The Gerson family overwhelms our office with noise and activity from the first moment they arrive for family therapy. The three boys, aged 7, 11, and 13, immediately begin to argue over who sits where.

Pouncing on each other’s laps, they push and poke. The youngest one screams as though he’s been mortally wounded. Mom and Dad make a feeble attempt to create order out of chaos but they are clearly overpowered and outnumbered.

Is this normal sibling rivalry? (After all, boys will be boys.) Almost anyone who grew up with siblings, particularly those fairly close in age, won’t have trouble imagining this scene or one similar.

Didn’t you fight over the armrest in the back seat of the car, who decided what channel the TV would be on, or who got first dibs at the dinner table? Or was it about who mom loved best?

Sibling Rivalry is Normal–and Annoying

We’ve listened to tons of couples arguing about whether or not their kids are normal…

“It’s way too much!” insists Sylvia. “They might kill each other.” Her husband Sam rolls his eyes. “You never had brothers – girls are different!”

 These parents sounded like two kids fighting over the rules of a game. The truth is—no one knows just how much is normal since it depends on the “rules” that silently govern each family.

Depending on your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your age, the size of your family, and the rules of the family you grew up in, what seems inappropriate or out of control to one family can seem funny or normal to another.

That being said, one of the most frequent complaints we hear from parents is about incessant fighting between kids. If the conflict in your family is driving you crazy, perhaps it’s time to turn the volume down to the extent that you can. Although there will always be rivalry between sibs, there are tools to make things better. The first step is to understand what all the fighting is for.

It’s A Lot About Envy

Envy is the feeling we get when we want what someone else has. Webster describes it as a “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” This feeling can range from mild and occasional to chronic and all-consuming.

The roots of envy begin with the family for the simple reason that babies and children need the care and feeding from adults in order to survive. Beyond basic survival, human beings also desire love and attention.

If we grow up feeling like we “got enough” (what’s enough, really?) positive attention, touch, food, protection, time, love…then we grow up less likely to be consumed with envy. If we grew up feeling deprived of many of our fundamental needs, then envy can often be more pronounced.

The Positive Side of Envy

Our bodies and minds are built to help us survive and thrive. When the body is hungry or thirsty, it propels us to seek food and water. The same is true for psychological and emotional needs. The positive side of envy is the yearning for something more or something better.

The desire to reach the bottle or the toy entices the baby to crawl —the desire to explore makes us stand and walk. As we get older, we learn by comparing ourselves to others and model what we see our parents, siblings or peers do. A little bit of envy is a great motivator. If you believe that you can get what you want by trying harder, then envy can provide you with the proverbial kick in the butt. It can help you save money, lose weight, or practice good manners.

Obsessive Envy is a Symptom

As iron is eaten by rust, so are the envious consumed by envy.” -Antisthenes

But too much envy can destroy relationships. We’ve seen families who treat each other like enemies—lying, cheating, backstabbing, gossiping, spreading rumors about each other. There are also those who no longer speak to one another for long periods of time—estranged families.

Parental envy also flares up in many families. Envious parents angrily insist that their children have it too easy. One mother sneered when she told me her daughter “was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.” Instead of being proud of her daughter’s graduation from college, she was burning with jealousy because she had had to work at a tedious job to help support her disabled parents.

Envy merges the feelings of disappointment and longing with the belief that “IT’S NOT FAIR!” The envious person struggles to come to terms with the fact that someone else has the beauty, power, talent, wealth (fill in the blank….) that he or she craves.

Eliminate Envy for Your Own Sake

Not to be surprised, psychological research reveals that envy decreases life satisfaction and well-being. It’s closely correlated with depression and the hostility it breeds can literally make us sick and unhappy. Initially feeling deprived or victimized as a child can lead to an adult feeling victimized by the world.

When we are unable to accept that life often dishes out good things to “bad” people and bad things to the “good” people, then envy is the symptom of deeply held resentment. Recognizing this as a universal dilemma, all the world’s religions have addressed the subject of envy.

As the essayist Joseph Epstein noted, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Sloth may not seem that enjoyable, nor anger either, but giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures, and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights.” Envy pains the person who secretly feels its burning bitterness.

Tips to Substitute Empathy for Envy

If you are a parent…

If you are wanting to be less envious yourself…

  • Remind yourself that envy will only make you more bitter and angry, potentially sickening you.
  • Notice when the thought “it’s not fair” pops in. Gently remind yourself that life isn’t always fair.
  • Following the guidance of “The Serenity Prayer”, make a list of what you can change and what you can’t. Focus on what action you can take to get more of what you want. Focus on acceptance for the parts that cannot change.
  • Keep a daily gratitude journal listing 3 or 4 things each day that you are grateful for.
  • When you find yourself comparing yourself to someone you envy, remind yourself that you really have no idea about what lurks beneath the surface in that person’s life. All human beings—rich or poor—face inevitable losses.

As the words of the aforementioned song go, remember that we are all in the same boat together in this voyage called life. Empathy brings us together. Envy tears us apart.