So Much Anxiety Over Sibling Rivalry

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars hear from a woman who is thinking about having a second child, but terrified of the idea that the children could be cruel to each other.

"I can imagine being furious — absolutely rageful — about the sadism inherent in sibling rivalry and the pleasure of hurting another person, the bullying and the cruelty," she writes.

Is the benefit of having a sibling outweighed by the potential for conflict?


Dear Sugars,

My husband and I are considering having a second baby, and among the many serious things that leave us ambivalent, I worry that the introduction of a sibling will amount to constant household battles with aggression, jealousy, fighting and — something I really have little compassion or tolerance for — being mean just to hurt another person. My daughter is 4 years old and the love of our lives. She is thriving, healthy, happy and adores the attention and emotional support that we can provide, while still having time for ourselves. It is a peaceful life like this; we are so lucky to have her and this could be enough for us.

I once heard a man say that he and his wife would exchange "knowing" glances at each other when one of their children would melt their hearts. But when a sibling saw them doing it and commented on it, the couple realized they had to watch themselves around the other children. That seems so sad to me, to miss out on such good feelings, though I understand parents need to protect siblings from favoritism.

Still, I wouldn't want to be on guard about my very deep and intense feelings for my daughter which I can't imagine going away; on the flip side, I might start to see her differently if she is nasty to her sibling. It just seems like adding a sibling, gamble that it is, can become such an awful mess.

But perhaps most importantly for me, I can imagine being furious — absolutely rageful — about the sadism inherent in sibling rivalry and the pleasure of hurting another person, the bullying and the cruelty.

I don't know if I am willing to open this up so that we can hope to love another child like we love our first and so that she can have a sibling.

Signed,

Sibling Rivalry

Cheryl Strayed: There is a wide range of the degree to which sibling rivalry is an ugly thing in a family, or a garden variety thing. I was the middle child, and growing up, my siblings and I had our battles, but we were also a pack of good friends. I can honestly say that nothing negative left its mark on me into my adult life.

And even as a kid, the arguments and fights that we had were the sorts of fights that kids have with each other all the time. It was all the stuff of life. The way that respectful and loving people coexist is sometimes fraught with jealousy or conflict, but not to a degree that necessarily becomes dangerous or destructive. So my first instinct when I read this letter was that this woman is really overthinking this.

Steve Almond: I agree. But what she's identifying is part of what happens in many families where there's more than one kid. My older brother, at age 2, felt displaced by two new babies and parents who had their own professional ambitions. He was heartbroken by it, at a very young age, and he had a temperament that made him regard us as invaders. He would sometimes be mean to us, and we would be mean right back.

I think this happens in a lot of families. It's not pathological, it's just part of the experience when there isn't enough love and attention to go around. When this letter writer talks about the possibility of aggression and jealousy and fighting, that can and does happen.

Cheryl: So much of this depends on the temperament of the child. My son was 18 months old when my daughter was born, and he was not even remotely threatened. That's just his personality. And when we talk about Sibling Rivalry and this potential second child that might come along — we don't know, and she can't either, what the temperament of the older child will be in relation to the younger child.

So if you want to choose the safest course — if you don't want that child to have that kind of conflict — you should go with one child to protect them from that. But you're also potentially robbing them of the pleasures, the joys, the things we can learn not just from loving a sibling, but having conflict with them, and resolving conflict with them.

Steve: Sibling Rivalry, you should have the family you want to have. Nobody's insisting that you should have a second child. That's for you to decide. But your letter is so full of dread and anxiety that there's no space for hope and possibility there.

It could be that there will be aggression and jealousy and fighting. But there seems to be no room, in your conception of this second baby, for the idea that she'll increase the amount of love.

Wouldn't it be amazing if this daughter you love so much had a little brother or sister, and you saw how much they're capable of giving love? You don't have to do it, but at least consider that that is the opportunity a sibling affords her.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear from more people concerned about conflict between siblings.

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