Sibling Rivalry: Finding Your Place in the Family

Most parents don’t realize that there is a dynamic interaction between siblings to find a place in the family. That is what sibling rivalry is all about. Jan’s mother, Ellen, wonders why her daughter struggles persist. “She has so much potential. Why doesn’t she use it?”

The answer, of course, is that she might encroach on her brother, Kevin’s place in the family. She cannot bring herself to do that. She has found a place in the family and she hates it, but to Jan, a negative place in the family is better than no place at all. Jane’s parents, of course, have no intention of removing her from the family.

Unfortunately they have no way of knowing that their child is susceptible to these absurd, but painful expectations that she will be abandoned and rejected. So Jan prefers to fail rather than face the even worse pain of not belonging in the family at all. She has no idea that there is a third choice, to live as a worthwhile human being with an independent identity.

Ellen: “Why can’t she have a good role too?”
Therapist: “Because it seems to her that one good role isn’t big enough for the both of them. If, for instance, she set out to be as good a student as her older brother, she would run the risk of beating her brother at his own game. She might feel guilty if she succeeded at her brother’s expense. On the other hand, she might be setting herself up for a humiliating failure. Her brother has a two-year head start. How can she hope to catch up? She solves the problem and avoids these disasters by competing indirectly ‑ choosing an arena that has been left open to her.”

Ellen: “Like athletics.”
Therapist: “Like athletics, or music or some other niche where she feels she can compete successfully.”

Ellen: “That sounds reasonable, but does that always happen?”
Therapist: “Not every child follows that model. Sometimes, if the second child sees weakness in the first-born, they go into overdrive. They outdo the older sibling and become more successful in a particular field, or even across the board. The overtaken first born often becomes discouraged and stops trying.”

Ellen: “This is getting complicated.”
Therapist: “It’s been complicated all along. It helps to have a general idea of what is going on. Most parents don’t.”

Ellen: “I certainly didn’t. But what happened to my Jan? She didn’t surpass anybody.”
Therapist: “Your Jan has become very discouraged, and she succumbed early. She could not catch up to Kevin in the goodness department. She could not be as obedient, as considerate, as neat as he was, so she solved the problem as best she could solve it at the age of three. She gave up trying to be `first best’; instead, she opted for the role of `first worst.’”

Ellen: “Well, she made it. That’s the truth.”
Therapist: “She could not succeed positively, so she succeeded negatively.”

Ellen: “I didn’t know that there were two kinds of success.”
Therapist: “Now you do, and the second kind is stunting Jan. It is making her life painful.”

Ellen: “Why is that?”
Therapist: “She would much rather find a happy, productive path through life, but that path is already taken. She feels compelled to take the other path, the unhappy, destructive one, and she hates it. No one ever told her that there were other choices. She is stuck now with a `solution’ that she came up with when she was too young to solve such problems. We have to put her on a better track.”

Ellen: “How can we do that?”
Therapist: “By telling the truth, for one thing”

Ellen: “I always tell the truth.”
Therapist: “Not when you say to Jan, `Why can’t you be more like your brother, Kevin.’ That is not telling the truth. That is telling her over and over that she is unacceptable until she becomes someone she is not. It creates a painful, eginmatic problem for her.”

Ellen: “I only wanted her to follow his example so that she could be happy and well-adjusted.”
Therapist: “You meant well, but this good intention of yours was entirely counter-productive. It made Jan worse instead of better.”

Ellen: ” Have I been insulting Jan all these years? I didn’t even know it.”
Therapist: “It’s not your fault, if that’s what you’re thinking. You were merely uninformed. We have no time for self‑blame, either. Your daughter needs you to set an example of self-respect for her to follow as fast as you can.”

Ellen: “How can I start being a better model for her?”
Therapist: “You can tell her that even though Jan is playing the role of first worst, you are not going to abandon her. You love and accept her as an imperfect human being in spite of this absurd state of affairs.”

Ellen: “It is absurd, isn’t it.” Therapist: “Let her see that you are an imperfect human being in spite of your faults and imperfections in raising her.”
Ellen: “What else can I say?”

Therapist: “You can say to Jan, `It’s hard having a smart older brother, isn’t it?’”
Ellen: “She already knows that.”

Therapist: “But she doesn’t know that you know it! It’s time you took her side and showed some empathy for her difficult position.”

Ellen: “I never thought of it that way. She hasn’t had an easy time of it, has she? And I’ve been making it harder.”
Therapist: “Let’s see what happens to her discouragement when you stop.”

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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