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Mom loves me better!

How to deal with sibling rivalry

When Billy Carter was just 6, his brother Jimmy joined the Navy. Billy and his father were close, and many people assumed Billy would take over his dad’s business when he grew up. But when Billy was 16, Earl Carter died and Jimmy came home to keep the business on its feet. A PBS show on Jimmy Carter’s life reported that Billy was “mad as hell.” As he entered adult life, Billy’s life choices were shaped by sibling rivalry. Seventeen-year-old Billy married his girlfriend and joined the Marines. Little did he know that Jimmy was destined for the White House. Most siblings don’t have to endure public scrutiny of the heart of their relationships. But many enter adulthood in need of healing and forgiveness.

Childhood patterns continue into adulthood.

In Brothers and Sisters, Jane Mersky Leder notes that reality is “filtered through yesterday’s memories.” One-third of the adults she interviewed reported a sibling relationship characterized by rivalry or emotional distance. This unhealthy style of interaction emerges over time, with parental behavior influencing the filters that children create. Siblings observe how parents treat each child and, if parents make comparisons, the tendency toward rivalry is enhanced. Some statements encourage communication: “This is a lower grade than you got last term, what do you think was different in math class this time?” Other comments set the stage for sibling rivalry: “Your sister never got a score this low, why can’t you study like she does?”

Facilitate positive interactions.

When our children were young, we started “Special Time” so that each child had time alone with a parent. As teens, Ryan and Shannon created “Sibling Bonding” time. I suspect the initial intent was to have me pick up the tab when they ate at a favorite restaurant. But they approach me with twinkling eyes to make the request and return from the meal in good spirits. Overall, it seems like a good investment to make now and then! Family rituals focusing on siblings are atypical in our culture, but they can nurture mutual affection.

Unexpected events change relationships.

Life isn’t fair. Billy Carter might have run the family business if Earl had lived for another decade. Many families deal with “If only...” situations like this. Regrets can paralyze us because we cannot change the past. One sibling may encounter serious difficulties and be jealous that life is smooth for the others. Parents can’t make life fair for each child, but they can model trust in God.

Sibling relationships are dynamic, with different challenges at each stage of the life cycle. Within families, “each and every one should be generous and tireless in forgiving one another for offenses, quarrels, injustices, and neglect.” (CCC #2227)