One of the longest-lasting relationships an individual will experience within their lifetime is the sibling relationship and considering close to 90% of the Western population has at least one form of sibling, this relationship is an important one. A sibling relationship that is characterized by competition and conflict is specifically labeled as sibling rivalry.

Sibling rivalry can lead to unsatisfactory relationships and communication, and it is known to shift from normal rivalry to emotional maltreatment when this communication begins to attack the emotional or intellectual integrity of one sibling. Recent literature shows increased focus on the concept of Developmental Trauma, this refers to a type of stressful event that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, over a period of time, and within specific relationships and contexts. Childhood abuse and neglect are typical examples of chronic traumatization where developmental trauma may develop. Furthermore, as the sibling relationship is typically a life-long interaction, negative sibling relationships have been shown to play a significant role on development.

Factors Influencing the Occurrence of Sibling Rivalry

Research shows that competition resulting from sibling rivalry is differentially impacted by family size, economic status, parental marital status, birth order, age gap, gender, disabilities, and more. Although there is an abundance of research about these factors, the results appear inconsistent between studies. For example, some studies will say that older siblings are commonly considered to be increasingly competitive and as a result feel the need to outperform younger siblings to compete for parental attention. Whereas other studies say that younger siblings experience rivalry more intensely due to comparing themselves and their privilege to their older siblings. However, most research agrees that children spaced two years apart have a better chance of experiencing a positive sibling relationship.

Another consistent result preceding maladaptive sibling rivalry is parent marital status. Generally, siblings that experience divorce are found to have more conflict within their relationship. Parents play a prominent role in the investigation of sibling rivalry. Specifically, one study found 71% of siblings reported rivalry to be initiated by a parent or other adult figure. Another study revealed that siblings perceive parental differential treatment as favoritism and unfair, which in turn creates a competitive environment among them. Common experiences that siblings may perceive as parental differential treatment might include:

  • The arrival of a new sibling into the family, where parents direct most of their attention to the new child, leaving the older child feeling left out.
  • Unequal distribution of emotional, social, and physical resources toward siblings.
  • Identifying siblings in pairs of good versus bad – favoritism is perceived, and the “bad” sibling competes and compares themselves to the “good” sibling.

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What is Normal Sibling Rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is common in most families, if not all, and is considered to play an important role in development. Healthy competition among siblings for family resources leads to social, cognitive, and interpersonal skills, that can benefit development into adulthood. Normal sibling rivalry can allow siblings to learn life skills such as ways to constructively solve disagreements, gain empathy skills, and effectively regulate positive and negative emotions.

Signs that sibling rivalry has shifted from normal to maladaptive.


When rivalry shifts to a maladaptive form, it likely resembles some form of sibling maltreatment. The term sibling maltreatment encompasses both abusive and neglectful elements of behaviour between siblings and is typically under recognized due to it commonly being perceived as normal sibling rivalry. Several studies in fact suggest that victims of sibling maltreatment do not label their experiences as so until adulthood.

Signs of maladaptive sibling rivalry include:

  • Scapegoating a sibling for abuse or neglect
  • Witnessing abuse/neglect of a sibling
  • A sibling being forced to perpetrate the victim sibling by another perpetrating sibling
  • A sibling taking on the role of perpetrating or rescuing the victim sibling

When looking at the different types of maltreatment (emotional, physical, sexual), emotional maltreatment is often harder to detect due to its lack of physicality. In sibling relationships, emotional maltreatment is represented through words and actions that express degradation and contempt, which in turn deprive one sibling of self-worth and can negatively impact their self-esteem. The impact of emotional maltreatment is dependent on the age at which it occurs and the degree of the victim’s sense of self at that time. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that parents or other caregivers dismiss emotional maltreatment and label it as normal sibling rivalry. Although this may seem harmless to do, the literature demonstrates significant negative effects on one’s wellbeing due to emotional maltreatment, especially during the younger years of development.

Signs of maladaptive sibling rivalry resembling emotional maltreatment:

  • Body shaming
  • Attacking a siblings intelligence
  • Public humiliation
  • Rejection
  • Lying about adoption and/or neglecting a siblings place in the family
  • Threats of parental discipline
  • Gender shaming
  • Sexual Identity shaming
  • Verbal Aggression

The degree of verbal aggression can be viewed as a form of emotional abuse as well, which is displayed through communication that intends to deliver psychological pain. Often verbal aggression results in a form of humiliation, embarrassment, reduced feelings of worth, and depression, and is detrimental to one’s wellbeing. As verbal aggression in all its forms attacks some personal quality of the sibling or the state of the relationship, previous studies have utilized verbal aggression as a way to reflect the complexity and rivalry within the sibling relationship.

Signs of Verbal Aggression

  • Teasing
  • Ridiculing
  • Threatening
  • Antagonizing an individuals character, competence, background, physical appearance, or ability

Verbally aggressive messages are often revealed by:

  • Name-calling
  • Insults
  • Withdrawal
  • Physical acts or threats
  • Repudiating
  • Unfair comparison
  • Negative mood

Consequences of Maladaptive Sibling Rivalry that Resembles Emotional Maltreatment


As most emotional maltreatment experiences go unnoticed, victims tend to internalize those abusive messages and experiences and carry them throughout life. When these experiences are conveyed aggressively, the victim can perceive them as severely hurtful and experience feelings of devaluation, emotional insecurity, and contempt. Other negative outcomes include difficulties forming and maintaining social relationships, creating irrational defences, behaving inappropriately, and emotional maladjustment.

There is difficulty surrounding the recognition of when normal sibling rivalry ends and abusive rivalry begins. Crucial elements to the identification of this shift include the severity and intent of an act, as well as, a clear identification of one sibling taking the role as the aggressor and gaining control over the other.

A common problem is the tendency of parents to minimize emotional maltreatment between siblings and label it as normal rivalry. This normalization has been found to negatively impact the severity and frequency of maladaptive rivalry, and is assumed to contribute to the lack of research on sibling victimization when compared to other forms of family violence. As a result of normalizing this behaviour, parents may only get involved when these experiences escalate into major conflict.

The impact of Parent’s Normalizing Maladaptive Rivalry is:

  • Victims may perceive the abuse as normal
  • Victims may adopt passive acceptance behaviour toward the abuse
  • Victims may internalize the maltreatment and show negative long-lasting psychological effects.

Maladaptive Rivalry through a Developmental Trauma Lens


Child development can be seen as a progression through a series of stages each with its own developmental task and opportunities. The successful completion of each developmental stage lays the groundwork to achieve the ones after it. Developmental trauma has been shown to disrupt the success in earlier stages, which in turn negatively impacts subsequent development.

Developmental trauma is characterized by cumulative experiences of mistreatment, abuse, neglect, manipulation, etc., where the child has little control over the maltreatment and often has no escape. The impact of these repeated experiences has been found to traumatize the child. In cases of emotional maltreatment, children are often left feeling confused by their pain as caregivers are often late to recognizing the severity of the child’s experience(s). Consequently, literature continues to demonstrate the many psychological problems related to these chronic emotional injuries.

Some Warning Signs of Developmental Trauma are:

  • Disrupted sense of safety or personal and bodily integrity
  • Disruption in attachment bonding with primary caregiver
  • Impaired ability to regulate emotions or cope with stress
  • Deep-rooted Shame
  • Feeling Powerless
  • Becoming hopeless and despairing about life
  • Feeling isolated and disconnected

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Maladaptive rivalry resembling emotional maltreatment adds an extra layer of difficulty for caregivers to notice as it is so commonly labeled as normal rivalry. Additionally, recognizing emotional maltreatment occurring between a child and parent can sometimes be seen as more severe compared to it occurring between two siblings. Therefore, it is crucial for parents, teachers, and other caregivers to recognize the signs of emotional maltreatment, developmental trauma, and the specific shift from normal to maladaptive sibling rivalry.

Regarding the shift from normal to severe rivalry, more research is needed. One study by McDonald and Martinez (2019), found the most common occurrences of emotional abuse between birth and fifteen years of age. Although the onset of rivalry and emotional maltreatment are commonly in childhood years, it is unclear in which stages of life rivalry shifts from normal to abusive behaviour, as well as, if there is a specific developmental period where maladaptive rivalry most severely impacts later psychological wellbeing.

A study has not yet come out to determine what specific stage of life maladaptive rivalry is most detrimental. Although, there is an abundance of research outlining the effects of developmental trauma and maladaptive sibling relationships.

If you or someone you know is looking to work through developmental trauma, negative sibling relationships, abusive rivalry, or more, contact us at about psychotherapeutic support. We offer a team of psychotherapists who treat a variety of mental health concerns in individuals, couples, and families. Visit our website for more information.

Author: Francesca Lupo (MEd, RP (Qualifying))
647-498-4283 ext.0

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