I can find no research on the subject which is both of-the-moment and also centuries old.
Let’s bring on the Biblical first. When Cain killed Abel, it was the original example of SR. When Jacob’s sons sold their brother Joseph into Egypt because he was their father’s favourite, it was the second example.
Joseph became the first analyst – Freud himself recognised his skill in interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph’s legacy is considerable – the pyramids, the parting of the Red Sea and an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Moving on to more recent times. When Jo Johnson, the brother of the Prime Minister, resigned, commentators insisted the brothers loved each other dearly but also stressed they had always been competitive. For example, JoJo got a first at Oxford while BoJo managed just an upper second.
They are not the only contemporary politicians whose sibling rivalry glitters for us all to see, David Milliband did not expect his younger brother Ed to stand against him for the Labour leadership – let alone to win it.
David Levy introduced the term “sibling rivalry” in The Hostile Act in 1941, claiming that for an older sibling “the aggressive response to the new baby is so typical that it is safe to say it is a common feature of family life.” The 2010 Handbook of Jealousy took up the subject and looked at how sibling rivalry persists across the lifespan.
More recently a University of Cambridge study of children’s cognitive and social development between the ages of two and six suggests therapists may have to re-think orthodox ideas on sibling rivalry. In her book published in April this year, Social Understanding and Social Lives, Dr Claire Hughes, tried to explain why some children’s development lags behind that of their peers.
In all, 140 children were studied in Cambridge. For five years the 140 children were the subjects of tests and video observations. Hughes and her team also conducted interviews with parents, teachers and the children themselves. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that even when siblings fight, this can often have a positive effect on a child’s early development.
Hughes and her team do warn that sustained sibling rivalry can result in behavioural problems, but milder forms seem to help development in childhood.
“Siblings do compete for parents’ attention and love, but that is not the whole story. Dr Hughes said. “One of the key reasons for this seems to be that a sibling is a natural ally. They are often on the same wavelength, and they are likely to engage in the sort of pretend play that helps children to develop an awareness of mental states.” Child psychologists agree that pretend play is important for social and emotional learning and helps children realise that other people have minds and ideas of their own. The child psychologist Piaget insisted that children were egocentric till they were six. Play, however, defeats egocentricity.
Even when a child was teased or argued with, Hughes found, the exchanges still meant the younger child was often exposed to emotionally rich language from the older one. By the age of six the younger siblings were conversing about emotions on an almost equal footing with their older brother or sister, she has argued.
Therapists will not be surprised that Hughes also stressed the influence of the mothers. Children who performed best on tasks designed to test their social understanding at the age of six came from families where the mother talked and elaborated on ideas, highlighted differences in points of view, and tuned into children’s interests.
The research highlights the complexities of sibling rivalry – a vital area for therapy.
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