Comparison Among Siblings: An Open Invitation to Mental Health Issues

Stills from the popular Hindi movie “Taare Zameen Par” starring Amir Khan. The film explores the smarter sibling scenario alongside the broader discussion on learning disabilities in children and challenges

By Wasim Kakroo

"LOOK at your younger brother, why aren't you like him," "Look at your sister, she always gets first position in class," and "Why can’t you be more social like your older brother" are just a few of the remarks that parents frequently use for their children especially parents with authoritarian parenting style.

Comparison between siblings is so common in families that it isn't even given a second thought. In a competitive society, where parents frequently compare their children to those of others, the comparison is certain to follow them home. Siblings are typically remarkably different from one another, despite growing up in the same house, sharing comparable genetics, and having the same chances, problems, and experiences. Their habits, mannerisms, milestones, and adventures are contrasted starting in childhood, especially throughout their formative years. Report cards, teacher feedback, performance in extracurricular activities, social skills, and personal development are all scrutinized, with no guarantee that the comparison will halt once they grow up. Although it is human nature to compare, and while parents may have the best intentions, when they expect two siblings to behave and perform in the same way, they are likely creating more harm than good. After all, despite their commonalities and bonds, children are still distinct individuals with unique psychology, physical abilities, interests, and driving forces. When children are growing up and trying to find their place in the world whilst coping with obstacles at school and in society, they will have even more to worry about, if their parents compare them to their siblings.

What many of the parents don't realise is that such comparisons can have a negative impact on their children's confidence and self-esteem, and more importantly cause envy and jealousy among siblings. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Let's have a look at some of the reasons why comparing children is an unhealthy practice and should be avoided at all costs.

Comparing siblings is never a good idea because each individual is unique in terms of talents, abilities, interests, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, and other characteristics. It's like weighing eggs in Kilograms; it makes no sense. Thus instead of focusing on what is lacking in their children, parents should focus on their strengths and good characteristics. Make a list of their strengths and identify activities that are appropriate for them. According to a well-known quote, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

No one is flawless. Comparing siblings will almost always lead to frustration. You can't expect everyone of your adolescents to be equally good in class, equally athletic, equally good at social interaction, equally responsible, and equally good at keeping the moral code you've set. You must be patient with them and set realistic expectations, or you will be disappointed day after day.

Additionally, children who are continually compared to their siblings or other children, particularly in terms of academic performance, have severe mental disorders, which they carry into their adulthood. Do you want your children to be stressed, anxious, depressed, or suffer from any other mental illness? If the answer is an unequivocal no, then stop comparing them.

Teens place a huge value on what you say, so be careful with what you say. Repeatedly telling one of your children that she is less intelligent than her siblings or that her handwriting is poor in contrast to others will only make her feel inadequate. Comparison begets competition. Jealousy among siblings might be a result of comparison, which has an impact on the household environment. Not only this, but it could harm your relationship with your children if they think you prefer one sibling over the other.

Moreover, comparisons may set a stage for self criticism. Self criticism may then lead to perfectionistic tendencies in such children which may lead to discontentment with almost everything such children do in their life.

Comparisons may sometimes have a reverse effect, when a child unable to cope with the pressure, results in rebellion. Some children may purposely perform poorly in school or stop studying if they realize their worth is dependent on their sibling's achievement. When a child's performance isn't up to par due to a higher standard set by a sibling, the child may feel like giving up completely and rebel instead.

When youngsters are expected to follow in the footsteps of a sibling, they may be unable to explore the vast array of options and standards accessible. A child is free to set his or her own objectives, milestones, and choices when there are no comparisons, providing him or her greater opportunities to explore and choose. A younger child should not be compelled to follow in the footsteps of an older brother who excelled in music classes, science, or the arts. Limiting a child by comparing them to others is limiting their endless opportunities and possibilities in terms of what they can do.

When teenagers are judged by those who are supposed to support and protect them, they naturally begin to wonder what is wrong with them and why they can't be like their siblings. As a result, the message that the child takes home is that "you are not good enough" — laying the groundwork for low self-esteem. What may appear to be a passing comment may become a verse in their minds. What a child or a teenager perceives to be true in childhood finds its way into the subconscious, which shapes an individual's personality even as they enter into adulthood. Such children begin to believe that they are incompetent. Low self-esteem leads to a lack of motivation and confidence. All of this occurs only as a result of your judgments and comparisons, even if they are made with good intentions and for constructive purposes. Thus, a comparison intended to assist the child do better does more harm than good in the long term.

You can't stop the world from comparing your children, but you can surely stop doing it at home. More than solving, comparison worsens the problem. Accept your children for who they are rather than what they should be like. Setting goals is vital, but so is understanding and nurturing the uniqueness of children and adolescents.

What parents/caregivers should do instead?

1. Parents must make a conscious decision to avoid unhealthy comparisons. Make a note of their strengths and limitations, and assist them in flourishing in their own way. When they follow a different path than their siblings, resist the desire to compare or correct them.

2. Allowing your pride in one sibling to cause disappointment in the other is not a good idea. Take care to strike a balance between the two. Children always watch closely and draw their own opinions. Thus, labeling your children is not a good idea. Giving your children titles like 'smart one,' 'childish one,' or 'creative one' not only limits their options to explore, but also gives the message that the other sibling lacks what 'the one' contributes, or instills in their minds a sense of inferiority.

3. Maintaining open lines of communication within the family would encourage children to speak up when they believe they are being compared to others. This is critical in order to avoid harmful assumptions or disagreements with the children, as well as among them. Also, inform the school of your expectations, as teachers frequently make comparisons between siblings if they attend the same school.

4. Rather than forcing your children to be similar, celebrate their differences. Communicate the value of having an independent identity so that they don't compare themselves even if no one else does. Encourage your children to work 'alongside' rather than 'against' one other. While your children battle comparisons and competition outside, make your home to be the safe zone against it, rather than an extension of it. Being a sibling does not have to signal the end of a child's individuality, and it is up to the parents to draw the line.

Parents, as primary educators and caregivers, must make conscious efforts to avoid making comparisons between their children. Parents must keep track of their children's strengths and shortcomings and help them to thrive in their own unique way. Every child looks up to his or her parents, so if the parents appreciate each child's unique identity, the child will feel confident and learn to believe in himself or herself.

  • The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar). He can be reached at 8825067196

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