Research on Effects of Sibling Birth on Jealousy

The Birth of a Sibling: Companion or Competition?

Samantha A. Sang

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Sibling relationships that develop a balance of nurturance and conflict can provide numerous learning opportunities for young children (Volling, McElwain, & Miller, 2002). For instance, children can learn other’s perspectives, learn different strategies to resolve conflict, as well as learn to regulate their own emotions. Specifically, younger siblings who experience a balance of nurturance and conflict in their sibling relationships have been found to be more socially skilled and have more positive peer relationships compared with children who lack the sibling experience (Volling et al., 2002).Thus, it is not the absence of conflict rather how conflict is resolved that benefits the quality of a sibling relationship. Sibling conflict refers to the “unique interpersonal dyadic dynamics of sibling interactions, which may be motivated by, but not synonymous with sibling jealousy” (Volling et. al., 2002). It is well-known that parents cannot attend and respond to both children’s needs at all times; thus, jealousy could very well be a normal, perhaps daily, experience for young children.

Older siblings are often thought of as “leaders, managers, and teachers” of their younger siblings during critical periods of development (e.g., preschool, middle-childhood; Kolak, & Volling, 2011). Moreover, older siblings are the more dominant person in the sibling relationship and can exert more influence on the sibling relationship throughout childhood. Previous research has shown that older siblings’ behavior toward their younger siblings is more stable from preschool through middle childhood than younger siblings’ behavior toward their older siblings (Kolak, & Volling, 2011). This stability, along with the more dominant role of older siblings, may explain why older siblings’ jealousy reactions are stronger predictors of the sibling relationship quality many years later (Kolak, & Volling, 2011).

Sibling Jealousy

Jealousy is a complex social emotion. Complex because it is not simply a single emotional expression, but rather a patterned response of emotional affect, behavior, and cognitive appraisal (Volling, Yu, Gonzalez, Kennedy, Rosenberg, & Oh, 2014). Intense debates have occurred among scholars in regards to the distinction between jealousy and envy; whether jealousy is a simple, complex, or blended emotion; and whether it is caused by threats to self-esteem or threats to a valued relationship (White and Mullen, 1989). Although different perspective exist, it is pivotal to understand that jealousy cannot be defined nor understood without reference to a social context (Volling, McElwain, & Miller, 2002).

Specifically, jealousy occurs in the context of a social triangle (White and Mullen, 1989). There are three dyadic relationships within the triangle in addition to the triadic relationship system: (a) the relationship between the jealous individual and the beloved, (b) the relationship between the beloved and the rival, and (c) the relationship between the jealous individual and the rival (White & Mullen, 1989). In order to elicit jealousy, the relationship between the jealous person and the beloved must be a valued close relationship (e.g., mother-child). Furthermore, jealousy is elicited by the real or perceived loss of this relationship to a rival. It is not simply the loss of love that elicits jealousy; it is the loss of attention from the beloved to a rival (White & Mullen, 1989).

Hupka (1984) has shown that individuals in jealousy eliciting situations can feel a range of emotions including fear, anger, or even relief, depending on the individual’s focus of attention with respect to the social triangle. For example, if individuals focus on the loss of the relationship, sadness may be reported; whereas, if individuals focus on the betrayal of their beloved, anger may be reported; and lastly, if individuals focus on being left alone, anxiety or fear may be reported (Hupka, 1984).

Birth of a Sibling Elicits Sibling Jealousy

The birth of a sibling can be a stressful life event for young children; consequently, firstborn children are likely to experience jealousy at the arrival of their infant sibling (Volling et. al., 2014). Past research indicates that young children are sensitive to the loss of attention to another. First, toddler and preschool children were aware of the interactions occurring between their mother and their sibling and often times, would try to disrupt the ongoing interaction (Dunn, 1988). Second, studies that addressed childhood jealousy have demonstrated that children as young as 1 year of age were sensitive to maternal attention directed toward an infant-size doll, a newborn infant or an unfamiliar peer (Volling et. al., 2002). So, it is not surprising that young children are aware of the loss of attention when a parent turns his or her attention from them and interacts with their infant sibling and this awareness elicits jealousy (Volling et. al., 2002).

Jealousy can differ for individuals depending on their cognitive appraisal of the jealousy eliciting situation when they believe their relationship with their beloved is threatened by the rival (Kolak & Volling, 2011). For instance, a child may appraise the infant sibling as a threat to their own mother-child relationship, feel anxious, and interfere in the mother–infant interaction, or a child may appraise their mother as inaccessible, feel sadness, and withdraw from the mother-infant interaction.

The firstborn’s jealousy toward their infant sibling can impact their sibling relationship quality later in development. Children’s initial reactions three weeks after their sibling’s birth predicted their behavior with their mother and sibling at 14 months (Kendrick & Dunn, 1982). For instance, children who were demanding and difficult shortly after their sibling’s birth protested the mother–sibling interaction more compared to children who positively approached their infant sibling (Kendrick & Dunn, 1982). Moreover, children who were initially withdrawn were more likely to develop poor sibling relationships over time (Kendrick & Dunn, 1982).

Attachment as a Potential Moderator

The Strange Situation (SS) is “a videotaped laboratory based procedure that consists of seven three-minute episodes including two parent–child separations and reunions” (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Individual differences in infants’ attachment relationships can be classified as secure or insecure. Attachment classifications are based on the child’s ability to balance proximity and exploration and to obtain comfort when distressed from their mother (Ainsworth et. al., 1978). Not only do physical separations from mothers in the SS activate attachment behaviors, but so too does the child’s appraisal of their mother’s accessibility when caring for their infant sibling.

The birth of a sibling may create disruptions in the relationship between the mother and her firstborn child that can lead to instability in their attachment relationship (Touris, Kromelow, & Harding, 1995). Bowlby (1969) acknowledged that for most young children, “the mere sight of mother holding another baby in her arms is enough to elicit strong attachment behavior”. So, it is understandable that many of the behaviors associated with jealousy (e.g., clinging, touching, proximity seeking, and distress) are also attachment behaviors (Volling et. al., 2014). From an attachment perspective, children who have a secure attachment to their mother should explore freely, even when their mother is interacting with their infant sibling. They may monitor their mother’s whereabouts or the mother-infant interactions, but they should not disrupt the interaction. Whereas, insecurely attached children will cry and protest in response to their mother’s interactions with their infant sibling. They will stay in close proximity to their mother and may even physically interfere with the mother-infant interactions (Volling et. al., 2014). If witnessing the mother–infant interaction adequately engages attachment behaviors, then individual differences in children’s jealousy may reflect their internal working models of their attachment relationship with their mothers.

The quality of sibling interaction has been related to the mother-child attachment relationship. Children who were insecurely attached to their mothers at 12 months of age were more aggressive in their conflicts with their younger sibling when they were 6-years-old (Volling et. al., 2014). On the other hand, Teti and Ablard (1989) found that more secure preschoolers were significantly more likely to react to their younger sibling’s distress than less securely attached preschoolers.

Emotion Regulation as a Potential Moderator

Early attachment relationships play a primary role in the development of young children’s emotion regulation development (Volling, 2001). Children whose mothers are sensitive and consistent to their children’s needs not only develop secure attachments to their mothers, but are also thought to develop a greater capacity to share affect, to enjoy social interactions, to maintain organized behavior during an emotionally arousing event, and to display empathy for others (Volling, 2001). In contrast, children whose emotional needs are repeatedly rejected by their mothers are more likely to develop insecure attachments and are also more likely to develop poor regulatory strategies whereby they minimize attention to their attachment relationship and minimize their emotional expressiveness (Volling, 2001). These children may become physiologically aroused in the face of stress, but may also remain expressionless so that they do not risk further rejection and anger on the part of the mother (Volling, 2001).

“Emotion regulation consists of the extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to accomplish one’s goals” (Thompson, 1994). Even though this definition emphasizes both internal and external processes, Campos and colleagues (1994) revealed that past research that examines emotion regulation focuses on the internal processes and rarely considers the external factors that may contribute to emotion regulation. Studies investigating the process of emotion regulation should include “the social context that elicited the need for regulation in the first place and that specifies the rules of proper conduct” (Campos, 1994). Specifically because jealousy cannot be fully understood without reference to the social context, it is pivotal to examine children’s emotion regulation skills as a potential moderator between the birth of a sibling and firstborn’s feelings of jealousy.

Young children have several regulatory strategies that can be utilized in jealousy eliciting situations. Three possible regulatory strategies that might be used by toddler and preschool siblings when confronted with jealousy are (a) to interfere with the interaction between their mother and sibling, (b) to direct anger toward either their mother or sibling, and/or (c) to focus attention on alternative pleasurable activities (i.e., play; Volling et. al., 2014). Children who successfully cope to distress in jealousy eliciting situations engage in self-focused, exploratory play while monitoring the mother-infant interaction rather than protesting or physically interfering (Volling et. al., 2014).

Firstborn children who were highly dysregulated during jealousy eliciting situations are at an increased risk for expressing more negative affect. Furthermore, children’s inability to regulate their jealousy may be suggestive of poor emotion regulation skills, which may, in turn, be detrimental to sibling relationship quality (Kolak & Voling, 2011). In contrast, firstborn children who are better regulated (i.e. better able to regulate their jealousy) appear to have the essential emotion regulation skills for engaging positively with their siblings (Kolak & Voling, 2011).

Children’s ability to regulate emotions during jealousy eliciting situations is a critical component for successful relationships with their sibling (Kolak & Voling, 2011). But, little is known about children’s ability to regulate emotions during jealousy eliciting situations and its impact on the quality of the sibling relationship later in development. The only support is from Kolak and Volling (2011) that found that jealousy and dysregulation is related to more troubled sibling interactions two years later.

The Current Study

The current study is a longitudinal design that will address three aims: (a) to examine if the birth of a sibling elicits jealousy in the firstborn child, (b) to examine if the firstborn’s jealousy of their infant sibling is related to their sibling relationship quality five years later, and finally, (c) to examine if the firstborn’s attachment and emotion regulation moderates the relationship between the birth of a sibling and jealousy (Figure 1). Prior research on the birth of a sibling has described some children as clingy, anxious-withdrawn, or oppositional after the birth (Volling et. al., 2014), so we hypothesized that (a) children who have a secure attachment with their mother before the birth of their sibling will not experience as much jealousy as insecurely attached children, and (b) children who demonstrate better emotion regulation skills will not experience as much jealousy as less emotionally regulated children. Due to individual differences, different patterns of jealousy and its impact on sibling relationship quality will emerge five years later.


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Figure 1.

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