Here’s a fun fact: a quarter of all hyena cubs are killed by one of their siblings.
In humans, competition between siblings is a little subtler, but it’s still there. After all, there’s only so much parental attention to go around. Any time mom and dad are focused on one of your siblings is a time they’re not focused on you.
Sometimes competition between brothers and sisters takes the form of healthy sibling rivalry. Other times, though, it can turn into a pattern where one or more siblings are not getting their emotional needs met and fall into unhealthy roles within the family.
One way this happens is if one sibling needs much more attention. Parents might not be able to distribute their attention equally if one child has a medical condition, for example, or simply if there’s a significant age gap between siblings.
This situation can be painful for a child who sees so much parental attention going to another sibling and whose own needs become marginalized in the family. This kind of family dynamic can teach that child to adopt a role of putting other people’s feelings first.
Of course, then all the siblings grow up, the resentment fades, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right?
No. Just kidding. If anything, these feelings can harden into something destructive in adulthood. They can become an obstacle preventing family dynamics from evolving, relationships from growing.
Worse yet, siblings can go and act out their familial roles in other relationships too. A lot of how we relate to people is learned from our interactions with our family, so it’s easy for a pattern of not having one’s needs met at home as a child to become a pattern of not having one’s needs met across all kinds of relationships as an adult.
But there’s good news: no one has to be stuck in these familial roles forever. It’s possible to move beyond sibling resentment rooted in childhood and to break out of old patterns. It all starts with acknowledging the situation for what it is.
In this Ask the Therapist video, Marie Hartwell-Walker and Daniel J. Tomasulo respond to a letter about resentment between two siblings and look at ways of overcoming this kind of resentment in adulthood: