Sibling relationships have brought about strong feelings for centuries. Cinderella is portrayed in the fairy tale as a victim of cruelty at the hands of her wicked stepmother
and her two spoilt stepsisters, who were determined not to let Cinderella push them into second place. Perhaps she is also the victim of a weak father who allowed this to happen. In Genesis chapter 37, we are told about Jacob who favoured his oldest son Joseph above all his other sons. Joseph’s brothers were so envious of him that they plotted to have him killed when he was 17. The fairy story of Hansel and Gretel paints a picture of two siblings looking after each other in the face of adversity. They stay together until they manage to overcome the wicked witch and return home to their father.
It seems that siblings will love each other to the death and will also kill each other. How can such powerful and conflicted feelings exist for siblings? We are all delighted when our children get on well and play together in harmony, then we are equally appalled when they argue and fight.
Positions in the family are a significant contributory factor to how a person manages siblings; the interactions of the parents are important too. First-born children have their parent/s all to themselves for at least a year. If a second child comes along it
can be excruciatingly painful for a first-born child to see the parents he thought he
possessed pouring love on a sibling. It is at this point that the sibling becomes a rival. If the parents can adequately contain his jealous feelings and encourage more
nurturing ones, a healthier bond will grow between siblings and they will operate more in the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ mode than in the ‘Joseph and his brothers’ mode.
Second-born children never had their parent/s all to themselves. This can make them better at sharing their siblings but they can have other issues. They may copy their adored older sibling when they are small, but if the older sibling is insecure enough to ‘keep them in their place,’ they might lose self-esteem, or become fiercely independent to forge their own identities as they grow. Subsequent children will progressively ‘fit in’ more, as the sibling group provides a containing function in itself, which might at times be tougher than that given by the parents, but is nonetheless strongly supportive.
All these issues arise in different ways for different families. For example, if a child
in any position in the family has difficult experiences bonding with mother or father, then however much he is helped to manage sibling relationships, he might struggle as early insecurities are triggered for him. Further complications can arise with the arrival of step-siblings or half-siblings. The youngest child can feel very pushed out with the arrival of a new half-sibling, and can have conflicted loyalties about the parents. The Cinderella scenario is a vivid depiction of the inner worlds of children who have experienced parental loss/separation and feel overwhelmed with feelings of envy, hatred, insecurity, low self-esteem. It takes a lot of work for parents of new families to promote nurturing sibling relationships, but it is possible, with time and
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists