Chana Hughes

Family Matters: ‘It’s not fair!’: How to survive the battles between siblings

Whether children complain about their siblings having more devices, screen time, money, trips or attention, jealousy seems par for the course in most families, especially when children are close in age


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August 26, 2022 15:27

We are coming towards the final summer bank holiday with a new school term on the horizon.

If you are a family with more than one child, it is likely that you have heard the cry “it’s not fair” multiple times over the past few weeks. Whether children complain about their siblings having more devices, screen time, money, trips or attention, jealousy seems part of the course in most families, especially when children are close in age.

In psychological literature, perceived parental unequal treatment of siblings has been a key factor in individuals’ low sense of self-worth as well as strained sibling relationships that run into adulthood.

Surprisingly, the detrimental effects of perceived parental favouritism has an impact on all children, not just the unfavoured ones. So, should parents listen to their children’s complaints rather than dismiss them?

Should parents work around individual needs and aim to treat all their children fairly or is this unrealistic?

Whenever high levels of sibling rivalry are present in a family I become curious. I wonder what the complaining child is trying to express when he notices that his siblings get more?

What is his/her dissatisfaction about and why does he/she have trouble verbalising it? I think about how complaining mobilises the parent-child dynamic. Sometimes children complain only to one parent.

If so, why might this be the case and how does the complaining fit in with the rest of their relationship?

Perhaps the child senses that this particular complaint provokes a strong emotive response in the parent and is looking for more intensity or connection in their relationship.

Does the family have a particular communication style that the child is mirroring, such as being overly critical?

Or significant dissatisfaction between the parents? My focus is not to find fault in the wider system but rather to notice the function of the sibling competition in the family dynamics rather than be distracted by the content of the complaints.

In some families, complaints about sibling favourites is an attempt to shift the balance of power.

This is particularly common during adolescence, when children need to exert their own authority as their independence emerges.

By telling their parents how to treat the other siblings, a child might be trying to claim some parental authority and flatten the parent-child hierarchy.

Although it is important to hear teenagers out and to validate their views, it is also vital to retain the parental position.

This includes making executive decisions about how to distribute resources and privileges in the family. Although teenagers have become quasi-adults, research shows that they feel safer when contained by well-managed and positive parent-set boundaries.

Adolescents whose parents sway to their every move end up feeling less empowered, rather than more so.

Sometimes, high levels of competitiveness between siblings supports an underlying belief that the parents are unable to fully attend to all their children’s needs.

When there are limited resources, this evokes panic about how the resources are distributed and children feel that they have to fight for their own needs.

Parents need to make decisions in the family with the confidence that they have each child’s wellbeing and welfare as their primary concern. With this in place, different treatment is less likely to be perceived as favouritism.

Looking more closely, when a sister complains about her brother getting preferential treatment, it is often a way of expressing her own yearning for more parental connection, a request that involves high levels of vulnerability and articulation to express directly. For this reason, rather than respond by trying to “balance the books” between siblings, it is more effective to think about each child individually and consider their unmet needs.

These needs could be informed by treatment of other siblings but are not caused by it.

For example, if parents tend to give lots of hugs and kisses to younger children and then hear an older son complain about how they always get their way, parents can consider how their teenaged son might need more tangible displays of affection.

Similarly, if a parent shares interests with one particular sibling and the others become jealous, parents can think together about how they can connect more to the children with whom they have less in common.

A historic study by researchers Ross and Milgram put it best when they said: “When more becomes better, rivalry ensues”.

If parents work together to think through their children’s different needs and are confident that they can attend to each of them, they won’t get ruffled when their children complain.

Instead, they can respond with empathy, thoughtfulness and a unique, individually tailored plan for each sibling.

August 26, 2022 15:27

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