Financial greed can break siblings apart

The birth of sibling love

In the fairy tale collection of the Brothers Grimm there are a number of fairy tales that celebrate sibling love. We all know them: “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Brothers and Sisters”, “The Three Brothers”, “Snow White and Rose Red” and many others. In them, siblings protect each other, care for each other, and have shared adventures. Their love is the unbreakable bond that holds them together and lets them master life.

Do all these fairy tales only express a collective wishful thinking and longing that usually fail because of reality? Sibling love, does that even exist? Don't the fraternal dramas from Greek mythology and the Old Testament to Shakespeare's "Richard the Third" show us the true face of a sibling relationship marked by rivalry, jealousy, envy and deadly hatred? In our century, psychology and especially psychoanalysis have contributed to the predominantly negative image of siblings by transferring their therapeutic experiences from pathological family structures to the general public. In order to remove these distortions that prevail in scientific and public consciousness today, I want to neglect the negative image that surrounds the sibling relationship in order to be able to rediscover the positive and supporting forces of this longest relationship in our lives more impartially.

The forerunners of sibling love begin long before the sibling is born. Perhaps the desire for a sibling is the beginning or the comforting feeling of crawling around on the mother's fat belly. She holds the child's head against her stomach - "Can you hear his heart beating?" - she puts his hand on the spot where the fetus is just stretching - "This is his little foot". A natural event occurs and the child participates in it.

This prenatal relationship as a forerunner of sibling love is based on the one hand on the identification with the mother's love for her unborn child, and on the other hand on an independent object attachment to the audible and palpable being in her belly.

Research into prenatal psychology has long known that the mother-child relationship does not just begin with birth, but rather goes back to the earliest period of pregnancy. From fertilization on, the embryo and the mother form a psycho-biological unit. This insight can be expanded if one considers the family as a system in which emotional ties are determined by the number of participants. Every pregnancy means an expansion of the system, which leads to a redefinition of its rules. It is therefore not surprising that fathers, too, often go through profound emotional changes as a result of pregnancy, in which the expected child is involved.

Why should pre-existing children be exempt from this process? You not only feel that the emotional structures in the family change with pregnancy, but also react as part of the system with an emotional reorientation. Even if the relationship between children and their unborn siblings has not yet been researched, a positive emotional attitude should prevail during the reorientation, because significant disadvantages from the parents or conflicts with the sibling are only to be expected after their birth. A conflict-free, unambiguous attitude is particularly to be assumed under the condition of a well-functioning system, that is, with a predominantly loving family atmosphere. When the child feels themselves loved, they have enough libidinal energy to transfer to the newcomer.

Not a disaster

Prepared in this way, the birth, as is often assumed, is not a catastrophe, but an eagerly awaited and long-awaited event. The baby is not only a gift for mother and father, but also for the older child. The prenatal ties are now taking shape. The baby is wild nature. It screams uninhibited when it is hungry, greedily sucks on its mother's breast, then falls asleep blissfully, pees and poops at any time of the day or night, kicking like mad with arms and legs, especially when it is naked, later it shouts loudly with joy when it sees mother, father and siblings. The whole thing is completely uncivilized, completely uneducated. Gorgeous!

It is strange that the closeness, connection and inner kinship of the child to such a form of primordial nature, as it is exemplified by his youngest sibling, has not yet been seen. Freud found a plausible explanation for children's love for animals:

The relationship of the child to the animal is very similar to that of the primitive to the animal. The child still shows no trace of that arrogance which then moves the adult cultured man to separate his own nature from everything else animal by means of a sharp boundary line. It gives the animal full equality without hesitation; in the uninhibited confession of its needs, it feels more related to the animal than to the adult, who is probably puzzling to it (1).

Wild nature

And what about the youngest sibling, the baby? It shows the same animal freedom and uninhibited assertion of its needs as animals. For a child who has been impressed with the first spurs of culture, the baby becomes a mirror of its in part already abandoned primary nature. By identifying with the baby, it regressively satisfies its own instinctual and narcissistic needs. The common observation that older children resume infant behavior after the birth of a sibling (feeding bottle, making bed, and the like) is often interpreted as a pathological relapse to an earlier stage of development. But how, if both are united by a primary closeness to nature?

While Freud emphasizes the child's closeness to animals, Herman Grimm describes in his introduction to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm very vividly the relationship between children and wider nature:

There is a common behavior towards nature in the children of all times and of all peoples: they see everything as equally animated. Forests and mountains, fire and stars, rivers and springs, rain and wind speak and cherish good and bad will and interfere in human destinies (2).

Even a baby is still part of such a holistic, grasped nature for a child. It doesn't talk, it doesn't run, you can't really do anything with it, nor is it devoid of any civilization. But it is "animated". When observing young children in contact with infants, there are many similarities to their interactions with animals and other natures. They caress them with transfigured eyes, they quietly sing a song to them so as not to frighten them, they speak to them particularly gently, as if babies, animals and plants shared the common language of gentleness, they offer them flowers - gifts from Love in its own little cosmos.


When adults observe such scenes unnoticed, they find them “touching”. They are touched by the absorption with which children give themselves to their love. The widespread doctrine is that such love is based on identification with the mother or on imitation, which ultimately serve to ward off the destructive impulses against the sibling and to secure the love of the parents through the desired behavior. I think it is more likely that these mechanisms will only come into play at a later point in time, namely when real or only imagined disadvantage is feared by the parents because of the growing demands of the infant or the expansive development of the sibling leads to inevitable conflicts. In the early stage after birth, on the other hand, the relationship is likely to be based predominantly on an autonomous process of object attachment, in which the child experiences a unique re-encounter with its primary nature. After the first bond had developed in the prenatal phase as a precursor to sibling love, the infant creates love in its older sibling in the sense of narcissistic desire to merge. From these two cores - the forerunner of object love and the narcissistic cathexis of the object in the earliest stage of the sibling relationship - the later and mature sibling love develops under favorable conditions.

The relationship shown can be demonstrated by the results of a study by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin (3). In a long-term study over a period of two years, 16 families were observed who had their second child at the start of the study. The development of the sibling relationship was divided into three phases: 1st to 9th month, 9th to 18th month, 18th to 24th month. For all three phases, direct observations were used to examine how the ratio of positive and negative behavior of the older child compared to the second changed over the course of the two years. It was shown that in the first nine months the older children turned to the infants an average of thirty times more positively than negatively, and that also in the further periods up to the second year of life the positive reactions clearly exceeded the negative ones.

These findings are so striking that in all probability they cannot be traced back to the behavior desired by the parents, but to the independent relationship between the siblings in the sense of primary love.

I consider the assumption of early sibling love as an independent process of object finding to be extremely important, because the connection between the siblings can also be thought of as being independent of maternal influence. A love that is only based on identification or imitation is more fleeting and more susceptible to irritation of all kinds due to its external determination. In contrast, a self-determined love forms a more stable foundation to better endure later burdens.

How important the theoretical derivation is for practice should prove particularly in borderline situations in which identification and imitation are difficult or impossible, for example in the case of mothers who cannot love their children or even openly reject them, or who are seriously ill due to death and other forms of separation leave children alone in the early stages of their sibling bond. In these cases, according to the current theoretical concept, one would have to assume that there is an early and profound alienation between the siblings. However, this does not necessarily seem to be the case in practice.

Symbolically condensed, the fairy tales “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Brothers and Sisters” provide two vivid examples of this connection. Both siblings flee from mothers who, on closer analysis of the fairy tales, turn out to be incapable of love and relationships from the earliest times. The siblings have nothing but their mutual and autonomous love - a basic trust that gives them the strength to help each other cope with the dangerous developmental steps of their childhood together.

In both fairy tales it is not stated who is the older or younger of the siblings. All children are able to live in a comparable way and their love for siblings is equally strong. In this way they can alternately take on the roles they need to rescue the other from a dangerous situation.

This note is important because it has not yet been answered how the infant loved by his sibling will develop an object love for his part. On numerous occasions, the baby can perceive the sibling as an independent and loving object even in the early stage of its object differentiation. Depending on their age, the older child gives the younger the bottle, cradles it in his arms, carries it around, rocks it and tries through all sorts of jokes to make the baby laugh. He usually spends more time around him than his parents, and both usually sleep in the same room. In this way, the sibling gets an omnipresence and specific characteristics for the baby, which make it possible to differentiate between mother, father and sibling from the third month at the latest. In psychological literature, the mother has played the central figure as the first and almost exclusive love object in early infancy. Only the more recent sibling research shows that an addition is necessary here in order to better understand the origin of sibling love.

Competence of the older sibling

For the infant, the toddler has enormous competence with regard to all of his already developed skills. In addition, it differs from parents in a wide range of characteristics, activities and forms of relationship. Given the complex ability of young infants to perceive and differentiate, as has only been discovered by newer infant research, the assumption is therefore obvious that on the part of the infant there is already a specific object love for the older sibling in the first few months. It is not only reflected "in the shine of the mother's eye", but also in the sibling's smile, in his embrace, in his tenderness and care. This narcissistic reflection is the necessary prerequisite for being able to accept the sibling as a love object. Like the mother, the sibling becomes not only a good external, but also a good internal object, which is central to the development and stability of a self for the growing infant.

The sibling study by the Max Planck Institute already cited provides some important information in this regard. The study not only examined the behavior of the older sibling towards the younger sibling, but also vice versa. It was found that the younger siblings also turned to the older siblings much more often positively than negatively. This mainly applies to the time around the first year of life. If one regards the positive behavior as an expression of sibling love, there is overall a close reciprocity between the siblings, which goes back to the earliest times of their relationship.

Fictional couple

After the first nuclei of sibling love have formed in the prenatal phase and in the first months after birth, a differentiation takes place in the following period, during which sibling love takes on more and more mature forms. More than any theory, concrete intuition can clarify the subtle processes that shape this maturation process. A fictional pair of siblings should serve for this purpose, whose development we want to accompany for a while.

We call the older child Klaus, the younger Lisa. Choosing a brother-sister pair makes it easier to describe gender-typical developmental characteristics. Lisa has learned to sit and stand and is making the first awkward attempts to walk. She keeps falling, Klaus, he's three years old now, picks her up, supports her when she sways, takes her hand and walks with her to the next chair. There she can rest. You can plop down, has too little strength. But she wants to play. She cheers when Klaus rolls a ball between her legs, she takes the teddy bear in his arms, which he is holding out to her, watches Klaus as he piles colorful building blocks on top of each other and then overturns them with hoots. Then he jumps on the sofa, fetches an apple from the table, Lisa grabs it and tries hard to suck on it. Klaus bites off a small piece and shoves it into Lisa's mouth. You have a lot of time together. The mother is very busy and the father usually only comes when both children are already in bed.

Two children gradually conquering the world. Klaus doesn't leave Lisa alone a little. When the mother feeds her, he stands by, watches, and sometimes he is allowed to feed Lisa himself. At lunchtime, when Lisa is asleep, he goes quietly into the room to see if she is already awake; he wants to play with her. In the meantime he has also learned how to change Lisa; it doesn't quite work out yet, but he is allowed to help. At night they lie in their beds, very close to each other; Lisa babbles to herself and Klaus tries to explain to her why a rabbit has ears that are too long. He's the first to hear when Lisa cries at night. He runs to his parents: "Lisa is crying!"

For children of this age, this is an infinitely extended time of togetherness. The constant repetition of all activities plays an important role here, it consolidates the engrams of loving togetherness. Step by step, each of the children begins to detach themselves from the original fusion, to further differentiate their own ego and to perceive the ego of the other more strongly through delimitation.

The pre-linguistic communication now flows smoothly into a common language finding that is inaccessible to adults. They laugh at all nonsense, a lot becomes a joke for them. The wealth of child-friendly experiences, the exchange of a wide range of emotions and body contact and the fascinated observation of all body processes, from eating to excreting urine and feces, form a complex structure of mutual relationship that is fundamentally different from the mother-child relationship . The children create their own world out of reality and fantasy in which only they are at home. The mother is indispensable for the fulfillment of certain needs, but her constant presence would only disturb.

Early childhood

In the meantime Lisa has become a “real” girl and Klaus a “real” boy. The turn of the word probably best describes the now definitive gender of the children. Their own feeling for their different identities is the result of a change in their body perception as well as the corresponding role attribution and role expectations by their parents.

The children’s first three years of life together passed without any particular complications. Lisa speaks fluently now and runs like a weasel; her brother's language and motor skills were a major stimulus for her. Their games together become more imaginative. They build caves under the table, paint their wallpaper with finger paints, jump from chair to chair, climb on the cupboards, balance over the edge of the bed and outdo each other in inventing other circus acts. The pride in their new skills grows with the affirmation and admiration of the other. You still need this mutual narcissistic mirroring and can show it to yourself without worrying. Despite the differentiation into two independent ego structures that has already taken place, narcissism is still an important part of their love.

Kaleidoscope of the world

For some time now the apartment has become too cramped for Lisa and Klaus. The conquest of the outside world has begun. Streets, squares, crowds, the noise of the city, the first contact with other children, playing and quarreling with them, the life of the animals in the zoo - the colorful kaleidoscope of the world begins to revolve around them. They protect each other from danger, from passing cars, from walls that are too high, from barbed wire fences, from nagging adults. Klaus defends Lisa's toys in a sandpit and yells at a boy who wants to push her. But Lisa didn't fall on her mouth either; if someone messes with Klaus, she can scold like a pipe sparrow. And they laugh: at the naked mannequin in a department store, at the man who rides a bicycle hands-free, the funny hat of a woman, the tiny dog ​​peeing on a lantern. The real adventure of life has begun and the two are right in the middle of it. They are not very scared, there are two of them. But of course it is nicer when their parents help them when they are supported by their love. This gives them a self-confidence with which they can not only cope with emergency situations themselves, but also turn away the evil from others.

The feeling of social responsibility is slowly growing in both siblings. Together they feed and care for their guinea pigs, they try to keep a bird healthy. When he dies both are very sad; they bury him in a place no one else knows.In the following days they go to his grave and talk about what it's like to die. Klaus says the bird will become an eagle, Lisa insists that it be turned into an angel. She thinks about her sick grandma. “Will Omi be an angel too?” “No,” says Klaus, “She just disappears and nobody knows where she is.” “Poor Omi”.

Late childhood

At some point the children's paradise ends between the dolls' house, the grocery store and the puppet theater. Lisa and Klaus go to school. The privacy of her life has lost its early familiarity. It has become public. The love of siblings experiences its first decisive turning point.

It all started when Klaus attended kindergarten. This was associated with a basic experience for the children that will accompany their further life in many variations - the experience of separation. That was especially painful for Lisa. She suddenly felt very alone. Such separation experiences are inevitable. And they are important because they help children develop sufficient separation tolerance that prepares them for later separation experiences. As we know, these go back to birth, to the primary separation of mother and child after pregnancy (4). The following phase of the mother-child relationship is characterized by a subtle alternation of separation and rapprochement, which helps prepare the child for the separation of the mother step by step. This separation is the necessary way to individuation and autonomy. Siblings support each other in the important process of separation from their mother by practicing the separation steps on themselves from kindergarten age at the latest. By having to separate anew every day and then see each other again, they ritualize the dialectical processes of separation, rapprochement and individuation as an identity-forming experience.

These maturation steps in human development have been examined very thoroughly by the research group led by the psychoanalyst Margaret S. Mahler in direct observations of mothers, children and their siblings (5). We owe the research group the clearest descriptions of the mutually promoting and accelerating influence of the siblings in overcoming the mother-child symbiosis. The separation experiences that the siblings later have with themselves represent another important development boost in the direction of finding one's own identity.

Given the sum total of their childhood experiences together, Lisa and Klaus slowly develop a feeling of gratitude for one another. They owe a substantial part of the strength to greater independence to their shared life. Gratitude is an indispensable ferment of any productive social bond and a key element of love. In sibling relationships, the principle of gratitude plays a previously rarely seen but important role, as it revolves around the central question of the extent to which early childhood impulses of envy, greed, rivalry and hatred could be overcome, or whether these destructive feelings persist.

Later perspectives

The development of sibling love up to about puberty, which has so far only been shown in a few facets, can be described as the phase of "intimacy", in which the foundation for trust and togetherness is laid. With puberty, a second stage of maturation begins, which corresponds to a phase of "distance". It extends into about middle adulthood and then leads to a third, the "rapprochement phase", in which the siblings, if their love has lasted, move closer together again. In relation to the whole of life, one speaks in family theory of a sibling novel, of which there are as many and different as there are siblings. Any attempt at generalization must be aware of the uniqueness of each sibling constellation.

As sibling research has shown, unlike other relationships, sibling ties have the highest degree of socially reliable continuity. The second phase of greater distance usually does not mean that siblings move away from each other completely. Rather, it is necessary so that siblings can differentiate themselves more strongly and learn to develop their own individuality and identity. Just as this is not the case, for example with twins or incest relationships, the siblings often remain clenched in conflict with one another for a lifetime. The demarcation in this phase is usually favored by different biographical life courses.

The rapprochement phase in later adulthood is usually initiated by the various goodbyes and losses that have to be overcome in this phase of life, such as illness and death of the parents, the breakup of partnerships, the children leaving the home, the end of working life and finally the Preparation for your own death. In a successful sibling relationship, siblings mean invaluable comfort, help and protection against loneliness in this phase. In remembrance of the early roots of their love and trust, there is now a reconciliation with everything that has separated them in the meantime, with all inevitable disputes and differences and with what they may have neglected in terms of loyalty, sympathetic interest and concern . Such a process of reconciliation in the rapprochement phase supplements sibling love with a mature form of friendship as the unity of all positive forces that bind people to one another.

Where's the rivalry?

If in science and in the public consciousness the view of a "primary hostility" prevails between siblings, as it is called in a summarizing work on sibling research (6), then I start from the hypothesis of a "primary sibling love". Of course, this one-sided accentuation should not deny the fact that there are undoubtedly feelings of rivalry, envy, jealousy and hatred between siblings. However, these appear to me to be secondary. Their causes are located on three important levels:

Innate physical, mental and emotional differences between siblings have a decisive influence on the design of their relationship.
From a lifelong perspective, socialization outside of the family plays a role that should not be underestimated for the quality of the sibling bond.
The most important level, however, is likely to be the parent-child relationship. Family research over the last few decades has uncovered numerous mechanisms that can derail family systems and direct sibling relationships into destructive channels.

In fact, the influences that can disrupt or even destroy the development of sibling love are of a diverse nature. And it is undoubtedly important to gain greater clarity about them if you want to explore stronger conflicts in your own sibling relationship in more detail or to prevent them from developing between your own children. Such knowledge is of course also of great importance in the field of upbringing outside the family and is essential in the advisory and psychotherapeutic field. It seems just as important, however, to recognize and promote the abundance of resources in sibling love. To tie in with this wealth and its happiness should be of particular importance in a time when people are becoming more and more strangers and in which the individual is experiencing himself more and more as a stranger.


(1) Freud, S. (1973): Totem and Tabu. Ges. Works Vol. IX (1913). Frankfurt / M.

(2) Grimm, H. (undated): The Brothers Grimm. In: Grimm, Brothers: Children's and Household Tales. Munich.

(3) Schütze, Y. (1986): The course of the sibling relationship during the first two years. In: Praxis Kinderpsychologie Kinderpsychiatrie 35/1986, 5.130-137.

(4) Petri H. (1993): Leave and be left. Zurich, 4th ed.

(5) Mahler, M. S / Pine, F./ Bergmann, A. (1978): The Psychic Birth of Man. Frankfurt / M.

(6) Berger, M. (1985): On the psychodynamic relevance of the sibling relationship. In: Zeitschrift Kinder-Jugendpsychiatrie 13/1985, pp. 123-137.

(7) Richter, H. E. (1963): Parents, Child and Neurosis. Stuttgart.

Stierlin, H. (1975): From Psychoanalysis to Family Therapy. Klett, Stuttgart.

H. Petri. (2012): Sibling love and rivalry. The longest relationship of our life. Freiburg, 9th edition.

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Prof. Dr. Horst Petri, born in 1936, is a neurologist and doctor for child and adolescent psychiatry. Long-standing head of the child psychiatric outpatient clinic at the Free University of Berlin. Apl. Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics at the FU Clinic. Psychoanalyst in private practice.


Prof. Dr. med. Horst Petri
Carl-Herz-Ufer 27
10961 Berlin

Created on November 8th 2013, last changed on November 8th, 2013