I know a mum with two daughters. The girls are very different in character and personalities. One girl is outgoing but not too interested in studies while the other is quiet and academically bright. My friend constantly tries to get both children to be more like each other in the areas they are lacking, not for competition purposes, but out of a desire to see them both reach their full potential in life.
Ronit Baras, parenting and family expert specialising in emotional intelligence says it's natural for parents, especially mothers to compare if they have two children of the same gender. She explains, "Parents see themselves in their children and mothers see themselves in their daughters. It's a way to highlight commonalities. However it's not healthy when used to manipulate children."
Carol, aged 31 years and an accountant, recalls her parents continually saying that her older sister was smarter than her. She says, "It was hard to deny this given my sister's success in both academics and music. It was just a fact of life for me that she was better at most things when compared to me." Though Carol's HSC results were slightly better than her sister's it went unnoticed. "I had hoped that my parents would acknowledge it and compare me favourably with my sister but they didn't. I felt let down by them but luckily didn't feel too badly towards my sister."
Baras explains, "Comparing children is what primarily feeds the rivalry. If one sister has a perceived advantage, the other must be naturally disadvantaged and the relationship between them will suffer."
Usually the rivalry between sisters will be connected to what's currently being compared. It is fight or flight when it comes to gaining an advantage. "They will either fight over a parent's attention and approval on that topic or give up entirely," says Baras.
Karen* knows this all too well. "I really didn't like my sister all that much when we were children. I felt like, as the baby, she got away with so much more than I did. In hindsight, I was probably very jealous of her relationship with Mum," she remembers. "My sister had a near death meningitis scare when she was five. Even though she had always been my mum's favourite, this worsened our rivalry because Mum protected her and loved her even more which increased my dislike of her."
She continues, "Once we hit our late teens, we actually became really close and I realised that, despite being polar opposites in many ways, we were very similar to the point of of being telepathic! The crux came for us when my parents divorced when I was 23 and she was 19. As she was living at home at the time she bore the brunt of the fall out. We became each other's pillars of strength during this difficult time and have remained close ever since."
Baras says that in teenage years, sisters will go through the second phase of their relationship. This period is very critical to forming their relationship as adults. "In this stage, they will be able to mend the damage caused by parents and establish a new relationship that will help them in adult life," adds Baras.
Lia* had the opposite experience with her sister who is seven years her senior. "My sister was excelling in her life at a time when I was going through a very rough phase; personally with Mum and Dad and receiving rejections from the schools I wanted to attend. I was resentful of her freedom (she was living away from home) while I was still at home and in a very patriarchal society."
Even though Lia's parents never compared her with her sister it took a long time for the resentment she felt to dissipate. "The resentment subsided only when I was accepted into one of the top international schools. I didn't feel as much of a failure anymore."
When asked if her relationship with her sister has improved after all these years, she's hesitant to respond. "We are in the same country now and quite near to each other. Even though we talk on the phone, that sibling connection just isn't there for us. Maybe it's the age gap between us or that she moved away when I was quite young but we just haven't built a close relationship," she admits.
According to Baras, sister rivalry can be minimised by how you, as parents, foster the sibling relationship from infancy. "Attachment to a sibling is connected to parent attachment in a child's infancy. If the attachment is healthy and the preparation to welcome the new sibling is done properly and in a healthy way, the girls will be good friends, no matter what the age difference or how similar or different their personalities."
"Sister rivalry must never be encouraged," emphasises Baras. Every child is born with a special talent. When they are compared to others, the underlying message is that they are not unique and special. "This will make them do whatever they can (even in a bad way) to be considered special and different," she adds.
Baras provides the following tips to help foster great relationships between two female children:
- Help each girl find her uniqueness
- Do not talk badly about the girls behind their back
- When the girls compare themselves, remind them they don't have the same name, not the same age, that each of them has a different fingerprint and it is for a reason
- Never use comparing as a motivation tool. If you expect them to do something, do not mention the sister as an example
- When talking about rules be consistent. But if you have age or other considerations affecting the rules express them
- Share your expectations regarding respect and kindness such as, "I expect you to talk nicely to each other"
- Be an example to your daughters by strengthening your own relationship with your sisters, if applicable.
*Names have been changed to protect identities