towards most or ALL women, and when reaching adulthood he may try to subconsciously seek revenge from his mother by becoming, say, a rapist or a physical or verbal abuser, specially of those women that in one way or another remind him of his mother (Now, it is NOT that the boy consciously thinks and decides:  "I hate my mother so I'm going to become a rapist or an abuser."  What actually happens is that he feels an inexplicable but irresistible compulsion to hurt and diminish certain women.  These are examples of psychological transference, in which the emotional response caused in the individual by one person is transferred to an apparently unrelated person - the relation between these two persons exists within the individual's subconscious mental structure - and that is how the subconscious mind works).

        Parents that harbor such subconscious hate and fury may also express these in various forms of child abuse or neglect.  It is probable that all the children from such families (in which one or both of the parents subconsciously hate their children, as a result of the sibling rivalry that they, the PARENTS, suffered during THEIR childhood) will also have serious emotional problems (as children AND as adults).

         Sibling rivalry has another important "delayed effect."  Even when the problem is serious, its effects may not become clearly apparent until the children reach adolescence.  This means that this problem may exist for many years within the family without the parents becoming aware of it.  It is only until the child's mind begins to mature, between twelve and twenty years of age, that the hate and fury that have been bottled up inside during so many years begin to manifest as destructive behaviors against him or herself and others.  By this time it is much more difficult to find solutions to the problem.

         Another important factor in the development of this problem is the difference in age between consecutive siblings.  This is because one simply CANNOT reason with a child of less than about three years of age.  A child this age simply does NOT have either the language or the capacity for logical reasoning.  This means that for a child less than three years of age, no matter how hard the parents try to explain the need for him or her to love and care for the new brother or sister, the only thing this older child will understand is his or her frustration and anger with the arrival of this new intruder in the family.

         On the other hand, it is relatively easy to include a child that is older than three in the preparations for the arrival of the new baby.  The parents can build up his or her excitement for this wonderful event, and convince him or her of how useful he or she is going to be to them in helping to care for the newborn.  The older child will certainly still feel the big change, but now the parents can talk and reason with him or her, which greatly diminishes the level of stress within the family, the intensity of the resentment felt towards the new baby, and the expression of that resentment in harmful behaviors.

         Another factor which complicates this problem is when the parents, for whatever reason (work obligations, lack of appropriate social or personal values and priorities) have to leave their young children alone at home.  Without the parents' supervision, there is nothing to stop the aggressivity of ones against the others, and events can quickly escalate to levels that can provoke resentments that can last a lifetime.  As a general rule, children younger than twelve should not be left alone.  The TV is most emphatically NOT an adequate substitute for the supervision of a responsible adult.

         An additional factor that greatly complicates this problem is the occurrence of family traumas or tragedies (the death of one or both of the parents, or their divorce or separation), which leave only one or none of the parents in charge of raising their children.  These family traumas may occur because of war, sickness, accidents, and other natural or social disasters.  In such cases the parents simply do not have the opportunity to teach their children about how to avoid the problems of sibling rivalry (or to teach them many other bits and pieces of information which are useful and necessary for day-to-day life) and so then, when these children grow up and in turn form their own families, they don't have the necessary knowledge to avoid the development of this rivalry among THEIR children.  It may take several generations to overcome the effects of ONE of these family tragedies.

         In contrast, the most important factors for the development of good sibling relationships (and for the mental health of children in general) are the parents' knowledge of basic parenting skills, their desire to apply these knowledge and skills, and that they have the time and opportunity to apply them with their children. It is when the parents' knowledge, skills, desire or opportunity are lacking that birth spacing, sibling gender, temperament, and other potentially negative factors become increasingly important.
 

THE HUMAN MENTAL STRUCTURE

             What has been discussed so far can also be deduced from some principles on the organization of the human mental structure.  These principles or premises are relatively self-evident truths about the human mind that can be useful in deciding which actions may nurture the mental health of children (See also Stent, 1972).
           Some of these principles are the following:

1.  "The most complex structure in the known universe is each human mind."
            Modern science, even with all its spectacular recent advances, is only just beginning to understand this intricate structure (See, e.g., Pinker, 1998, 2002).  The human mind is a structure that, with the proper environment and preparation, is capable of discovering the answers to the mysteries of the universe, designing rocketships to go to the moon, creating beautiful works of art, or solving the multiple problems of day-to-day life - and producing abundance of riches (on the other hand, with an inadequate preparation, it is also quite capable of scheming to bring about misery, pain and destruction, in a small or a large scale).  So then, each human child is the most complex structure in the known universe.  This should give an idea of the reverence and awe with which parents and educators should look at each child.

2.  "The human mental structure is primarily a product of the constantly changing environment in which it is evolving.  The most important parts of this environment are its informational and emotional aspects."
            This does not mean that the genetic, biological and physical aspects of the environment are not important.  It is just that these last are usually not under the parents' control.  On the other hand, the parents generally can have considerable influence on the informational and emotional aspects of the child's environment.

            This principle has at least two corollaries:
           a)  "All the environments in which all children have developed have at least some similarities, so all human mental structures will also have some similarities" (which means that even the most different people will have at least some points in common) and,
           b)  "No two environments are exactly alike, so no two human mental structures will be exactly alike" (and vice-versa, even the most identical people will have some differences).

            As noted previously, each successive child in the family has less access to his or her parents' exclusive one-on-one time. Also, he or she will be influenced by the presence of his or her previous siblings, at their respective stages of mental and physical development.
           Additionally, the parental influence each successive child receives will reflect the fact that the parents also evolve and change with time.
            All of these factors contribute to differences in the mental structures of siblings - therefore, it cannot be expected that siblings will have very similar mental structures only because they were raised within the "same" family environment.

3.  "The human mental structure is self-organizing."
            This is a biological, neurological, and psychological fact.  On the one hand, the development of the underlying structures of the mind that allow concepts to be acquired follows a well-defined sequence, with later developmental stages allowing the acquisition of concepts of increasing complexity and abstraction (See for example, the works of Piaget).  And then, the development of the mental structure itself is sequential and arborescent:  The concepts that are acquired first determine its subsequent development by allowing or not the further acquisition of related concepts.  And, environmental factors can accelerate, delay, or obstruct the development of the underlying structures and of the mental structure itself (This has been well-established by Lev Vygotsky's research work during the 1920s and 30s - See, e.g., Berk and Winsler, 1995).  Also, the emotional context in which a concept is acquired will largely determine if that concept will be used as a starting point for the acquisition of related concepts - See, e.g., Vail, 1994

           In addition, as is well-known, human children will imitate social behaviors they observe in others around them. If these behaviors are incorporated at an early enough stage, they will easily be taken as "natural" by the child as he or she grows up. And then, it is easy to fall into the fallacy that "if I feel this is a natural behavior, and I observe it in others, then it IS the only possible natural behavior (for this type of social situation)." An obvious counterexample question is this: Are there ANY human beings that exhibit different behavior patterns in this type of social situations?  If there are, then this means that, NO, this is NOT the only possible natural behavior pattern, it is only ONE of several or many possible behavior patterns (for any certain type of social situation)  - See, e.g, Rivalry Behavior in Dogs
           This indicates the importance of the factors present in the early environments, because any later organization will necessarily proceed from those.  (Also note the dangers of trying to derive moral values from examples in nature - as animals do not have morals, but human beings should).

4.  "After a certain short initial period, the most important factor in the environment of any particular individual is that very same individual, which is to say, his or her mental structure."
            That is, the factors present in the child's early environment are more important than the factors of later environments.  This indicates the great importance of the emotional factors present in the family environment in which the child is raised, e.g., love, caring, attention, approval (or their lack), on the eventual adult mental structure of that child.  This also indicates the importance of the presence of siblings in that environment, and their emotional attitude towards their new brother or sister.

5.  "All children are egocentric."
            This means that, for each particular child the center of the universe is that very same child, and his or her most important goal is his or her own satisfaction.  In other words, during the early development of their mental structure, ALL children are INCAPABLE of thinking (and therefore of truly behaving) unselfishly.  Erich Fromm, the renowned psychologist, considers that this initial egocentric stage lasts at least through age eight.  This doesn't mean that children cannot pretend or imitate unselfish behavior, which they will do to obtain their parents' or caregiver's approval.  And in fact, it is these early trials at unselfish behavior that create the bases for true cooperative behavior later in life.

6.  "Every child will tend towards self-individuation."
            This means that each child will tend to develop capabilities that are DIFFERENT from those he or she sees in the persons around him or her, specially those of his or her siblings.

Continues in Part 3

[Back to Index-Part 1]


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Copyright © 1999-2009, All rights reserved, by William Antonio Boyle.
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