“It’s not fair!” exclaimed the 17-year-old boy, “My mother is always siding with my brother.”
Alex* was almost in tears when he broke down in the counselling room. He had been meeting me on a regular basis to discuss various issues related to his identity and sense of self-worth.
With pain in his eyes and a quivering voice, he described all the instances when he felt that he was treated unfairly by his mother. This included extra Japanese classes, an overseas exchange programme in Japan, and even money to buy a new car – for his brother, Joseph*.
“I just don’t understand why she can give him anything that he wants. But when I ask her for anything, her answer would always be ‘no.’ It’s so frustrating.”
Alex shared that the rivalry with his brother had gone back as far as he could remember, and this has affected his perspective of himself. He had always felt inferior to Joseph, who seemed to do much better in everything that he did.
Alex’s story is a good example of how intense sibling rivalry can be; especially if there is perceived injustice.
From sibling rivalry to sibling love
But not all siblings engage in such competitive behaviour. Amanda Ng is one such individual. She recently won the Singapore Patient Caregiver Award, which honours persons who have demonstrated strength, resilience and unwavering dedication in caring for another person who requires support. Amanda’s sister, Amelia, suffers from a rare genetic disorder which requires her to rely on a ventilator to breathe.
Speaking to Focus on the Family Singapore, Amanda shared that she and Amelia were very close growing up, and often played together. However, as Amelia started losing her abilities, Amanda’s mum made an effort for her to play a part in her sister's care. This helped her realise that despite relying on a tube, Amelia was her own person and that she had her own abilities too.
“It hasn't been the easiest. We have watched Amelia gradually lose every one of her abilities. From the ability to call me "Jie-jie" (which means Chinese for sister) to now not even being able to breathe on her own.”
When asked if there is any sibling rivalry with Amelia, especially since her sister seems to get so much more attention from her parents, Amanda said the closest to this was when she asked her mum if she could have another sibling who was more “normal.”
In spite of her sister’s disabilities, Amanda truly loves her sister, and the siblings remain close. She shared, “Amelia has a heart of gold. She would wait for me to come home every night from school and hear all about my day.”
The story of Amanda and Amelia is one where sibling love triumphs over self-centredness.
But how can everyday parents avoid sibling rivalry? What can they do to help their children feel loved and secure?
Our children need to know that they are loved beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Parenting principles to encourage sibling love
I have two boys, aged 10 and 12, and have experienced times when both boys jostle for the attention of my wife and myself.
Yet there are other moments which depict the true nature of their relationship – one where they love and support each other in moments both good and bad. During the process, I have learnt three parenting principles to help my children steer away from sibling rivalry and towards sibling love.
- Give your undivided love and attention to each child
Our children need to know that they are loved beyond the shadow of a doubt. For them to experience this, we need to provide them with our undivided love and attention. This can be when they come back from school or during an outing, when they’re brimming with excitement over something that they had experienced that day, or after watching a movie, talking excitedly about the movie characters and various happenings during the show.
For instance, my younger son loves sailing, and I often spend the car ride home talking about the things he learnt while at sea.
As for my older son, there are times when he would share excitedly about his latest Nintendo Switch game. During such times, I try to listen attentively to him as he describes all the various characters in the game. I know they appreciate that their Daddy ascribes importance to the things that they love.
- Celebrate your children’s strengths, empathise with their weaknesses
We need to know what our children are good at, and continually affirm them in these areas. Likewise, it is important to be aware of what is challenging for them and be extra gentle with them when they fall short.
For instance, my older son is particularly kind and attentive to the needs of others, and I often affirm him when he makes other people comfortable just by expressing concern for them.
As for my younger son, he is good with his hands, often using his tool kit to do repairs around the house. I often praise him when he manages to fix or restore something.
There is a misconception that parents need to love each child in exactly the same way.
- Love your children differently; not equally
There is a misconception that parents need to love each child in exactly the same way. This is due to the notion that when you treat them equally, they would also feel equally loved.
But it is far more important to love your children unconditionally, which means that we understand their needs and acknowledge that each child is different. And we then love them in a way that they would understand.
For example, I know my older son’s favourite dish is sambal kangkong, and I would specially cook the dish for him during our meals.
As for my younger son, he loves hotdogs and French fries, so I would sometimes stop by the snack stall to buy a couple of sausages for him on the way home.
When our children know that we love them regardless of what they do, they will develop healthily as secure individuals, and sibling rivalry and comparisons will also tend to affect them less.
*All names and identifying features have been changed to protect the anonymity of the persons involved.
© 2022 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Mark Lim is Director at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring, mental wellness and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two tween boys aged 10 and 12.
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