Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Welcome everybody. We are back with a Beyond the Sessions segment of the Securely Attached podcast, and I have Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Rebecca Hershberg with me here. Hello my lovely friends.

Dr. Emily (00:55):


Dr. Rebecca (00:57):

Hello. Always so good to be here.

Dr. Sarah (00:59):

Yeah. So today we have an email from a mom of an eight and a 4-year-old, and I’m going to read it. So she says, hi Sarah. I’m listening to your podcasts to help with my parenting, and I was hoping you could address hitting in one of your future episodes. Perhaps you’ve already, and I’ve missed it. Sorry if this is the case. So both of my girls get very aggressive through various different things. A big part of this is sibling rivalry and jealousy. My eldest cannot break out of this haze of anger and we encourage thinking time and breathing time, but she’s too far gone to listen to any kind of reasoning. And then she’s hitting out at myself and her sister. Thank you for all the podcasts you’ve done so far and continue to do. They’re really helping. My husband and I thank you very much for writing in.


So in reading this, I’m thinking to myself, we’ve definitely covered hitting and aggressive behaviors and I’ll link all those episodes in the show notes and the show description. But I really, in hearing this mom’s email, one thing that we really haven’t touched as explicitly is sibling rivalry and jealousy, especially as our kids get older. So I was thinking that would be a really helpful thing to focus on because really ultimately if we’re thinking about hitting an aggressive behavior, we want to kind of look underneath the behavior to the root sort of driver. And so while we do want to understand how do we respond to aggressive behaviors, I think a big part of what we usually say is you got to figure out what’s driving it. And if you are suspecting that a driver to the aggression is sibling rivalry or jealousy or what, I kind of like to frame it as a need for territory that could really reduce the hitting and aggression. So I was thinking that might be a lens with which to answer this question. So maybe Emily, do you want to kick off when your patients or even your own kids are struggling with sibling rivalry, where do you tend to start?

Dr. Emily (03:05):

Yeah, I mean I think I might have a little bit of a unexpected response, which is I think a lot of parents and families are afraid of sibling rivalry. Think of it as a toxic and bad thing. And I sort of lean towards radical acceptance, like, yes, you guys are different. Yes, you have different strengths and weaknesses. Yes, one of you is sensitive and one of you is less sensitive and that’s just the reality and let’s all work within that framework as opposed to trying to make things fair and equal or obviously that’s a very broad answer. But I think my goal when I talk to families about that is to say sort of what you’re saying, Sarah, look under the hood, see what’s driving some of this rivalry or some of this behavior. And then rather than kind of be afraid of it, I like as a first step to say, okay, this is what’s happening. Your sister feels more filled up than you do. Okay, how can we address that? Or what often happens for patients in my practices, you might have one child who has more external higher needs or is more sensitive, and how do you balance that within sibling relationships? And I can tell you, I think accepting those differences and working from there is the first place that I start.

Dr. Sarah (04:30):

Yeah, that makes so much sense to me. Rocco, do you have any thoughts to see your wheels turning?

Dr. Rebecca (04:39):

I think I do it certainly similarly, but I start from a place, of course siblings are rivals there fighting for the same resource, which is you. And I think the case where siblings don’t feel that way is certainly a lot in my experience, a lot more uncommon. Not that they would even, they may not articulate it that way. They may not understand it that way, but I think a parent especially, although not limited to a parent who also works outside the home who’s pulled in a million different directions is a limited resource and siblings are by fact kind of rivals for that resource. And so it’s a very complicated relationship that’s not set up to succeed necessarily. And I always love the analogy from the sibling rivalry book, the old book by Faber and Maslow about that. It’s as if your partner says that they’re bringing home someone that they’re having an affair with, even though they absolutely love you as their partner. It’s sort of like they bring home another wife and you’re going to love them.


Everything’s been really great with you. That’s not why I’m bringing home another wife. I just think we should have more people in the family. And you’re like, but wait, I thought you said you love me. I do, and you’re going to love her and you’re going to learn all your stuff. And so I always start with, of course there’s rivalry and that the best way to get ahead of it is really to be intentional and active about forging an individual relationship with each child. And that’s setting up time, not necessarily some major outing once every two months, but can you have a weekly ritual that you do with just one child? And that is special mommy and jack time or special mommy and Emma time and really making it clear, I love spending time with you and here’s why. And it’s not about throwing your sibling under the bus, but we both agree. Your sibling asks a lot of questions and I love his inquisitive mind, but it’s nice to be able to chat with you, not here asking questions and just owning that whether you have a younger child, an older child, a twin, every role in the family is complicated and tricky. And just validating that for that child and spending a little time with them and having that one-on-one relationship where your child feels as if they are special for unique reasons, I think does a lot to mitigate sibling rivalry.

Dr. Sarah (07:26):

Yeah, I really agree. I think it’s funny you both are kind of talking a lot about acceptance of the reality of this thing versus seeing its presence as a sign something’s wrong. And I think that’s certainly where I start as well. But one thing I also think about a lot for parents, and I think it’s kind of permission giving, I believe for parents, is to look at it not just as, of course there’s rivalry, but also that it’s a very biological based thing, right? It’s not a sign that we all want to foster our siblings love for one another and respect for one another. And obviously we don’t want them hurting each other, so if there’s physical aggression happening, we kind of have to step in and be that sort of safety keeper. But even those are the hot moments, the hottest of the hot moments.


But there’s lots of little peppered in little like, oh, conflict, they took this thing or they looked at me that way. Or now I have some unconscious thing that’s driving me to sort of get really territorial with mom that I’m not even aware of. Because what you were saying, Rebecca, of there’s this whole like, oh, I’m being replaced, I’m being replaced and my resources are being jeopardized. And no kid has that conscious thought process in that quite that base way, but it’s a drive. Our attachment drives, we come hardwired with them. And so when I think we see it not just as like, oh, we have to accept this, but oh, this is our systems actually functioning in the way they are supposed to, right? My kid is drive, has a drive to be attached to me, to be close to me, to have me meet their needs.


And when they sense that there is a threat to that access to that resource, they are going to be activated to some degree. Now does that mean that we expect kids to be constantly jockeying and vying for all of our attention and that they’re basically sworn enemies from each other? Absolutely not. And I think this is the other side of the coin that I often like to emphasize with parents is as parents we tend to focus on the things that are the messiest, the loudest, the scariest, the most frustrating, the most chaotic, the things that don’t feel good. And obviously when our kids are fighting, which is usually relatively frequently, at least in my house, it’s really easy to focus on that and see that as like, oh gosh, I’m logging that. I’m logging all the fights because they’re the loudest. And so they get logged.


But if we zoom out and we look at our children’s relationship with each other, are we being mindful of noticing all the times when they are getting along, when they are sharing, when they are holding one another in mind, when they’re being kind or respectful or even just coexisting peacefully the absence of fighting. And are we logging that too? Because I often will say to myself, I have to say this, and I say it with my husband too, we’ll be so overwhelmed by the fighting sometimes. And I’ll be like, yeah, but there’s so much that shows us how much they love each other too. And I think when we focus on the thing we want to see more of, everyone feels that. So when we focus on the times when our children are doing something kind and we call it out, not in a interruptive way, don’t break up the moment, don’t get in there with your camera, don’t get in there with a high five when they’re playing nicely together.


Just observe from afar and bask in the glow of that rare but beautiful moment, but log it and then later help them log it, help really say like, oh man, you were playing with your sister earlier today. It was just a beautiful thing to see you guys really care a lot about each other, huh? That’s it. And then move on. But you want to help your kids log the narrative. That is probably also true that they get along, they have moments of kindness, even if they feel very few and far between, they look for them and help everybody log them.

Dr. Rebecca (11:44):

I was with you a hundred percent until the naming it, my kids would be like, no, we don’t care about, no, I hate, you know what I mean?

Dr. Sarah (11:54):

When they’re mad or in a calm, chill moment?

Dr. Rebecca (11:58):

In a calm, chill moment. And I now make fun of them. I see when they love each other and I’ll say, oh, better not do that. Or I might think you love each other. And now they just sort of joke. But I also want to open space for, and I’ve worked with families where they’ll say, I see these other siblings being nice to each other and my kids don’t have moments like that. We were just on an airplane and I saw this, it was a French family, so I always noticed when kids are speaking in different languages, so cute. And this probably 6-year-old boy was getting the knots out of his hair or something, and I felt a little jealous about it. My kids don’t have that relationship, but I don’t want to spend a ton of time talking about that. But there’s a way in which as a parent, at least for me, and it’s funny you said radical acceptance, Emily, it’s of just my kids are going to have the relationship that they have.


And I’ve had parents come to me and say, what can I do to make sure that my kids grow up being close because I’m not close with my sibling? And it’s like, wow, can we just go back to that language of make sure we can’t, they are their own people and we can absolutely, as we talk about this with so much on this podcast, kind of set the conditions that we think will maximize the likelihood. And I think everything we’ve mentioned so far is that, and at the end of the day, they’re not two little robots that you can control. And one of them might do something really kind for the other one and the other one may be such a jerk back. And it breaks your heart as a parent to witness a moment like that. And yet it’s also two other people having a relationship that doesn’t necessarily involve you as they get older. So I think there’s a real range of, I guess I just want to piggyback on what you just said. It’s actually not always that siblings deep down really, really love each other most of the time. And then we only notice the fighting when it’s loud. I think it’s also sometimes siblings have really complicated relationships with each other for real reasons. And that’s okay too.

Dr. Emily (14:16):

And I think what I kept thinking was both of you guys were talking is my goal is actually that the siblings know themselves. I think that’s our best way of instilling a self-confidence and less of a scarcity mindset within that sort of thing that we’re talking about. What is the resource and how does that get distributed? And the way I like to think about that, and Rebecca, as you were saying that, it makes me think sometimes I just meta narrate what’s happening just because kids also don’t have mentalization or thinking about what the other person is thinking and feeling as advanced as obviously as we do as a more hopefully as more fully developed human beings, but saying, oof, your sister was trying to be really nice to you right now and you just weren’t having it. Okay, no judgment around it, but narrating it a little bit to help everybody see what’s going on.


It’s not necessarily a correction, but it’s insight building. And I think that that’s really a protective factor for siblings. Your brother wasn’t really ready to hear that compliment. Your sister’s a little tired, so she’s a little feeling a little bit less patient with you or whatever it is. I’m just throwing out some of these examples. My goal really is to help them feel seen everybody the whole system feels seen and heard, and whether that’s in the service of them repairing or not, that’s almost not my goal. My goal is that they individually feel like, oh, okay, well that didn’t go well, but I sort of understand it. I understand me and mom understands me. And there’s a little bit more transparency in that insight.

Dr. Sarah (16:04):

And you said the word mentalization and I often will use, which is basically a synonym, but reflective functioning. And I was thinking that too. If a child like Rebecca when you were like, one kid might be really nice and the other one’s a total jerk back, that happens all the time. So there’s still love there in my interpretation of that. There’s love, but it’s mismatched in that moment to one child is showing love in that moment, is able to access love in that moment and the other one isn’t. And it’s not that uncommon that sometimes neither when we see two kids going at it, neither kid is able to access love for the other in that moment. And also there’s lots of scenarios certainly in my house where one kid can access love and the other cannot is maybe even activated by the other’s ability to access love when they are very much not able to.


And they can sort of see that, especially if you have one kid that is more sensitive than another, gets hotter faster, has a harder time regulating than the other, and they see this, this happens in my family a little bit where there’s my child who has a harder time finding the love gets really, really pissed when my other child who finds the love more easily shows them love because it’s almost like he’s holding up a mirror that she does not want to look into. And it creates shame. Whether it’s conscious or not, I don’t really know, but it pisses her off more. She’s like, don’t be nice to me. I want to be mad at you. You’re making this harder. So it’s not when I said you want to look for the love or you want to log it. And yes, if you have kids who can tolerate you logging it with them, great, try it.


If it doesn’t land, move along. But you also as a parent might want to log it just if you notice it. Because I do think our narrative that we tell ourselves about our kids gets shaped and formed by the way we interpret these things. And if we look at an interaction where we have a mismatch, but one kid is doing something loving to another kid and it gets really, it’s not a beautiful moment. It devolves because it wasn’t matched. And then we then say, oh, see, my kids don’t like each other. I don’t know that that’s an accurate interpretation of what we’ve just witnessed. So I’m just mindful of parents not creating a narrative that then becomes sort of like the family story either.

Dr. Emily (18:40):

I think it’s interesting because as you were talking about that, all I can think about is there’s a difference between, this is going to sound trite, like attachment and love. I think a lot of siblings are very attached to each other. There’s a system there that obviously propels that and will that grow into, and we sort of confound the two love and attachment. We’re supposed to love each other. We all are in the same family and we’re family. But I think there’s a difference between being attached and having familial ties and having an intimacy and a connection in that because of being a part of the same family and liking each other.


There’s kind of a difference there. To me. And I think Rebecca, I think when you were talking, it made me think about this and I think obviously we see this as kids become older and more formed in their self-identity and sort of what they’re like as people. And so we don’t have to go that far out. But I do think, again, back to our point as parenting people is how can our kids respect each other? How can they tolerate each other sometimes and be attached to each other even if they have different personalities? I think that’s a little bit more nuanced, but it’s an important sort of thing to highlight, which is they don’t have to be best friends to have respect and attachment and ties to each other that are helpful.

Dr. Sarah (20:10):

But to go back to your other point, Emily, they do have to, if we want that to be successful, if we want our kids to be able to respect each other, and obviously they’re not going to respect each other in every moment, but if we want to help them build the muscle of being able to have a respect for the other, eventually as they get more mature, they do need reflective functioning or mentalization. They do need the capacity to when they say something as a bid for connection and the other sibling shreds them, in order for them to maintain respect in that relationship, that child that got shredded does have to have the capacity to say, wow, they’re having a hard time right now. I’m going to back up. I’m going to give them something.

Dr. Emily (20:55):

And that’s where I feel like the sort of meta talking, sort of teaching that insight, talking through that mentalization helps kids develop that skill, a skill they have to develop. You’re not born with it.

Dr. Sarah (21:09):

And a very reasonable go-to is as parents, and I’ve done it myself, is we shut down the behavior. We say that’s mean. Don’t do that. Stop fighting versus what you are suggesting, which is sort of just the narrating, the modeling, the reflective functioning. So I’m peering into my children’s minds and I’m interpreting aloud what I see happening versus stop it. Don’t do that. Stop fighting. That’s mean because those statements don’t build my child’s capacity for reflective functioning. They don’t allow my child to look and peer into the mind of the other child and say, oh, I wonder why they’re acting this way.

Dr. Rebecca (21:53):

Yeah, no, I think the mentalization piece and the reflective functioning, and again, they’re almost synonymous is so key. And I do that all the time, especially again, if you have a kid who’s more sensitive and not saying things like, oh, it looks like that was too much too fast. But I also think there’s a risk, and this is making me laugh because we always do this on this podcast, which has come up with 25 reasons why we can’t actually address the question because of how complicated it’s, but there’s also this risk of creating to fix a narrative. Sarah, you said narrative before and it was like it’s so easy to fall into. Well, this is the sensitive child and this is the one who is always showing the love easier, and this is the one. And you get into sibling roles, which need to be fluid ideally in a healthy family system with of course the understanding that different kids have different personalities, but there can be real sibling resentment that grows when it’s sort of like, well, I’m always labeled the fussy one or the hard one or the sensitive one, and my sister is the problem solver.


And so being aware when you are using reflective functioning and mentalization that it’s not always the same story and that you are highlighting potentially also the times when you’re less sensitive, one is sensitive or your loving one is feeling a little more prickly because I think that’s another risk. We use these roles as kind of shortcuts as parents. It’s like, well, I’ve got this one in this box and this one in this box, and so I can officially me efficiently manage the afternoon because I know how this is going to go with my kids who have these personalities, and that’s an important skill. And yet it can also be reinforcing and create resentment when we don’t allow for more movement between those.

Dr. Emily (23:54):

I mean, I love that you’re talking about flexibility, right around the roles. And I think one of the things I often use as a tool in moments of conflict, Sarah, to your point of not just focusing on the bad parts, my thing is not just focusing on, we talk a lot about this on what’s the overt behavior and talking behind it a little bit or talking through it. So if one of my kids hits their sibling, I’m like, okay, instead of being the kid who hit, you’re in trouble, you’re done, go park yourself. I’m like, okay, what happened here? There’s two people in this interaction, the hit child. Did you poke the bear a little? What happened there? Again, increasing your accountability and your insight of your children to say, this is a dynamic. This isn’t so black and white. How can we think through this a little bit more than just you’re the one who hits and you’re the one who takes it or whatever it is to think like, okay, well this is more nuanced. How did this dance start? How is it perpetuated? And I think that happens. This comes up a lot in parenting, even in parenting with other child, with your children in their interactions with peers, which is being flexible about the roles and taking a little bit of accountability for the dynamic instead of getting into these fixed positions of my kid’s, the one who bosses people around and those types of things. Just sort of looking behind that behavior and saying, what’s going on around here and can we be flexible about the narrative?

Dr. Sarah (25:34):

Yeah, and to weave that just back to one of the things this mom specifically wrote in her email is in the moment, my oldest child can’t break out of the haze of anger, and we’re encouraging thinking time and breathing time, but she’s too far gone to listen and then she’s hitting. And so it’s like this is where I think it’s important to sort of give people a timeline for these interventions that we’re talking about. The vast majority of the things that we’ve listed, our own acceptance of the circumstances, our ability to narrating in the moment may be a tool you can do in the moment. You may actually pour gasoline on your kid’s fire if you narrate in the moment, you kind of have to know the setting and the kids and just lots of, try it again, try it. If it doesn’t seem to be going well stop.


But you can revisit that same intervention in a calmer moment. Building reflective, functioning, narrating, kind of collaborative problem solving, helping kids increase their flexibility, their perspective taking, all of these things, those are typically interventions that work best in calm connected moments that have a little bit of distance from the fire. I think if your kid’s in a haze of anger and too far gone to listen to reasoning and hitting, then we’re going to go listen to our hitting episodes. Then just we’re talking about just maintaining safety, deactivating the crisis, helping them get space, oftentimes helping them get territory right. Again, I do think a lot of things that really activate in the moment, this threat response is threat of my territory. They took my thing, they got too close, they have all of ham’s attention, whatever like territory. And so a lot of times we address this by trying to make kids share or take away more of their territory.


And I think that’s not likely to help a child deactivate their threat response. And so it’s counterintuitive. I do think just to get really solution focused for a moment is it’s counterintuitive to give your child territory when they’re becoming aggressive, and yet it may actually be the unmet need that needs to be have space given to. And then I also think there’s all this debrief kind of material that we’ve been talking about. So I hope that’s helpful. I know that we joke all the time that we do and don’t answer questions, and so I’m hoping this one gave some sort of roadmap for even just how to think about this differently too. So thank you so much for writing this in. Thank you Emily and Rebecca for giving us your wise, wise takes on this. And until the next episode.

(28:44):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

185. BTS: How can I handle jealousy and sibling rivalry?