"My brother, Tom, and I get along fine when we are alone or together with our wives. But I dread semi-annual family gatherings, with all the hidden agendas operating. I guess putting my parents, Tom, my other brother Harold, my sister Sara and I in the same pot creates a volatile mixture!"
Jenny, a single mother and computer operator, seemed contented with lifestyle. However, last January, after returning from a family gathering during the holidays, she was appeared reflective, somber. Reluctant to talk about it, she did admit that her sister, Nancy, married to a senior engineer and, herself, a graduate student in astrophysics, is the center of the universe to her parents.
To every young child, his parents are the center of the universe. They are the source of nourishment, approval and security. Tensions arise when a child finds out he or she is not the only "planet" out there. Inevitably, that child must share parental attention with siblings. This rivalry exists both for boys and girls, but is generally stronger when siblings are of the same sex, thereby possessing similar interests and needs. Frequently, this sort of competition for parental attention decreases as children mature and develop powerful resources that enhance their self-images and foster feelings of independence from those parents.
However, for too many individuals, sibling rivalry continues into adulthood. The conflicts established during their youth can cause a lifelong pattern of hostility that hampers their ability to enjoy rewarding family relationships. In some cases, hostilities may occur so frequently that they lead to certain family members severing communication from others for extended periods of time. More often, adult siblings, still competing for parental attention, can relate amiably as long as they live primarily separate lives. But when they gather with the family-- especially if this includes their parents, still the center of the universe-- life becomes a series of eclipses. Siblings each experience others as obstacles blocking the path to a parent. The gathering becomes an occasion to display stressful dynamics-- the hidden agendas behind their communications.
Some of the occasions seem to trigger stressful responses among perceived rivals include: Birthdays, holidays, weddings, anniversaries, parental illness, decisions related to parental ageing that affect living arrangements and death. How does sibling rivalry get started? Although most parents attempt to avoid or extinguish sibling rivalry by attempting to provide equal amounts of love and guidance to their children, they sometimes unwittingly favor one or more siblings for a variety of reasons. One child may be cuter, smarter, more compliant, more independent, more creative, and so forth. As the favored child gets more attention, the less-favored may develop intensely negative feelings toward that first child while still attempting-- often in vain-- to win more approval from his parents. That pattern is cleverly illustrated in the t.v. comedy, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
These patterns that are established during childhood are then reinforced through repeated encounters during adolescence and adulthood. How can siblings avoid unpleasant encounters and learn to enjoy each other and their parents? Learn to communicate more effectively. This involves one party clearly stating what specific behavior of another is at issue, and then suggesting the type of change that would be acceptable; and vice versa. This will allow siblings to clearly identify the source of the problem.
A less stressful environment may facilitate this process. For recurrent occasions, try to avoid the ingredients that seem anchored to tension. Hold the gathering elsewhere-- in a restaurant, for example, where family members will be less likely to repeat old patterns. If parental favoritism is the real cause of hostilities, acknowledge it and discuss it. But don't expect parents-- especially elderly ones-- to change their behavior drastically. Sibling rivalry is a problem between children, and most parents are reluctant to admit they show favoritism. Moreover, it’s unrealistic to expect them to change a lifetime of behavior. Thus, it is more useful for children to accept their parents as they are and resolve problems among themselves.