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The Development of Sibling Jealousy

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Abstract

This chapter provides theoretical background on sibling jealousy and rivalry along with reviews of sibling jealousy in early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. We also review the family corelates of sibling jealousy and provide recent results from a study looking at the family and child correlates of sibling jealousy in early childhood before drawing conclusions outlining future directions for research on sibling jealousy.
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The Development of Sibling Jealousy
Brenda L. Volling
Denise E. Kennedy
and
Lisa M. H. Jackey
University Of Michigan
To appear in the Handbook of the Development of Jealousy
Acknowledgement:
The research reported in this chapter was supported by a grant from the John E. Fetzer Institute. Volling
was also supported by an Independent Scientist Award (K02HD047423) from the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development during the writing of this chapter.
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Concerns about sibling rivalry and jealousy have been voiced by clinicians and parents for quite
some time (Griffin & De La Torre, 1983; Leung & Robson, 1991; Levy, 1934; Podolsky, 1954; Ross,
1931). Consider, for instance, that violence between siblings is the most frequently occurring type of
family violence, affecting about 70% of homes in the U.S. (Hoffman & Edwards, 2004; Steinmetz, 1977;
Straus, 1990). Aggressive and violent sibling behavior may often be motivated by jealousy (Brody,
1998). Siblings also spend more time in the company of one another during childhood than with parents
or even peers (Dunn, 2007; Volling, 2003) so sibling jealousy may occur frequently in many families
(Thompson & Halberstadt, 2008). Further, hostile, destructive sibling interaction has been linked to
children’s behavior problems (e.g., Garcia, Shaw, Winslow, & Yaggi, 2000), whereas cooperative and
prosocial sibling interactions have been related to children’s constructive conflict resolution, social
cognitive understanding, and successful relationships with peers (e.g., Herrea & Dunn, 1997; Ross, Ross,
Stein, & Trabasso, 2006). What is clear from the literature on sibling relationships is that children spend
a considerable amount of time with their siblings, during which they may encounter frequent
opportunities to experience and cope with sibling jealousy, and this jealousy can influence the affective
nature of the sibling relationship and, in turn, have significant developmental consequences for children’s
and adolescents’ well-being. Despite the relevance of sibling jealousy, it is striking to see how little
research has actually been conducted in this area.
Sibling rivalry refers to the feelings of envy, jealousy and competitiveness that exist between
brothers and sisters within the family. Rivalry can take many forms: the tug-of-war over a valued
possession, the playful competition between brothers on the soccer field, the striving for academic success
over one’s sibling, and the intense feelings of hatred and envy over the personal accomplishments of
one’s sibling in comparison to one’s self. In addition to the competition for status, objects, and
achievement, siblings also compete for the love and attention of their parents. Any competition between
siblings may reflect rivalry, but when the rivalry involves the love and attention of parents and the sibling
rival, we speak of jealousy and the feelings of sadness and anger experienced when one believes the
beloved relationship with the parent is lost to a sibling rival. In the current chapter, we start by providing
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some theoretical background on sibling rivalry and particularly the jealousy that arises when children
compete for their parents’ love and attention. We then present a model of jealousy that we have used to
guide our research on the development of sibling jealousy and the family correlates of children’s jealousy.
Next, we provide a brief review of the extant research conducted on sibling jealousy across childhood,
adolescence and into adulthood. We also present some recent findings from our research program
examining sibling jealousy in a sample of toddler and preschool siblings during a triadic laboratory
paradigm. The final part of the chapter focuses on future directions for research examining sibling
jealousy across the lifespan.
Theoretical Background
There appears to be a multitude of ways in which jealousy has been measured in research to date
and we will refrain from engaging in the theoretical battles endemic among researchers about the
definition of what jealousy is or is not (see Salovey, 1991). Theoretical formulations are critical for
understanding how researchers define jealousy because such formulations provide the basis for the
researcher’s conceptualization of jealousy and they also provide readers with an understanding of how
jealousy was operationalized and assessed for a particular research program. Our work over the years has
focused on sibling jealousy and the relationships that young children form with parents and their siblings.
Our research is also informed by a developmental perspective and an understanding that jealousy
responses may change over time. Our definition is couched within a family systems’ perspective as well,
because parents and siblings are part of a larger family system and cannot be understood in isolation of
other contextual forces (Cox & Paley, 2003). Further, our definition and view of jealousy is heavily
influenced by the writings of Gregory White and Paul Mullen (1989) in their presentation of romantic
jealousy. Yet, we do not believe that the jealousy we are studying between siblings in early childhood is
the same as the jealousy that others have examined between adult lovers in romantic relationships.
Although White and Mullen chose to focus on romantic jealousy between adults, their transactional
perspective is inherently applicable to the development of sibling jealousy in the context of a wider family
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system (see White and Mullen, 1989, for a detailed and complete description of their theoretical
approach).
Rather than searching for the single emotional expression or blend of emotions that constitutes
jealousy, White and Mullen propose that jealousy is actually a complex of emotions, behaviors, and
thoughts that arise in a very specific interpersonal context, in this case, the social triangle that consists of
the jealous individual, the beloved (in our case, the parent) and the rival (here, one’s sibling). For present
purposes, we propose that jealousy is a complex of affects (A), behaviors (B), and cognitions (C) that an
individual experiences following the perceived loss or threat to self-esteem and/or the loss or threat to a
valued relationship to a rival (see Figure 1). Figure 1 shows that each individual in the triad may have
their own ABC complex of how they would react in a jealousy situation, and these differences among the
three individuals can influence the dynamics within the social triangle. Because siblings in the family are
often different ages (unless they are twins), the jealousy complex for an older sibling may be very
different than the jealousy complex for a younger sibling, simply because of the cognitive advances that
coincide with maturation and age changes. The jealousy complex is a patterned set of emotional,
cognitive and behavioral responses expressed by the jealous person in the interpersonal jealousy system,
which is the system of interpersonal relationships among the three individuals involved, i.e., jealous
person, beloved, and rival (see Figure 1). For instance, the jealous individual can cognitively interpret the
beloved’s affectionate behavior toward a rival as betrayal, feel anger as a result, and behave accordingly
with aggression. In contrast, if the jealous person interprets the threat as a loss of the relationship, she/he
may report feelings of sadness, and consequently, withdraw from social interaction. Each of these
potential patterns of affective, behavioral, and cognitive responses constitutes a jealousy complex and is
no more or less valid than the other.
Three dyadic relationships, as well as the social triangle, make up the interpersonal jealousy
system. The primary relationship is the relationship between the jealous person and the beloved, the
secondary relationship is the relationship between the rival and the beloved, and the adverse relationship
is the relationship between the jealous person and the rival. Of course, the quality and closeness of each
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of these relationships may influence the jealousy complex of any single individual involved in the
triangle, and indeed, may play an influential role in what form the jealousy complex takes or how often an
individual may experience jealousy. Should a parent, for example, have a preference for one child over
the other (i.e., favoritism), and express more frequent affection toward that child than his/her sibling, then
naturally, the sibling experiences a different interpersonal context and is exposed differentially to displays
of affection than is the other child. As Figure 1 also denotes, the social triangle is embedded within a
larger social and cultural context and the dynamics of the interpersonal jealousy system can be influenced
by characteristics of the three individuals, as well as the quality of other relationships that exist within the
immediate family system (e.g., marriage) or by factors outside the family (e.g., social network of kin).
The determinants, in this case, consist of the age, gender, and temperament of each of the siblings, as well
as the emotional state and personality of the parent. Each of these determinants can affect the
interpersonal dynamics of the social triangle, which, in turn, can influence the formation and development
of an individual’s jealousy complex over time. The dynamics of context and individuals are intricately
related, bidirectional in influence, and constantly changing over time. Jealousy, therefore, constitutes both
an intrapersonal experience and an interpersonal dynamic.
Figure 1 about here
Sibling Jealousy and Rivalry in Early Childhood
There has been a dearth of research on the development of childhood jealousy, in general, and
few studies that actually measure sibling jealousy in the triadic context that we have prescribed as
necessary for jealousy to be elicited. According to some researchers, a form of jealousy is present in
infants as early as 5 to 6 months of age (Hart & Carrington, 2002; Hart, Carrington, Tronick, & Carroll,
2004; Masiuch & Kienapple, 1993), yet others argue that a true jealousy reaction is not seen in children
until 18 months when children have the capacity to differentiate the self from others (Case, Hayward,
Lewis, & Hurst, 1988). Hart and her colleagues (Hart, Field, & Del Valle, 1998; Hart & Carrington, 2002)
created an experimental condition to provoke a jealousy response in 6- and 12-month-old infants by
having mothers attend to and affectionately interact with an infant doll. Infants expressed sadness, anger,
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and protested their mother’s interactions with the doll, inhibited their play, expressed negative
vocalizations, and approached the mother repeatedly indicating that they were sensitive to the loss of
maternal attention. Masciuch and Kienapple (1993) also found infants as young as 8 months old
responded with similar negative behaviors (e.g., frowns, crying, ceasing play, physical closeness, and
physical intrusion) to a jealousy provoking experimental condition where mothers attended to another
infant and a peer. Early research on sibling interaction bears out the significance of parental attention for
the emergence of jealousy. Corter, Abramovitch, & Pepler (1983) compared the rate of sibling conflict in
the home when mothers were present with the siblings and when mothers left the two siblings alone.
Siblings engaged in more agonistic interaction when mothers were present than when they were absent,
suggesting that siblings were most likely jealous and competing for their mother’s attention when she was
present.
The birth of a sibling. The first-born child’s reactions to the birth of a baby sibling have often
been interpreted as jealousy by clinicians and parents alike (Griffin & De La Torre, 1983; Legg, Sherick,
& Wadland, 1974). Older children react to the arrival of the rival sibling by attempting to disrupt the
mother-infant interaction, drawing attention to one’s self, or directing aggression toward the mother
and/or newborn (Field & Reite, 1984; Legg et al., 1974; Nadelman & Begun, 1982; Stewart, Mobley, Van
Tuyl, & Salvador, 1987). Parents also report instances of regression in the older child’s self-care skills
(e.g., toileting accidents, requesting to drink from a bottle), increases in problem behavior, and sleep
disturbances soon after the baby is brought home (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982; Field & Reite, 1984). Dunn
& Kendrick (1981) followed 40 British families longitudinally from shortly after the sibling’s birth to 14
months later and found that first-born girls directed less positive behaviors toward their 14-month-old
younger siblings if the mothers had engaged in more joint play and joint attention, and less prohibitions
with the firstborn shortly after the baby’s birth. One possible explanation for these findings is that first-
born daughters were more jealous of their baby sibling because of the disruption of the close relationship
the girl had with her mother before the birth, and consequently, she directed less positive and potentially
more conflict behaviors at the sibling almost a year later. Similar findings were not found for first-born
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boys, however, and it’s not clear why this would be the case. Perhaps boys would have displayed more
jealousy if their relationship with their fathers had been disrupted instead, but because fathers were not
observed in this study, future research is still needed to bear this out.
Given all the changes that are occurring in the family after the birth of a second child, it is
difficult to ascertain whether these reactions of the first-born are due to jealousy and the loss of exclusive
attention from the mother or if the problematic behaviors are indeed due to other changes in the family
that coincide with the second child’s birth (e.g., post-partum maternal depression and fatigue, marital
conflict, or increases in harsh discipline). More research is needed to tease apart which of these behavioral
and emotional reactions are due to jealousy of the new baby and which are a direct result of the changes
that are on-going in the family once the baby arrives.
Attachment and jealousy. Most children experience the birth of a baby sibling somewhere
between their second and third year (Baydar, Greek, & Brooks-Gunn, 1997) and have formed an
attachment to their primary caregiver by this time. For young children, the threat to the primary
relationship in the jealousy triangle is equivalent to the threat to or loss of an attachment relationship
(Bowlby, 1980). As Bowlby (1980) explained:
Many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the
disruption and the renewal of attachment relationships. The formation of a bond is
described as falling in love, maintaining a bond as loving someone, and losing a partner
as grieving over someone. Similarly, threat of loss arouses anxiety and actual loss gives
rise to sorrow; while each of these situations is likely to arouse anger. The unchallenged
maintenance of a bond is experienced as a source of security and the renewal of a bond as
a source of joy. Because such emotions are usually a reflection of the state of a person’s
affectional bonds, the psychology and psychopathology of emotion is found to be in large
part the psychology and psychopathology of affectional bonds (p. 40).
Disruption of the attachment or affectional bond to one’s primary caregiver during a jealousy evocation
should lead to similar behaviors that infants/toddlers use to maintain their attachment to the caregiver
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(i.e., clinging, approach to the mother, crying, protests). It should come as no surprise, then, to see that
many of these same behaviors have been the focus of jealousy research with infants and toddlers (e.g.,
Hart & Carrington, 2002; Masiuch & Kienapple, 1993; Teti & Ablard, 1989; Volling, McElwain, &
Miller, 2002).
A perceived threat to the self and the attachment relationship may activate the infant’s internal
working model and because the quality of the infant-mother attachment plays a role in the development of
the infant’s internal working model of self and relationships, infants with different attachment histories
may react to jealousy-inducing situations differently (i.e., develop different jealousy complexes). Hart
and Behrens (2008) recently reported that during a jealousy-evocation, 1-year-olds with an insecure-
resistant attachment to their mother were more likely to touch the mother, cling and grab the mother, and
seek proximity to the mother than securely attached infants and avoidantly-attached infants. Further,
insecure-avoidant infants were less likely to touch their mother, vocalize to mother, and show distress
than secure infants. Sharpsteen and Kirkpatrick (1997) in their research on adult attachment and romantic
jealousy also found that the affective, behavioral, and cognitive components of romantic jealousy were
related to different attachment styles. Specifically, securely attached individuals were inclined to express
anger toward their partner as well as make attempts to maintain their relationships, avoidant individuals
were far more likely to direct their anger at and blame the rival, and anxious individuals were more likely
to repress their anger. Although research on childhood jealousy is just beginning to emerge, researchers
may want to take a close look at the role of attachment theory in explaining children’s emotional and
behavioral reactions to the potential disruption and loss of the primary relationship with the beloved.
Observational research on triadic interaction. If the model we are proposing is correct,
observations of triadic parent-sibling interaction would provide stronger support for our model than
research relying on child or parent reports of sibling rivalry or even observations of two siblings engaged
in dyadic conflict. There are few observational studies available that have examined triadic interactions
between a parent and two children in the family so there is little information from which to draw strong
conclusions about sibling jealousy. We start with the research of Teti and Ablard (1989) because the
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triadic laboratory paradigm we use was adapted from the 8-episode laboratory paradigm they designed to
assess both sibling rivalry and sibling caregiving with toddler and preschool siblings. Sibling rivalry was
assessed by having the mother play with one child for 3-mins while telling the sibling to play alone and
then switching these roles, where she played with the sibling and told the child to play alone. The target
child’s (i.e., the one playing alone) behaviors were coded for distraction, cry/protest, and aggression
toward mother or sibling. The results examining whether insecurely attached children reacted differently
from securely attached children when mothers played with their sibling was confirmed for the toddlers,
who averaged 1.5 years, but not for their older siblings, who were on average 4 years old. Specifically,
insecure toddlers cried and protested their mothers’ interactions with their older sibling more than secure
toddlers, and used more aggression toward mother and sibling than secure toddlers. Because the paradigm
was triadic and involved the mother switching her attention from one sibling to the other, we believe Teti
and Ablard were some of the first researchers to successfully measure sibling jealousy.
In a study by Miller, Volling, and McElwain (2000), sibling jealousy was also observed in a
triadic context with 16-month-old toddlers, their preschool-aged siblings and a parent, either mother or
father. They used a paradigm similar to that of Teti and Ablard (1989) and had parents alter their attention
from one sibling to the other for 3 min. episodes. While the parent was playing with one sibling, the other
sibling was told to play with other toys in the room. Miller et al. found that both older and younger
siblings were far more likely to display anger, sadness, and distress when they were told to play alone,
while the parent was playing with the sibling, than when they were the focus of their parent’s attention
during parent-child play. Further, Volling, McElwain, and Miller (2002) reported that older siblings
displayed more jealous behaviors (e.g., distraction, aggression to mother and sibling) during mother-
sibling triadic interaction when children were insecurely attached to their mother and father, had angry
temperaments, had lower scores on a battery assessing emotional understanding, and spouses reported
more marital conflict and less positive marital relationships. In line with the transactional model we
proposed earlier, these findings highlight how characteristics of the children, their parents, and the family
context play a role in the development of young children’s jealousy.
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As we have already noted, research on sibling jealousy in triadic contexts is scarce so we now
turn to a presentation of some of our most recent research on sibling jealousy that was designed to
replicate the findings reported by Volling and her colleagues. The replication study included 57 families
consisting of a biological mother and father, a 2-year-old child, and an older sibling between the ages of 4
and 6. All participating families were invited to the research laboratory to participate in a series of family
interaction tasks, including mother-sibling and father-sibling triadic sessions, which were adapted from
Teti and Ablard (1989), to induce jealousy. Each session consisted of three, 3-min triadic episodes. In the
first 3-min. segment, the parent was given an attractive toy and asked to play with one of the siblings
(involved sibling) while attempting to get the other sibling (challenged sibling) to play with other toys in
the laboratory playroom. For the second, 3 min. session, parents were asked to switch roles so that the
involved sibling now became the challenged sibling. Parents were instructed during the last 3 min. to
play with both siblings in order to minimize any distress that may have been elicited during the prior 2
segments. This triadic paradigm is considered a jealousy-inducing situation for young children because it
requires that the “challenged” sibling regulate his or her emotions in response to the beloved parent’s
exclusive focus on the sibling rival. Specifically, in the involved condition, the parent and target child
were involved in dyadic free-play with a toy. The other child or “challenged sibling” was redirected by
the parent to play with other toys in the lab while the parent played with the involved sibling. These roles
were then reversed so that the challenged sibling now was involved in dyadic play with the parent while
the other sibling, now the challenged sibling, was directed to play with other toys in the room. All triadic
interaction sessions were videotaped and later coded for child emotional displays (sadness, anger,
happiness rated globally on a 7-point scale for the involved and challenge session) parenting behaviors in
response to the challenged child (supportive, control, unresponsive; 15-sec interval coding), and
challenged child behaviors (distracting parent, negativity toward parent, sibling, or object, touching the
toy during parent-child interaction, seeking comfort from parent, monitoring parent-child interaction from
a distance and up close and sophistication of play: 15-sec interval coding).
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A comparison of each sibling’s affect across the involved and challenged sessions (within-
subject) compares the children’s affect when interacting in dyadic free-play with a parent with the affect
expressed when the parent’s attention is directed at their sibling rival. We conducted 2 x 3 (context:
involved versus challenged x emotion: happiness, sadness, anger) repeated measures ANOVAs for older
and younger siblings’ emotion displays. For both siblings across both the mother and father sessions,
significant context by emotion interactions emerged, F (2, 53) = 23.33, p < .001, ηp
2 = .30 for younger
siblings with mother, F(2, 53) = 10.65, p < .001, ηp
2 = .17 for older siblings with mother, F(2,53) =
13.74, p < .001, ηp
2 = .34 for younger siblings with father, and F(2,53) = 14.68, p < .001, ηp
2 = .36 for
older siblings with father. Figures 2 and 3 present the means of children’s affect across the involved and
challenged contexts for older and younger siblings, respectively. There were significant changes for the
three emotions when children were involved in dyadic parent-child free-play and the recipient of parental
attention versus when the parent’s attention was focused exclusively on the sibling rival. Younger
siblings expressed significantly more sadness and less happiness in the challenged (i.e., jealousy
induction) than the involved (i.e., dyadic parent-child interaction) session during mother-sibling triadic
interaction (p’s < .001). Older siblings expressed significantly more sadness in the challenged as opposed
to involved context (p < .001) in mother-sibling triads. Happiness did decrease and anger did increase as
expected across challenged and involved contexts, but this difference was not significant. Younger
siblings and older siblings in the father-sibling triads expressed significantly less happiness and more
sadness in the challenged than the involved contexts (all p’s < .001). Younger siblings also expressed
significantly more anger in the challenged than the involved sessions of father-sibling triadic interaction
(p < .001).
Figures 2 and 3 here
In sum, the findings from this replication study with very young children indicated, in line with
our model, that 2-year-old children and their older siblings expressed significantly more negative affect
and less positive affect in the challenged than in the involved condition, and this occurred in both the
mother-sibling and father-sibling triads. These findings in combination with our earlier results confirm
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that the triadic jealousy paradigm elicited greater negative affect and less positive affect when siblings
received more attention than did children and this finding was found in four separate instances (i.e., older
sibling with mother, older sibling with father, younger sibling with mother, and younger sibling with
father).
As part of the developmental perspective guiding our work, we also proposed that children’s
jealousy responses may differ as a function of age such that older children may have more advanced
abilities to regulate jealous affect and may use different coping behaviors as a result. To examine this
possibility, we used children’s behaviors during the challenge context and conducted a principal
components analysis that resulted in three behavioral composites for the older sibling: Interference
(consisting of touching toy, physical intrusion on parent-child interaction); seeking comfort (monitoring
close, seeking comfort) and attention-seeking (monitors from a distance, distracts parent); and two
composites for the younger sibling: interference and seeking comfort. Attention-seeking was not found
for the younger siblings, which we believe is due to the developmental differences between the two
children. Monitoring the interaction between the beloved and rival, and then using distracting behavior
(e.g., asking mother if she would like a cup of tea from the tea set) that draws attention to the self is far
more sophisticated than simply pushing oneself into the parent’s lap to get attention. These differences
between older and younger siblings in the strategies they used to get their parent’s attention were noted
repeatedly by the coders watching the videotaped observations and also appear to be born out in our
analyses.
We examined developmental differences in older and younger siblings’ behavioral coping by
conducting 2 (parent) x 2 (sibling) repeated-measures ANCOVAs (controlling for order of
counterbalancing). A significant parent x sibling interaction for comfort-seeking behavior, F (1, 52) =
4.83, p < .05, ηp
2 = .09, indicated that younger, toddler siblings were more likely to seek comfort from
their mothers when they were challenged (M = .62) than were older siblings (M = .47), and younger
siblings sought more comfort from mothers during the challenge session than they sought from fathers (M
= .49).
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One might argue that the reason older and younger siblings differ in their behavior might be due
to the fact that parents are more or less involved with older and younger siblings during the dyadic play
and these different involvement levels elicit different levels of jealous behavior. To test this possibility,
we conducted 2 x 2 ANCOVAs looking at the involvement level between the parent and the target
sibling. The findings were all nonsignficant, indicating that any differences in the challenged siblings’
behaviors to parent-target sibling interaction were not due to differences in the parent’s dyadic
involvement with older and younger siblings.
Sibling Jealousy and Rivalry in Middle Childhood
Similar to the period of early childhood, there is very little research chronicling sibling jealousy
with children in middle childhood. Even though research on sibling interaction in this age period focuses
on a number of negative behaviors labeled agonistic, hostile, aggressive, or conflict, we do not
automatically include these studies as a reflection of sibling jealousy because there must be evidence that
the behaviors were elicited in a triadic context consistent with our theoretical framework. Sibling
conflict, jealousy, and rivalry are most likely related and may mutually influence one another, but they are
still different concepts and the motivations behind each may differ considerably. Conflict is a normal
aspect of social relationships and is defined by the mutual opposition between two individuals (Circirelli,
1995; Vandell & Bailey, 1992) and may be based solely on dyadic exchanges (e.g., possession of a toy).
Sibling conflict is not unusual and high levels of conflict can set a negative tone to family life. Again,
whereas much of what is currently labeled conflict or aggression in sibling studies could be motivated by
jealous affect, until research clearly distinguishes between negative sibling exchanges in dyadic contexts
from those behaviors occurring in a social triangle where children’s behavior can be directly linked to
differences in parental attention to one or the other sibling, we cannot know for certain what is or is not
jealousy. Therefore, only studies that were obviously conducted in a triadic context or were formulated to
specifically address jealousy are included here.
Much of the extant research in middle childhood focuses on the negative features of sibling
relationships like conflict, competition, hostility, envy, and jealousy. Boer (1990) tried to identify the
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different dimensions of sibling rivalry and proposed that sibling rivalry and competition referred to
actions while sibling jealousy and envy referred to emotions. According to Boer (1990), sibling rivalry
during middle childhood stems from competition for parental approval and parental social comparisons
between siblings, which appears to find support in the research of Prochaska and Prochaska (1985), who
found that 5th and 6th grade children reported that fighting for parents’ attention was one potential cause of
sibling rivalry.
In a recent study, Thompson and Halberstadt (2008) developed a sibling jealousy interview
looking at the frequency, duration, and intensity of sibling jealousy, as well as the cognitive, behavioral,
and affective responses of childhood jealousy. Interviews from 5th and 6th grade children revealed that
sibling jealousy was reported in an astonishing 98% of the families and occurred often (once per month
on average). Children also reported that the primary causes for their jealousy were diverted parental
attention and parental favoritism.
Although not specifically designed to assess sibling jealousy, several studies have used triadic
parent-sibling observational paradigms to assess negative sibling interaction and as such, are probably
capturing some aspect of sibling jealousy. Prominent among these studies is the research conducted with
school-age children by Brody and his colleagues (e.g., Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987; Brody,
Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992, 1994). In one of these studies, mother-sibling and father-sibling triads were
observed at home interacting with either a small hand-held computer or a Viewmaster projector.
Negative sibling behaviors that were coded from the videotaped interactions included teasing, insults,
quarrels, name-calling, protesting, negative facial expressions, and aggression; behaviors that are very
similar to those expressed by younger children during jealousy-evocation. Parents’ behaviors were also
coded and difference scores reflecting the difference between the amount of interaction the parent had
with the older and younger sibling were calculated to form differential positive and differential negative
parental behavior composites. In several instances, mothers’ and fathers’ differential negative and
controlling behavior was correlated to less positive and more negative sibling interaction. These
significant associations between differential parental behavior directed at one child over the other and the
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children’s negative interactions, once again underscores the relevance of parental attention in jealousy
expression. Stocker, Dunn, & Plomin (1989) also observed mother-sibling-triads and found that in
unstructured observation sessions, maternal differential behavior was positively correlated with more
conflict in the sibling relationship, as well as with competition and control between siblings. In another
study, more conflict and less prosocial sibling relationships were reported when maternal differential
treatment was present (Bryant & Crockenberg, 1980).
In one interesting approach, Robey, Cohen, & Epstein (1988) asked children (8-12 years) to view
vignettes portraying two individuals in competition for the attention of a third (i.e., a jealousy-inducing
situation) and then asking them to report on how each individual in the story was feeling. The vignettes
used included one instance of sibling jealousy (2 siblings competing for a parent’s attention) and three
other triadic configurations. Unfortunately, the sibling vignette was not assessed separately from the
other types, but overall, firstborn and laterborn children did not differ in the emotions they ascribed to the
characters, but children with divorced parents did attribute more unhappiness to an individual not
receiving attention than did children whose parents were still married. Collectively, these studies in
middle childhood indicate that sibling jealousy appears to be a significant experience in the familial life of
children and deserves more attention by researchers in the future.
Sibling Jealousy and Rivalry in Adolescence.
During adolescence, sibling jealousy continues to be studied extremely rarely. Studies of sibling
relationships during this period frequently focus on the overall quality of the relationship, or may separate
positive and negative aspects of sibling relationship quality, but do not examine jealousy specifically.
Rivalry is sometimes examined, either on its own or as a component of sibling negativity or conflict more
broadly. For example, in Furman & Buhrmester’s (1985) examination of older children’s sibling
relationships, a dimension of sibling rivalry was identified, which was comprised primarily of reports of
parental partiality toward the self or the sibling. Tseung & Schott (2004) have operationalized rivalry only
as feelings of being in competition or comparing oneself with one’s sibling, and used perceptions of
parental partiality as a predictor of these feelings. Still other investigators have allowed participants to
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interpret the concept of rivalry on their own or have used it interchangeably with terms such as conflict.
For example, Cicirelli (1989) asked the question “To what extent do you feel a sense of rivalry (conflict,
bad feelings) with your sibling?”
Tseung & Schott (2004) examined late adolescents’ responses to structured interviews regarding
their sibling relationships and found a factor they referred to as rivalry, which included adolescents’
perceptions of themselves as competing for approval with their siblings and making comparisons between
their siblings and themselves. Across studies, rivalry appears to be an independent dimension of the
sibling relationship, but it is positively correlated with hostility and negatively correlated with affection
among siblings (Boer, Westenberg, & McHale,1997; Tseung & Schott, 2004).
Among a group of adolescents and young adults in Israel, rivalry was operationalized as parental
favoritism of one sibling over the other. Mothers in the study actually reported higher levels of rivalry
between sibling pairs than the siblings themselves reported (Scharf, Shulman, & Avigad-Spitz, 2005).
A reduction in the overall amount of contact between siblings during adolescence is thought to account
for decreasing opportunities for both positive and negative interactions with one’s siblings (e.g., Brody,
Stoneman, & McCoy, 1994; Tseung & Schott, 2004). Jealousy, however, involves an inherent focus on
gaining the parent’s attention, and as such, is not necessarily dependent on actual contact with the brother
or sister. Nevertheless, Buhrmester & Furman (1990) did find in a cross-sectional analysis that feelings of
competition with an older sibling were lower among adolescents (9th and 12th grade) than among school-
age children (3rd grade), with 6th grade students scores falling between those of 3rd and 9th graders, and not
differing significantly from either.
Parental differential treatment continues to be associated with the rivalry that siblings experience
once they reach adolescence, with late adolescents who felt that their fathers had expressed more affection
for their sibling than for them reporting higher levels of rivalry than adolescents who did not report this
relative lack of paternal affection (Tseung & Schott, 2004). Interestingly, differential affection by mothers
was not associated with reported sibling rivalry, nor was differential control by either parent.
Furthermore, rivalry was the only dimension of the adolescent sibling relationship associated with any
17
aspect of perceived differential treatment by parents, indicating that to the extent that perceptions of
differential treatment by parents may have an effect on the sibling relationship for adolescents, it serves to
enhance a sense of rivalry or competition between siblings, but not to increase overall hostility or
decrease affection for the sibling (Tseung & Schott, 2004).
Sibling Jealousy and Rivalry in Adulthood.
The adult sibling relationship is structurally different than that in childhood and adolescence, as
adults are typically no longer sharing living space with siblings or dependent on parents. During
adulthood, sibling relationships are typically voluntary, but often there is a shared obligation to care for
aging parents. Perhaps for this reason, adult sibling relationships, in general, are infrequently studied, and
most extant studies focus primarily on the amount of contact or closeness with siblings, rather than
jealousy over the attention of a parent neither is likely to live with. However, sibling relationships in
adulthood are thought to be based, at least in part, on the history of the relationship, and when conflict or
hostility in adult sibling relationships are studied, it is often hypothesized to be rooted in childhood rivalry
over parental attention (Ross & Milgram, 1982). Moreover, when conflicts arise over care for the parents,
they may reignite old rivalries about parental affections and which sibling may have been favored by the
aging parent during their childhoods.
Descriptions of the prevalence of adult sibling jealousy are difficult to find. Although Cicirelli
(1982) found that nearly 90% of middle-aged adults reported “rarely” or “never” arguing or feeling
competitive with a sibling, Ross & Milgrim (1982) found that nearly half of the adults they studied felt a
sense of rivalry toward a sibling. Among studies of undergraduate students, two studies have shown that
for those just transitioning into adulthood, feelings of rivalry with a sibling over parental attention is
common (Bevan & Stetzenbach, 2007; Stocker, Lanthier, & Furman, 1997). Similar to adolescents,
reports of rivalry were minimally related to reports of sibling warmth, but were modestly related to
reports of sibling hostility. Sibling pairs generally agreed on the extent to which parents favored one
sibling over the other, but were less consistent in their reports of rivalry than other aspects of the sibling
relationship, such as warmth and general conflict (Stocker, Lanthier, & Furman, 1997). A cross-sectional
18
study compared reports of rivalry (operationalized as parental favoritism) by adolescent and young adult
sibling pairs, and found that the adolescents reported higher levels of rivalry than the young adults did
(Scharf, Shulman, & Avigad-Spitz, 2005). In general, the literature on sibling jealousy is not abundant
across any stage of the life course and even when siblings have been the focus of empirical study, there
are instances in which it is not clear whether the conflict or negative sibling interactions are a reflection of
jealousy, competition, or some other motivation that leads to hostility between siblings.
Child and Family Correlates of Sibling Jealousy
The transactional model presented in Figure 1 not only underscores the interpersonal dynamic of
jealousy and the social triad that consists of the jealous person, the beloved, and the rival, but it also
points to the different social and contextual factors that may influence the experience of jealousy within
the triad. Characteristics of the individuals involved such as personality or temperament, the quality of
the interpersonal relationships in the jealousy triangle, and the broader social context in which the triad is
embedded will affect the manner in which the jealous individual will interpret the beloved’s behavior
toward a rival, the affect experienced, and the behaviors displayed toward the beloved and the rival.
Here, we briefly review some of the research that has examined the individual and family correlates of
sibling conflict/rivalry in childhood to see if there is evidence supporting the model presented in Figure 1.
First, we should note that there are subtle distinctions as to what constitutes jealousy, envy, and rivalry
between siblings (Neubauer, 1982). Often, a single measure of sibling conflict is the only source of
information available in a sibling study and it is not entirely clear if this conflict is motivated by jealousy
(e.g., loss of parental attention or differential parental treatment), envy (e.g., one sibling wants and
forcefully takes something from the other) or rivalry (e.g., competition to be better than the sibling). As
such, our review takes into account how individual and family factors have been related to sibling
conflict, in general, with an understanding that these same factors may play a role in determining sibling
jealousy as well. Given space limitations, we do not present an exhaustive review of studies in each of
the areas, but instead, examine whether there is any preliminary evidence that supports our model. We
19
will then present recent findings from our own research program examining the child and family
correlates of sibling jealousy in early childhood.
Children’s temperament. The temperament of the children should determine, in part, the intensity
of jealousy experienced. Numerous studies have documented associations between the temperament of
the two siblings and the conflict between them (e.g., Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987; Brody, Stoneman,
& McCoy; 1994; Dunn & Kendrick, 1982; Munn & Dunn, 1989; Stocker, Dunn, & Plomin, 1989;
Stoneman & Brody, 1993). In general, more active, irritable, emotionally intense, and persistent children
engage in more sibling conflict (Dunn & Munn, 1989; Stoneman & Brody, 1993). Volling et al.’s (2002)
study looking at sibling jealousy in early childhood found that angry temperament was positively
associated with the toddler siblings’ jealous affect and the older sibling’s behavioral dysregulation during
mother-sibling triads, providing at least limited support that temperamental characteristics are related to
children’s jealousy responses.
Differential parental treatment. One of the most consistent findings in the sibling relationship
literature is the association found between sibling conflict and the preferential or differential treatment of
siblings. Differential treatment reflects the difference in either parental control or parental affection
directed to one sibling relative to the other. In most studies, when one sibling receives more affection and
less control from their parent compared to their brother or sister, he/she is often referred to as the
“favored” sibling. The concept of differential parental treatment is actually a reflection of the social
dynamic inherent in a jealousy-inducing situation. More parental affection directed at your sibling than to
you may be perceived as a threat to your own relationship with the parent and to your self-esteem (Rauer
& Volling, 2007). Therefore, differential parental affection in which the parent shows more affection to
one sibling than the other should be associated with more sibling conflict and/or jealousy. Indeed, there is
consistent evidence across early childhood (Volling, 1997; Volling & Elins, 1998), middle childhood
(McGuire, Dunn, & Plomin, 1995; Richmond, Stocker, & Rienks, 2005), adolescence (Brody, Stoneman,
& McCoy, 1992; Kowal, Kramer, Krull, & Crick, 2002; Shebloski, Conger, & Widaman, 2005) and even
20
into adulthood (Rauer & Volling, 2007) that differential parental affection is related to more conflict
between siblings and to lower self-esteem for the less favored child (i.e., the one receiving less affection).
Marital relationship functioning. The quality of the marital relationship has also been implicated
in the development of sibling conflict and is also considered as one of the social-contextual factors in
Figure 1 that should be linked to sibling jealousy. Numerous studies have found links between marital
conflict and sibling conflict (e.g., Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1994; Erel, Margolin, & John, 1998;
Hetherington, Clarke-Stewart, & Dunn, 2006; Stocker & Youngblade, 1999; Volling & Belsky, 1992;
Volling, McElwain, & Miller, 2002) . In our previous study looking at sibling jealousy in our triadic
paradigm, we found that negative marital relationship quality (i.e., conflict and feelings of ambivalence)
was positively correlated and positive marital relationship quality (i.e., feelings of love, efforts to
maintain the relationship) were inversely related to the older siblings’ jealous behaviors (e.g., distraction,
aggression) with mothers (Volling et al., 2002). Indeed, positive marital relationship quality was a unique
predictor of the older siblings’ jealousy even after controlling for the order of the session, mother’s
behavior during the session, children’s temperament, and marital conflict.
Emotion socialization. In addition to how parents treat each of the two siblings, the degree of
jealous affect expressed may be associated with the manner in which parents cope with their children’s
negative affect and the emotion socialization strategies that parents use. Eisenberg and her colleagues
(Eisenberg, Fabes, & Murphy, 1996; Eisenberg, Fabes, Shepard, Guthrie, Murphy, & Reiser, 1999) have
focused on the supportive (i.e., emotion-focused, comforting, and problem-focused reactions) and
nonsupportive (e.g., punitive, dismissing or minimizing reactions) emotion socialization strategies parents
use in response to children’s negative emotions. Whether or not parents attempt to punish or minimize the
children’s jealous emotions or actually try to comfort the child or encourage the child to express jealousy
probably has some effect on how children will choose to express jealousy in future situations. To our
knowledge, no study has examined the links between supportive or nonsupportive emotion socialization
practices and sibling interactions, including conflict, rivalry, or jealousy. Because of the lack of research
in this area, it is not clear what associations to expect. Perhaps parents who punish their children for
21
expressing jealousy actually diminish future incidents of sibling jealousy. On the other hand, because
jealousy may actually reflect a normative response to the threat of the love relationship between the
jealous child and their beloved parent, being punished for objecting to the potential loss of parental love
may actually escalate into more intense emotional expressions in the future as the child attempts to restore
their lost love. Similarly, encouraging the expression of jealousy might actually reward the child and
result in more frequent objections later or it may allow the child to work through their jealous feelings
with the help and support of their beloved parents, letting children see that mother’s attention to a younger
sibling does not equate to less love for them. The difficulty in making straightforward predictions about
the relations between emotion socialization and jealousy is due to the complex interpersonal nature of the
jealousy-inducing situation. Unlike most developmental research to date focusing on a single mother-
child dyad, the jealousy-inducing triangle requires that one mother-child attachment relationship be
considered in relation to a second mother-child attachment relationship. Sensitively responding to one
child may result in inconsistent responding to the other. Our research on jealousy highlights the limited
application of most extant developmental perspectives relying on the direct effect of dyadic interaction
between mother and child to explain the complexity of social emotions such as jealousy. Family influence
on children’s socioemotional development is far more complicated than most current developmental
theories can explain.
A Study of the Family and Child Correlates of Sibling Jealousy
In this section we briefly present analyses examining the family and child correlates of children’s
jealousy in the challenge sessions of our triadic laboratory paradigm. For these analyses, we summed each
child’s angry and sad emotion when in the challenged situation to form a composite of jealous affect, and
also used the behavioral composites of interference, attention-seeking and comfort-seeking we introduced
earlier. As measures of the child and family correlates, we focus on parental reports of (1) the marital
relationship using the love and conflict scales of Braiker and Kelley’s (1979) Intimate Relations
Questionnaire, (2) sibling relationship quality using the rivalry and positive involvement scales of the
Sibling Inventory of Behavior for older siblings (SIB: Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992) and the
22
Sibling Relationships in Early Childhood questionnaire for the younger sibling (SREC: Volling & Elins,
1987), (3) parental differential treatment using the differential affection and differential control scales of
the Sibling Inventory of Experience (SIDE: Daniels & Plomin, 1985), (4) children’s angry temperament
using the anger subscale of the Child Behavior Questionnaire for older siblings (Rothbart, Ahadi, Hersey,
& Fisher, 2001) and the Toddler Behavior Questionnaire for toddler siblings (Goldsmith, Rieser-Danner,
& Briggs, 1991), and (5) parents’ supportive and unsupportive reactions to children’s negative emotions
using Fabes and colleagues (Fabes, Poulin, Eisenberg, & Madden-Derdich, 2002) Coping with Children’s
Negative Emotions Questionnaire (CCNES). In the case of the marital relationship, the sibling
relationship, and the children’s angry temperament, we summed across mothers’ and fathers’ scores to
create more robust composites. High scores on all scales indicated higher values for marital relationship
and sibling relationship quality, angry temperament, and supportive/unsupportive emotion socialization.
The differential treatment scales of the SIDE were scored such that 1 indicated the parent did the behavior
more with the older sibling than the younger sibling, 5 more with the younger than the older sibling, and 3
equally with both siblings. For the sake of brevity, we only present the correlations between these factors
and children’s jealous affect and behavior during mother-sibling and father-sibling triads.
Older siblings with their fathers. Older siblings interfered more with father-younger sibling
interaction when parents reported more marital conflict (r = .29, p < .05), less marital love (r = -.30, p <
.05), less positive sibling involvement (r = -.26, p = .06), and more differential paternal control where
fathers controlled older siblings more than younger siblings (r = -.28, p < .05). Older siblings sought
more comfort from fathers when parents reported more marital conflict (r = .32, p < .05) and less positive
sibling involvement (r = -.31, p < .05). Older siblings also expressed more jealous affect when parents
reported greater temperamental anger (r = .29, p < .05). Older siblings’ attention-seeking with the father
was actually positively correlated with mothers’ reports of unsupportive reactions to negative emotions (r
= .31, p < .05) and to mothers’ differential control (r =.34, p < .01) such that more attention-seeking was
related to more control of the younger sibling compared to the older sibling.
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Older siblings with their mothers. During the mother-sibling triadic interactions, older siblings’
interference was positively associated with parent reports of angry temperament (r = .30, p < .05) and
when mothers and fathers reported more differential control directed toward the older sibling relative to
the younger sibling (r = -.25 and - .24, p < .10, for mothers and fathers, respectively). Older siblings’
comfort-seeking was positively correlated with fathers’ reports of unsupportive reactions to the older
child’s negative emotions (r = -.27, p < .05), whereas the older siblings’ expressions of jealous affect
were positively correlated with parents’ reports of positive sibling involvement (r = .27, p < .05).
Attention-seeking of older siblings with their mothers was negatively correlated with differential paternal
affection (r = -.28, p < .05) as well as with differential paternal and maternal control (r = -.23 for mothers
and fathers, p < .10). In other words, older siblings sought more attention from mothers during mother-
younger sibling interaction when fathers used more affection and control with them, and mothers used
more control with them, compared to the younger sibling.
Younger siblings with their fathers. The younger sibling’s interference with father-older sibling
interaction was marginally related to mothers’ differential control (r = .26, p = .06) such that interference
was related to mother’s use of more control with the younger sibling relative to the older sibling.
Differential paternal affection was negatively associated with more comfort seeking behavior (r = -.31, p
< .05) such that younger siblings were more likely to seek comfort from their fathers when fathers
reported they were more affectionate with the older sibling than with the younger sibling (i.e. favoritism).
Finally, a marginal association indicated that younger sibling’s jealous affect was positively correlated
with parents’ reports of the younger siblings’ rivalry with the older sibling (r = .27, p = .06).
Younger siblings with their mothers. The younger siblings’ attempts to interfere with mother-
older sibling interaction were positively associated with fathers’ reports of differential affection (r = .33, p
< .05) such that younger siblings were more likely to interfere with mothers and older siblings when the
fathers reported they favored the younger sibling by directing more affection toward them relative to their
older siblings. The younger siblings’ expressions of jealous affect were negatively related to fathers’
differential control (r = -.23, p < .10) such that more jealousy was related to fathers’ use of more control
24
and discipline with older siblings relative to younger siblings. Finally, younger sibling’s seeking-comfort
with mothers during mother-older sibling interaction was positively related to parent reports of marital
conflict (r = .33, p < .05) and inversely to marital love (r = -.31, p < .05).
There are several consistencies in the results we report here on a sample of 2-year-olds and their
older siblings with the findings we reported earlier with 16-month-old toddlers and their preschool
siblings (Volling et al., 2002). In both studies, parents’ reports of the children’s angry temperament and
the quality of the marital relationship consistently related to children’s jealous affect and behaviors. In
our replication study presented here, older siblings with more angry temperaments were more likely to
express jealous affect when fathers interacted with their younger siblings and they interfered more in
interaction between mothers and the younger siblings. Volling et al. (2002) also found that older siblings
with angry temperaments displayed more hostility and used more distraction when mothers and fathers
were interacting with their younger siblings, and younger siblings with angry temperaments expressed
more jealous affect during mother-sibling triadic interaction. The consistency in findings across studies
indicates that some part of how children react emotionally in jealousy situations is due to temperamental
predispositions.
One of the strongest predictors of the older siblings’ jealous affect with mothers in the Volling et
al. (2002) study was the quality of the marital relationship, particularly parents’ reports of less positive
marital relationships. The current correlations also revealed that spouses’ reports of marital conflict were
positively related and their reports of marital love negatively related to the older siblings’ interference in
father-younger sibling interaction and to more comfort-seeking of the younger sibling during mother-
older sibling interaction. Davies, Harold, Goeke-Morey and Cummings (2002) have proposed that
exposure to marital conflict can result in children’s feelings of emotional insecurity. This may explain
why toddlers sought more comfort from their mothers when mothers’ attention was focused on the older
sibling. More emotionally insecure toddlers from homes high in marital conflict may also feel insecure if
their attachment with their mother is threatened, even if that threat is coming from an older brother or
sister. Older siblings, in contrast, may be more likely to physically interfere in interaction between fathers
25
and their younger siblings. This interference might also reflect some form of seeking physical contact and
comfort. However, we see comfort-seeking and physical intrusion as less mature tactics for getting the
parent’s attention than distraction (“Hey, look at what I made!”) or verbal strategies (“Mom, I really love
you”) that draw attention to the self and away from the rival. Thus, the interference on the part of the
older siblings from homes with marital conflict could be seen as immature. Moreover, if children are
exposed to marital conflict and verbal aggression between spouses, these children may also be more
comfortable forcefully intruding on the interaction between their mothers and younger siblings. Certainly,
additional research will allow us to tease apart the reasons why marital conflict is consistently associated
with jealousy between siblings across the two studies we’ve conducted. But, in any case, these consistent
links between marital relationship quality and young children’s expressions of jealousy support the
interpersonal dynamics inherent within the family system.
If jealousy is a product of one child’s desire to maintain the attention and love of their parent in
relation to their sibling, then we would expect an association between differential parental treatment and
children’s jealousy responses. We found the older siblings’ interference with mother-younger sibling and
father-younger sibling interaction was associated with differential maternal and paternal control. In all
cases, older siblings were more likely to interfere if mothers and fathers reported they controlled and
disciplined older siblings more than younger siblings. We do not know if older siblings interfere more
because their parents are more controlling with them than their younger siblings, or if the reason parents
use more control and discipline with these children is because they are more likely to physically intrude
and interfere, and thus require more discipline. A similar explanation may be used to explain the
consistent relations between differential paternal and maternal control, and the older siblings’ attention-
seeking with mothers. In one case, the younger siblings were more likely to seek comfort from their
fathers when fathers reported more differential affection favoring the older sibling. Perhaps younger
siblings have learned that if they want affection and love from fathers who favor their older brothers and
sisters, the best way to get it is to interfere directly in father-older sibling interaction.
26
Finally, there was some evidence that the children’s jealousy was also related to the quality of the
sibling relationship, although these findings were not abundant and sometimes only marginal in their
significance. In this case, the older siblings’ interference in father-younger sibling interaction was
negatively related to parent reports of the child’s positive involvement with the younger sibling and the
younger siblings’ jealous affect with mothers was positively associated with parents’ reports of the
younger siblings’ rivalry with the older sibling at home. In any event, the preliminary findings reported
here provide some support that child and family factors contribute to the affective and behavioral
responses of young siblings in a triadic paradigm designed specifically to elicit jealousy, and, in turn, the
transactional model of sibling jealousy we have proposed.
Conclusions and Directions for Future Research on Sibling Jealousy
Parents often view the jealousy, rivalry, and conflict between siblings as a major childrearing
concern (MacDermott, 1980; Ram & Ross, 2001). Only recently, though, have developmental scientists
started to seriously study children’s jealousy. At this point, children’s jealousy has been assessed in a
multitude of ways including observations of mothers interacting with a doll and/or peer (e.g., Robey,
Cohen, & Epstein, 1988; Hart & Carrington, 2002; Mascuich & Kienapple, 1993), vignettes depicting
triadic interactions (e.g., Bauminger, 2004; Robey et al., 1988), and questionnaires asking children to
report on how jealous they are of their friends’ interactions with others (Parker, Low, & Walker, 2005).
Research focused on siblings has spanned a wide range of topics including sibling aggression and
physical violence, sibling conflict, which is often defined as dyadic opposition and/or verbal
disagreements, and rivalry, which is often viewed as sibling competitions around resources, prestige and
status. If we define jealousy as involving a triadic social situation that involves a rival, a beloved, and the
jealous individual, there is little in the way of research that has actually utilized such a model to inform
research in the area of sibling jealousy, and to distinguish it from other forms of aggression, conflict and
rivalry. In our review, we found it necessary to draw from all these areas in order to provide some picture
of what we currently know about the development of sibling jealousy. What we can conclude with
27
certainty is that there is considerable room for additional research on sibling jealousy. Having offered
such a conclusion, we now make several recommendations for future research in this area.
Research on sibling jealousy must be theory-driven or at least based on some conceptual
framework that allows one to distinguish between jealousy and other negative dimensions of sibling
interaction. In all likelihood, sibling jealousy, conflict, and rivalry are intricately linked such that an
incident starting out as a conflict over a prized possession, can subsequently turn into jealousy when the
mother steps in to pronounce that one child should relinquish the toy to the other, particularly if the child
doing the relinquishing perceives or interprets the mother’s actions to reflect favoritism. Our research has
focused specifically on sibling jealousy in early childhood and was based on a family systems’
perspective and the triadic model of jealousy we presented in Figure 1. Based on earlier research on
romantic jealousy and the notion of the social triangle, we designed a laboratory-based triadic paradigm
that allowed us to test specifically whether or not more negative emotions such as anger and sadness were
generated during parent-sibling triadic interaction. Also, because our samples have included
predominantly toddler and preschool-age children, we chose to start with observationally-based
paradigms because of these young children’s limited verbal and cognitive abilities for completing
interviews and self-report measures. We have now designed several studies using triadic parent-sibling
observational paradigms where parents are asked to alter their attention from one sibling to the other and
in line with our triadic model, young children do express significantly more negative emotions, both
sadness and anger, when their parents, either mother or father, are attending more to their sibling than
they are to them. Thus, we have empirical evidence to suggest that altering the dynamics of the social
triangle results in a jealous child when the beloved parent attends more to the rival sibling than to the
child.
Is it possible that we are also tapping into some other relationship dynamics or rivalry over the
toy rather than the loss of parental attention and love? Certainly it is possible that the young children’s
negative emotions in this contrived situation are elicited because of their desire to play with the attractive
toy and not necessarily strictly due to the loss of parental attention. We are currently devising methods
28
that will allow us to disentangle the jealousy and feelings of loss of the primary love relationship from the
rivalry or competition over the “beloved” toy. One way we are attempting to do so is by developing
different triadic scenarios or vignettes involving different family members and then acting out these
vignettes using dolls as props. Children pick the dolls to represent each member of their family and the
experimenter then proceeds to act out the vignettes, some designed to elicit jealousy (e.g., your mother is
playing and hugging your brother, but not you) and some that do not (e.g., the family goes out for ice
cream together). Children, who are approximately 4 to 6 years of age, are shown a number of felt faces
and asked to pick how they would feel in this situation and are then handed the dolls and asked to show
the experimenter what they would do next. Each jealousy interview is videotaped and subsequently
transcribed. Independent coders will eventually code the transcripts for the children’s verbal behaviors
and the videotapes for the actions with the dolls and the affect displayed. Anecdotal accounts from
experimenters and initial viewings of the videotapes indicate that some children become extremely
anxious at the possibility that a parent would prefer their sibling over them, whereas others engage in
aggressive behaviors and actually hit the mother or sibling doll, and some children offer suggestions for
ways of joining prosocially in the interaction between parent and sibling. Individual differences in these
children’s affect and behavior are apparent and the challenge for future research, our own included, will
be to design multiple methods that are sensitive to these individual differences in children’s jealousy of a
sibling and how these differences are related to other contextual and individual characteristics.
As noted earlier, some sibling research has indeed relied on triadic observational paradigms with
older children and it is quite possible that some of the negative affect and behaviors they have coded are a
reflection of sibling jealousy. Thus, it is not surprising that in many such studies, differential parental
behavior observed during triadic interaction is actually correlated with negative sibling behaviors. In the
course of naturalistic triadic interactions between a parent and two siblings, there will be moments where
the parent shifts attention from one child to the other, creating the triadic dynamic that elicits jealousy
responses and the desire to re-establish the parent’s love and attention to one’s self. Until studies are
actually designed with jealousy in mind, we are left to speculate which of the “negative” affect and
29
behaviors observed in these triadic situations can be labeled jealousy. One challenge for researchers will
involve the creative development of observationally-based paradigms that are age-appropriate for the
children involved. Toddlers and preschoolers may be easily engaged with a toy from Fisher-Price, but
this is unlikely to be the case with children in middle-school and certainly not the case with adolescents.
One recommendation, then, for future research is the need to utilize larger samples of children from more
diverse backgrounds and across a wider age range, including middle-childhood and adolescence. Other
than the research of Teti and Ablard (1989) and now our own, we are not aware of any other studies that
have used triadic observational paradigms to assess sibling jealousy. Because jealousy is evoked within
the social triangle that involves the jealous individual, the beloved, and the rival, developmental
researchers need to design more studies using triadic observations, and not rely solely on self- or parent-
reports of sibling rivalry, conflict, and aggression.
Our triadic model also underscores that the jealousy complex is composed of affective, behavioral
and cognitive dimensions (the ABC’s of Figure 1) that are elicited within the social triangle. Consider
that conflict between toddler and preschool siblings occurs 6 to 7 times an hour (Dunn & Munn, 1986;
Perlman & Ross, 1997) and many of these conflict episodes may be incidents of sibling jealousy resulting
from differential parental attention. If jealousy responses are elicited this often on a daily basis whenever
the beloved’s attention is directed to the rival, then the pattern of the affective, behavioral, and cognitive
components may be highly organized and practiced over repeated exposures to jealousy-eliciting
situations. The cognitive appraisals of the situation (mom loves him more), the displays of intense affect
(sadness), and the behavioral responses to regain the parent’s attention (crying) may be so automatic that
they occur outside conscious awareness. Our research has been conducted primarily with toddlers and
preschoolers so we had no choice but to use observational methods in order to capture the complexities of
jealous reactions in parent-sibling triads. Toddlers are simply too young to interview and do not have the
cognitive understanding to grasp the information portrayed in vignettes that are often given to older
children. Due to the children’s young ages, our research also focused only on the behavioral and affective
dimensions of the jealousy complex and we have not looked fully at the cognitive appraisals that children
30
make when their relationships are threatened by a rival, and how these are related to their behavior and
emotions. The interviews and vignettes depicting jealousy-inducing situations that we described earlier
are one possibility for assessing the cognitive aspects of the jealousy complex when used with older
children and we would recommend that these types of measures be used in addition to triadic
observational protocols if researchers wish to gain a better understanding of the different jealousy
complexes that may exist and how individual and social factors play a role in their development.
Finally, the model we proposed acknowledges that the interpersonal jealousy system is affected
by and affects the individuals involved. In our research, we have focused on the temperamental
characteristics of the children as one such factor and have found that children with angry temperaments,
based on their parents’ reports, appear to have more intense emotional reactions in our observational
paradigm. The parent-sibling triad is not isolated from other social, contextual, and familial factors and as
Figure 1 denotes, characteristics of the social environment such as marital relationship quality and
differential parental treatment should predict children’s jealousy responses. Indeed, we have found
consistent relations between parents’ reports of the quality of the marital relationship and observations of
young children’s jealousy in both studies we have conducted to date. In addition, there is now a consistent
line of research linking marital conflict with sibling conflict (e.g., Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992;
Ingoldsby, Shaw, Owens, & Winslow, 1999; Stocker & Youngblade, 1999; Volling & Elins, 1997), and
this research in line with our own work on jealousy, supports our model underscoring the complex
interconnections between individuals, the family system and the interpersonal jealousy system. There is
definitely a need for many more studies examining sibling jealousy and room for the development of
multiple methods to do so. Nonetheless, we believe the research we have reported here provides
preliminary support that sibling jealousy can be elicited in observational triadic paradigms, even with
very young children, and that individual, relational, and familial characteristics play some part in the
development of young children’s jealousy. We look forward to future studies that can explore the
complexities of the interpersonal jealousy system in more detail.
31
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Figures
Figure 1. Transactional Model of Sibling Jealousy based on White and Mullen (1989)
Figure 2. Means of Jealous Affect for Older Siblings across the Involved and Challenged
sessions of Jealousy Induction with Mothers and with Fathers
Figure 3. Means of Jealous Affect for Younger Siblings across the Involved and Challenged
sessions of Jealousy Induction with Mothers and Fathers
40
DETERMINANTS
Older Sibling Characteristics
(age, gender, temperament)
Younger Sibling Characteristics
(age, gender, temperament)
Parent Characteristics
(well-being, childrearing beliefs,
emotionality)
Interpersonal Jealousy System
older sib – parent relationship quality
younger sib – parent relationship quality
sibling relationship quality
External Social Environment
(culture, support systems, marital relations)
CONNECTIONS AMONG BEHAVIOR, COGNITION AND
AFFECT
Adverse Jealous (OS) Primary
Secondary
Rival (YS) Beloved (Parent)
B
CA
B
C A
B
C A
41
Older Sibling with Mother
0.0
0.2
0.4
0.6
0.8
1.0
1.2
1.4
1.6
1.8
2.0
Involved Challenged
Context
Affect Displayed
Happiness
Sadness
Anger
Older Sibling with Father
0.0
0.2
0.4
0.6
0.8
1.0
1.2
1.4
1.6
1.8
2.0
Involved Challenged
Context
Affect Displayed
Happiness
Sadness
Anger
42
Younger Sibling with Mother
0.0
0.2
0.4
0.6
0.8
1.0
1.2
1.4
1.6
1.8
2.0
Involved Challenged
Context
Affect Displayed
Happiness
Sadness
Anger
Younger Sibling with Father
0.0
0.5
1.0
1.5
2.0
Involved Challenged
Context
Affect Displayed
Happiness
Sadness
Anger
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Introduction: Importance of Sibling Relationships. A Life Span Perspective for Sibling Research. Methodological Approaches and Issues in Studying Siblings. Siblings in Childhood Adolescence. Siblings in Adulthood and Old Age. Siblings in Crosscultural Perspective. Understanding Sibling Relationships: A Hermeneutic Approach. Sibling Helping Relationships. Siblings as Caregivers of Elderly Parents. Siblings with Chronic Illnesses and Disabilities. Sibling Conflict, Aggression, Violence, and Abuse. Sibling Sexual Experiences: Normal Exploratory Behavior, Nonabusive Incest, and Abusive Incest. Loss of Siblings through Death. Siblings and Psychotherapy. Epilog. Index.
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