Siblings without rivalry ? By Stephanie Davies.


This article is an adaptation of an MA dissertation. There is a focus on the complex nature of sibling relationships and the importance of early experiences on the development of the child’s ability to negotiate the Oedipus complex and early peer relationships. Work discussion material will be drawn upon to give examples of looked after children in a therapeutic residential community and their experiences of sibling and sibling-like peer relationships. Infant and young child observational material will be used to highlight the difference between deprivation/abuse and “good enough”[1] (Winnicott: 1949) early experiences, and the impact this has on the child’s development. Throughout, there will also be a focus on both the conscious and unconscious processes that are at play and the role of primary caregivers in aiding the child’s development in terms of sibling and peer relationships.

 For confidentiality reasons, the names within this journal are pseudonyms.

[1] Winnicott (1949: p203) states that “the need for a good enough environment, which is absolute at first, rapidly becomes relative. The ordinary good mother is good enough. If she is good enough the infant becomes able to allow for her deficiencies by mental activity. This applies to meeting not only instinctual impulses but also all the most primitive types of ego need, even including the need for negative care or an alive neglect. The mental activity of the infant turns a good enough environment into a perfect environment, that is to say, turns relative failure of adaptation into adaptive success”.

The development of relating

When looking at the development of the infant/young child, there has understandably been great importance placed upon the mother-infant/child relationship, however, there has not been as extended a focus on the role of siblings and peers. Therefore, without discounting the considerable impact of parents/carers, I aim to look at the role attributed to siblings and peers on the infant/child’s cognitive, social and emotional development as well as their ability to negotiate the Oedipus complex and develop the relevant internal skills and resources needed for later group functioning.

Psychoanalytic Literature:

Freud (1897) first introduced his concept of the Oedipus complex in his letters to Fleiss, later developing it as part of the phallic stage of psychosexual development[1]. Freud described the Oedipus complex as the process whereby the child has a desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a rivalry with the parent of the same sex for the possession of the desired parent. This rivalry leads to the unconscious desire to kill-off the parent of the same sex in order to replace them within the parental couple. To progress though this phase, the child engages in Oedipal configurations to process the conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings and desires.

The dissolution of the Oedipus complex is apparent through the repeated disappointments experienced by the child, and the resulting repression of these painful experiences, leading to the transition into the latency period. For boys, this coincides with the conscious recognition of female genitalia which emphasises the unconscious fear of castration as a punitive response to his desire to possess his mother or as a part of the female condition:

 “If the satisfaction of love in the field of the Oedipus complex is to cost the child his penis, a conflict is bound to arise between his narcissistic interest in that part of his body and the libidinal cathexis of his parental objects.”

(Freud, S. 1924, reprinted in Freud, S. 2005; p398)

However, for girls, the knowledge of her ‘missing’ penis as an apparent castration means that castration is not what brings about the dissolution of the complex, but the desire for a penis translates into a desire to carry a baby.

Freud (1916/17: p333-4) stated that the presence of, or the perceived conscious/unconscious threat of a sibling impacts the child’s Oedipal development by evoking a fear that they will not be loved by their parents upon the baby’s arrival, therefore, “the Oedipus complex is enlarged into a Family complex”.

Conversely, Melanie Klein (1923b/1928) argued that the presence of a sibling can help the resolution of the Oedipus complex due to the possibility of transferring feelings onto siblings, thus reducing the heightened levels of anxiety and guilt felt towards parents. However, if the child has a heightened constitutional bias for envy,[2] or jealousy[3] their formation and resolution of Oedipal relations/configurations will be more difficult.

Klein (1928 reprinted in 1998: p186-8), also argued that the onset of the Oedipus complex started at a much earlier age “in consequence of the frustration which the child experiences at weaning” and that the Oedipus complex as Freud saw it was not emerging but was in fact the “climax and termination” of this stage of development. 

Though many theorists have overlooked the presence of siblings in Freud and Klein’s work, Sherwin-White (2014) argues that Freud’s case studies and Klein’s clinical cases repeatedly showed that the birth of a sibling acted as a trigger for the child’s neurosis because:

“As well as reigniting early oedipal conflicts, the arrival of a new sibling presents some basic challenges such as the infant inevitably having to undergo the developmental stage of being weaned and losing hitherto exclusive access to the mother’s breast, or its equivalent, plus the loss of the mother’s sole attention if an only child.”

(Sherwin-White, S. 2014: printed in Hindle, D. and Sherwin-White, S.: 2014; p36)

Furthermore, if the issues within the client’s sibling relationships remain unresolved, they can be played out in later life, thus supporting the notion that sibling relationships can influence our later relationships.

Additionally, Lisa Miller (2014) states that:

Sibling relationships are an integral part of the oedipal configuration…our relationships with siblings – actual siblings, symbolic siblings, peers of all kinds – are as crucial for our well-being in the world as our relationship with mother and father – although the nature of the parental relationship also influences the nature of the sibling link.

(Miller, L.: 2014; printed in Hindle, D. and Sherwin-White, S.: 2014; p115)

Wellendorf (2014: printed in Skrzypek et al: 2014) argues that siblings add an additional dimension to the Oedipus complex as the child is not dependent on their siblings for survival as they are with their parents. Consequently, Oedipal love and hate does not exist solely in a “closed triad” (ibid: p7) but in an open one. Furthermore, the presence of siblings, who are dispensable as they are not essential to the child’s existence, evokes a fear of the child’s own dispensability and exclusiong from the parental relationship as they are “living proof of the primal scene” (ibid: p8). 

Enekvist (2014: printed in Skrzypek et al: 2014: p259) also develops this by stating that the presence of a sibling threatens the child’s omnipotence which is characteristic of the Oedipus complex, enhancing their sense of instability within their family role. On the other hand, siblings, alongside parents/carers, can aid the development of the infant/young child as “a sibling relation offers an opportunity to test, play, and find oneself in relation to others”, thus leading to the development of a social conscience which is essential for later group functioning.

Enekvist (ibid) also states that if older siblings take on a parental role with the younger siblings, “it will imply an avoidance of the oedipal conflict and the oedipal order, and, as a consequence, a reduced ability to handle omnipotence and mourning”. Therefore, it is important to consider situations where this has been the case, such as children who have not had emotionally/physically available primary caregivers, leading to older siblings taking on a pseudo-parental role. This may lead to a confused and complex relationship as the projections within the sibling relationship will be unmanageable without the facilitating presence of an emotionally attended adult. Thus supporting the notion that siblings can aid the child’s development, but only with appropriate parental/adult support.

 Child development research, neuroscience and other areas of research:

Judy Dunn (1998/2004/2005/2014) suggests that there should be a detailed consideration of the importance of sibling relationships on the social and emotional development of the child, and that this should be considered throughout our lifetime.

Dunn (2004) found that children were more likely to discuss their feelings with other children than they were with their parents/carers or significant adults. Additionally, Dunn’s work with Layard (2009) found that sibling relationships can help develop an understanding of emotions and empathy as they are able to see the impact they have on one another.

However, Dunn (2014) also states that:

“Differential parent-child relationships are linked with more hostile conflicting sibling relationships, and with higher levels of aggression, difficult behaviour, and conduct disorder in the ‘unfavoured siblings”

(Dunn, J. 2014 printed in Hindle, D. and Sherwin-White, S. 2014: p74)

In relation to this, Brody (2004) states that the relationships older siblings develop with their parents can shape the relationships that the younger sibling will have with their parents. For instance, if the older sibling is a high achiever, the parents may have the capacity to encourage the younger child to develop and be proud of their achievements. Conversely, if the younger child is seen as lacking in comparison to the older sibling, there may be differential parental treatment which can hinder the development of the younger sibling.  However:

“Sibling relationships that are characterized by a balance of nurturance and conflict can provide a unique opportunity for children to develop the ability to understand other people’s emotions and viewpoints, to learn to manage anger and resolve conflict”.

(Brody, G. H.: 2004; p124)

On the other hand, Brody (ibid) states that older siblings also have the capacity to disrupt the younger siblings development, i.e. by role modelling and encouraging antisocial behaviours – this is argued to be linked with the economic status of the family, with those from a poorer area having more opportunities to engage in antisocial behaviours.

Furthermore, Kriss, Steele and Steele (2014: printed in Hindle and Sherwin-White: 2014; p82-95) state that sibling relationships, alongside parent/carer relationships, are crucial to the development of the child in terms of their interpersonal behaviour. For example, if there is a sense of a shared environment, experiences and of their parents/carers, the child is able to form helpful attachments to their siblings based on love and support. However, if the relationship is based on rivalry and feelings of dislike, the children will not develop trusting and healthy relationships with one another. Moreover, when siblings experience significant life events, such as parental divorce, loss, trauma and abuse differently “their internal perspectives on the world shift in accordance with their individual experiences, and their sense of  cohabiting a shared environment diminishes” (ibid).

Music (2014) develops this to look at how child’s development is influenced by their siblings, peers and parents with particular reference to the middle childhood phase[4]. Music considers this stage the most important for the development of the child’s social skills as they are more malleable at this time, stating that although initial relationship blue-prints are formed within parent-child relationships, children develop and hone their social capacities through their sibling and peer relationships – he references class and cultural studies to support this.[5]

Furthermore, children who have difficulties understanding other people’s emotions and states of mind; experienced trauma and abuse, or have a negative and challenging temperament find this period very difficult. However, children who are born with/develop a positive and mild temperament and are given the opportunity by their parents/carers for creative play with siblings and peers are able to negotiate this period more easily.

From sibling to peer relating

The child’s development in relation to others can be seen as a linear process whereby the skills learnt in each stage are transferable to the next. For instance, through the relationship the child develops with their parents/carers, they are supported to develop relationships with their siblings and later their peers.

Pike’s (2005: p529) study acknowledges the importance of the parent-child role whilst stating that “the link between sibling relationship quality and children’s adjustment is not entirely mediated by the quality of the parent-child relationship”. When siblings play together in a cooperative manner, they are able to develop social skills that are transferable to wider social settings. This suggests that children who are supported to manage the complexities of their sibling relationships and are consequently able to develop a capacity for empathy and cooperation/compromise are more likely to be able to make and maintain peer relationships. Malekpour (2007) supports this by stating that the skills gained through sibling relationships can be seen in the negotiation of early peer relationships.

Furthermore, Mayseless (2005) notes that during middle childhood there is a shift in the kinds of attachment relationships children have with their parents and that this shift is evolutionary in nature and enables them to manage the separation more effectively:

“…humans have an evolutionary-based developmental tendency to partially withdraw from their investment in close relationships with their parents or primary caregivers…and to invest instead in…getting along with their peer group…”

(Mayseless, O. printed in Kerns, K. A. and Richardson, R. A. 2005: p16)

When looking at neuroscience theory considering the way in which siblings and peers can support a child’s development, Perry and Szalavitz (2006) make reference to a boy Perry worked with named Peter. Peter spent the first three years of life in a Russian orphanage in a cot without any stimulation, leading to severe cognitive, emotional and social delays in his development. Peter was then adopted and was able to re-experience early developmental tasks which helped him ‘catch up’ with some of these delays.

Although Peter’s adoptive parents slowly introduced him to other children, when he started ‘kindergarden’ he was overwhelmed and unable to read the social cues from the children and adults around him, resulting in him being ostracised and feared by the group. Perry (ibid: p226) decided that if Peter “was going to catch up, he was going to need the help of his peers” and then, with Peter’s permission, Perry explained to the group that Peter’s early experiences had led to his brain being under-developed. Perry thanked the children for helping Peter learn new things daily – Peter’s peers then sought to be the one that can play with him and teach him new things, consequently, Peter started to ‘catch up’. This supports the notion that other children – siblings or peers – can have an important impact on a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development and that peers can be used separately yet in a similar way to older siblings to do this. However, the helpful and appropriate thinking and mediation of the adults is crucial for this to happen. For instance, the children in Peter’s class internalised and identified with Perry’s parental position, which evoked a desire to help Peter as a way of seeking positive reinforcement from Perry and the other adults alongside an omnipotent desire to ‘fix’ Peter. 


Group and therapeutic community relating

Group thinking came to the forefront of theoretical focus after the Second World War, as theorists were trying to understand how the power of a group can influence each member’s actions.

Bion (1961) developed the concept of group dynamics and group relating suggesting that each group holds a different function, and whilst in a group, each member holds a particular role for the group which is based on their own “valency”[6] for that role.

This occurs in all groups, but the first group we are in is the family, and it is the roles we develop within the family that are translated into later groups.

Youell and Canham (2006: p106) focus on the transition from family to school life, suggesting that the child will need to draw upon the skills they have learnt within the family to be able to manage this transition. In order to do this “the child needs to have a fairly robust sense of who he is, what contribution he can make, and what he has to learn from others”. Therefore, if the child has been given the experience to safely explore and play out unconscious feelings and dynamics, they will be able to learn more about who they are in relation to their family members and the impact they all have on one another. The child will then be able to draw upon this knowledge of themselves and others in order to negotiate their peer relationships.

Music (2014) supports this by suggesting that peers can support each others development as they can act as role models for one another. However:

“Not all children are equally successful at this, and children with few social skills and an inability to understand other minds are particularly vulnerable, such as children who have suffered severe maltreatment and neglect who often struggle to form stable friendships”.

(Music, G. 2014: p162-3)

This not only highlights the importance of peers and “good enough” (Winnicott: 1949) early experiences in shaping a child’s development but also the impact of maltreatment and neglect. For instance, if a child has not had good enough early experiences, they will not have had the opportunity to develop the key skills required for social interactions, thus leaving them unable to make and maintain appropriate sibling/peer relationships, or draw upon these relational experiences to develop. Furthermore, if a child has experienced severe maltreatment, neglect, abuse and/or been placed in care, their ability to understand others will be more complex/limited.

Main and George’s (1985) study on a small group of toddlers, some of whom had been abused and some of whom had not, showed that the abused children did not show sympathy towards other children when upset, whereas half of the non-abused group did. Taking this into consideration, as well as having a delayed social, emotional and cognitive functioning, it could be suggested that a group of children who have all experienced significant loss, trauma and/or abuse will not be able to develop their own capacity for empathy – this being one of the main helpful/developmental aspects of having siblings.

Margaret Smallbone (2014) looks at the impact of siblings being placed in care, both together and separately, stating that:

“For children whose background is traumatic and abusive, having a shared sense of history, as one might have with a sibling, can be comforting and protective…but siblings can also be a reminder of difficult circumstances or lead to repetition of earlier abusive relationships”.

(Smallbone, M. printed in Hindle, D. and Sherwin-White, S. 2014: p203)

Smallbone’s vignettes of her clinical work with siblings in care describe both helpful and unhelpful aspects of sibling relationships. For instance, she suggests that the presence of siblings who are in care together can help the children to maintain previous elements of their relationships that were characteristic of the family, such as violence or sadism. However, in the majority of cases, the presence of siblings, or at least the continued, regular contact with them whilst in care enables children to maintain the good aspects of their family life. It is important to recognise that Smallbone’s (ibid) case studies are of children who have been exposed to severe and traumatising events in their early life and have often experienced several major separations and losses, consequently, shaping how they relate to both adults and peers.

This leads to a consideration of the experience of children who have been separated from their family unit which is otherwise intact; the impact of this on their sense of themselves as well as their unconscious phantasies as to why they are separate and the consequential feelings that are evoked. Moreover, although the child’s constitutional bias for envy (Klein: 1957) may colour their experiences, external situations such as this may evoke a stronger bias towards envious feelings.

Furthermore, Pughe and Philpott (2007) state that links can be made between sibling rivalry within a family setting and the sibling-like rivalry experienced within peer relationships of children within a therapeutic community:

“While therapeutic parenting, by the nature of its task, is more structured than family life, which can often feel quite spontaneous even when it isn’t, children in need of therapeutic parenting are helped by both group living and individual provision. Just as attempting to meet the needs of individual children within the family can evoke unintended jealousies and tensions among other children, so individual provision is not without problems to overcome or seek to avoid.”

(Pughe, B. and Philpot, T. 2007: p109- 110)

Garland (1998: p183) supports this by stating that within a therapeutic community “the work function of the group-as-a-whole has to be kept in mind alongside the individuals’ differing needs for comfort and therapeutic understanding”.

Furthermore, when considering the social, emotional and cognitive development of looked after children in a residential therapeutic community, it is important to consider their early experiences; sibling and later peer relationships, but also the experience of being placed in care. Rutter (1972) argues that:

“An institutional upbringing which involves multiple changing caregivers has been shown to lead to important social deficits and problems in interpersonal relationships”.

(Rutter, M. 1972: p154)

As well as acknowledging group dynamics within family and residential care homes, there should also be a consideration of the way in which group dynamics are apparent within a therapeutic group setting. Drawing upon her clinical experience, Reid (1999) identifies the way in which groups can be used for therapeutic interventions stating that:

“The group facilitates the exploration of a number of relationships and offers different models of behaviour and different perspectives on situations. This is particularly helpful for many deprived children, and for all children who have little capacity for self reflection”.

(Reid, S. printed in Lanyado, M. and Horne, A. 1999; p250)

Consequently, it is through group relating that children are able to see the impact that they have on others as well as the impact others have on them. Therefore, through the interactions and experiences within a safe therapeutic group, and under the facilitating presence of the therapist, the child is able to understand more about the relationships they have; the way they and others function within those relationships and to create new ways of relating on all levels.

 Bak’s chapter in Skrzypek et al (2014) supports Reid’s work, stating that therapeutic groups can be used to understand the role that siblings have on a child’s development. Bak (ibid) details a group she worked with therapeutically, stating that it was through the group interactions that an understanding of each person’s sibling relationships could be drawn:

“The analysis of the ‘here and now’ situation that appeared in the group allowed discussion of the feelings of rivalry, jealousy, and jaundice which the patients felt in their own families towards their siblings”.

(Bak, E. printed in Skrzypek et al: 2014; p38)

 Although both Reid (ibid) and Bak’s (ibid) work is based on psychodynamic group therapy, some of the core principles can be translated to residential therapeutic communities. For example, through understanding the way in which the children relate to one another in their sibling-like peer relationships within a residential therapeutic community, an understanding of their conscious and unconscious family dynamics can be drawn with a consideration of the child’s developmental age rather than just their chronological age.

Finally, a vivid account of the more extreme dynamics in a community can be seen in William Golding’s (1954) “Lord of the Flies”. This fictional book depicts the lives of a group of children who are isolated on an island without any adults present. The children initially find each other and then begin to form rules, a leader and sub-groups, suggesting the initial presence of an internalised parental/authority figure. However, the innate and most primitive desires of the children become more apparent and the presence of a benign and caring internal parental figure diminishes leaving only a cruel and punitive one, resulting in the murder of one child.

Although there are always adults present for the children within a therapeutic residential community, links between the primitive states of the children featured in the book and the children in a therapeutic residential community can be drawn. In particular, the sense of chaos and murderous feelings that are evoked in and around these children; the anxieties the children have in terms of getting their needs met within the group; the Lord of the Flies atmosphere and group state of mind, as well as the sense of fear that the children can have of themselves and others – “Now Jack was yelling too and Ralph could no longer make himself heard. Jack had backed right against the tribe and they were a solid mass of menace that bristled with spears.” (Golding: 1954; p200).

Siblings in action

Poppy: “Yay, I did it!”

The infant observed, Poppy, is the second and youngest child to Ellie and Kevin, a middle-class, professional couple. Kevin often works away for several days a week and Ellie works from home. Poppy’s older brother (Jacob) is two years older than her.

One of the more complex aspects of Poppy and Jacob’s relationship was their negotiation of their roles within the family. For instance, when Poppy was almost two years old she was seeking her ‘mojo’ (a dummy attached to a teddy) when Jacob picked up his teddy (‘didoo’), placed it in his mouth and said:

 “…‘I’m a baby’ to which Poppy responded by saying grumpily ‘no, I’m the baby’. Jacob said [more forcefully] “I’m the baby’, Poppy then shook her head and stomped her foot. Ellie looked at her and said ‘what’s up?’ and Poppy said ‘I’m the baby’. Ellie asked ‘are you the baby?’, to which Poppy nodded and said ‘yes’ before then walking into the front room. Jacob looked at Ellie with a sad expression, placed his didoo in his mouth, sucked it and curled into a ball on the sofa”.

(Observation 82: 20/3/14: p1)

  This highlights the struggle for both children in terms of their place within the family as well as Ellie’s struggle to be able to support them both with a powerful need to be the baby. Furthermore, this also highlights how strong feelings can be evoked in both children when their position is seen to be taken or challenged, supporting Sherwin-White’s (2014) notion that any new addition into the family unit will result in a negotiation of the roles of each person and will evoke complex feelings on both a conscious and unconscious level.

Another of the more complex aspects of Poppy and Jacob’s relationship was how they managed and processed their more aggressive feelings alongside their loving ones. This was something that coloured their relationship throughout, and was present very early on in the observations, although Poppy’s reactions changed. For instance, when Poppy was six days old, Ellie stated that Jacob was becoming increasingly aggressive towards Poppy:

“…he has hit her head and poked her over the last few days, but he bit her yesterday. I couldn’t see any marks or anything, but baby [Poppy was not named yet] hadn’t even cried so we weren’t aware of how hard he had bitten her. It is really difficult as I get so cross with him when he hurts her, but I know he is finding it very difficult. He started saying ‘our baby’ a lot, but now he says ‘the baby’. I think he is realising how much of my time she is going to take up’.

(Observation 1: 20/4/12: p2-3)

From Ellie’s accounts, this may suggest that Poppy was not overtly responding to Jacob’s attack which may have been as she was so shocked at the physical sensation. However, this shocked state after an attack from Jacob was not prevalent for long – when Poppy was four weeks old, her responses began to change. Poppy was led on the sofa, tucked into the corner with cushions surrounding her and Ellie was in the kitchen when:

“Jacob walked up to Poppy and started to poke her on the arm, possibly to wake her. Ellie then looked in from the kitchen doorway and asked Jacob to be gentle with her, at which point Poppy opened her eyes and looked towards Ellie. Ellie then went back into the kitchen and Jacob pinched Poppy’s arm, Poppy responded by crying loudly and flailing her arms. Ellie came into the room, picked her up and asked ‘what have you done now Jacob?’

(Observation 4: 11/5/12, p1)

Additionally, when Poppy was almost six months old:

“Jacob climbed up on to the sofa next to Poppy and led across her lap so that his head was almost on my knee and his bottom was almost in Poppy’s face. Poppy looked between me, Jacob and the kitchen door and began to frown. After a few seconds, Poppy began push Jacob’s bottom away from her face, but to no avail, so she started to make a whimpering noise in protest. Ellie then re-entered the room and asked Jacob if he was being gentle with Poppy and that she hoped he was as she was getting quite cross with him for being so boisterous with her already this morning. Ellie then explained to me that she had walked in on Jacob lying on top of Poppy on their bed after she had ‘popped downstairs for a second’”.

(Observation 22: 11/10/12; p1)

During both observations, the request to be ‘gentle’ appeared to be a denial of the emotional experience for both Poppy and Jacob, perhaps because this was too painful for Ellie to engage with. However, Jacob’s aggressive advances later became hidden within loving actions – with Jacob hugging Poppy tightly and saying ‘lovely Poppy’. This symbolises Jacob’s ambivalent feelings towards Poppy, and although this was not picked up by Ellie and Kevin at this time, Poppy’s responses to Jacob’s attacks further developed into her pinching or biting him. During later observations, Poppy would engage with Jacob in a similar way by hugging Jacob around the neck tightly or lying on him. Perhaps this was a more acceptable way for them to explore their aggressive feelings within the family group.

Furthermore, Poppy and Jacob lying on one another may have also been an exploration of their Oedipal phantasies, particularly as the incident took place on the parents bed. This may suggest that they were exploring what their parents/a parental couple might be like and what happens when the children are not present. It is important to note here that, considering Klein’s (1928) notion that the Oedipus complex begins much earlier than Freud (1924) initially thought, their experiences would be different. Jacob would have been engaging in this interaction after having worked through many of his Oedipal phantasies and fears, whereas Poppy would only have started have to experience them.

Additionally, Jacob would also become very jealous of Poppy in relation to feeding and the symbolic representation of Ellie’s preoccupation through Poppy’s relationship with the breast. For instance, during the seventh observation (7/6/12: p2) when Poppy was being breast fed, Jacob looked at me and said “the baby wants some boob, do you want some boob?”. This was immediately followed by Jacob sitting in between myself and Ellie and Poppy, then pushing his feet against Poppy’s feet, moving them away from Ellie’s body. Ellie then said “…that isn’t very kind is it? Would you like it if someone was kicking you whilst you were having your breakfast?”; Poppy did not appear to have an overt reaction to this and continued with her soporific feed.

Considering Klein’s (1957) notion of envy, Jacob offering the “boob” to me could arguably be him trying to diminish the goodness of the breast due to his feelings of loss and envy – if he can’t be the sole owner of the “boob”, he would ruin it so Poppy can’t take in the goodness. When this did not work, he then tried to push Poppy away from Ellie and the “boob” so she couldn’t have it. Perhaps Jacob may have felt left out of the Oedipal configuration between Ellie and Poppy at this point.

Moreover, Poppy’s continuing with her soporific feed also highlights her general resistance of the presence of a third person. Not only did Poppy block out Jacob’s attempts at disturbing her feed, she would also refuse to be fed in any other way. This is something that Ellie reported being particularly challenging for both her and Kevin – she felt she needed someone to take over at times, perhaps due to the intensity of the feeds, and Kevin was left feeling isolated and not good enough.

In contrast to this, during later observations when Poppy was drinking cows milk from a bottle, Jacob would take it from her when no one was watching and would drink it. Poppy would get visibly upset and cross and would then hit, pinch or pull Jacob’s hair, thus highlighting the struggle within their sibling relationship to allow one another to have their needs met and to be empathetic towards one another.

On the other hand, Dunn and Layard (2009) state that the presence and development of a sibling relationship enables the child to be able to learn how to become empathetic towards others feeling. Although Dunn and Layard (ibid) do not overtly consider the role of the primary caregivers in facilitating this, during the observations of Poppy, it is apparent that Ellie’s role was crucial in doing so.

Initially, this was present more in Ellie’s discussions with Jacob, for example when Poppy was five months old, Jacob pinched Poppy when Ellie went into the kitchen. Poppy then cried which led to Ellie re-entering the room and saying:

“What have you done to her Jacob? To which Jacob shook his head and didn’t say anything. Ellie then picked Poppy up and was cuddling her – Poppy stopped crying and was now whimpering – and said to Jacob ‘I know it is difficult for you to have to share your room and mummy and daddy with Poppy, but it isn’t ok to hurt her because you are cross’”.

(Observation 17: 6/9/12: p2)

 By doing this, Jacob’s feelings were acknowledged whilst a boundary was enforced, differing from interactions within earlier observations. As previously stated, this was initially directed towards Jacob, however, as Poppy’s more aggressive behaviour towards Jacob became more overt, Ellie would respond to her in the same way.

When considering the way in which an older sibling can help the younger siblings development, it is important to think about the way in which younger siblings have the opportunity to progress, perhaps quicker than first born children, as they are able to watch and copy the older child’s behaviour.

This is something Poppy did increasingly. For example, during observation eighty one (13.3.14: p4), when Poppy was almost two years old, Kevin had set up an assault course in the back garden for the children. Jacob jumped off the step from the higher to the lower level of the garden, Poppy followed him and then said in a surprised and excited tone “I did it, yay, I did it!”.

This is something that was particularly prevalent during the second year of the observations, which may have been because Poppy was more physically able at this time, but perhaps it was also due to the baby having been relinquished, leaving Ellie to have more thinking space for both children, and consequently a reduction in competition for her attention.

Kara: “I don’t want to be the cat, I want to be the mummy!”

The young child observation took place in a nursery school in a small and affluent village. The child observed, Kara, lives with her mother and father, both of whom work full-time, and her younger brother (Seb) who joined the nursery during her fourth and last year there.

During the initial meeting, a member of staff mentioned that Kara struggled when her brother was first born and when he joined the nursery, being very clingy with her mother upon separation and then with the class adults once her mother had left. Perhaps the repeated struggle was linked to a repeated experience of being pushed out by Seb, especially as he joined the nursery at almost the same time as Kara began her transition to primary school.

Two of the main themes that emerged during the observations were how Kara developed and maintained her peer relationships, and the way in which she engaged in these relationships to aid her exploration and resolution of the Oedipus complex.

Kara would engage in Oedipal interactions/play, particularly with two of the boys in the class, Stuart and Aaron. This was particularly prevalent during the ninth observation whilst listening to the ‘Bob the Builder’ song:

“Stuart started to dance with his arms out wide and wiggling his hips; Kara watched him briefly before then stepping cautiously towards him. Stuart smiled at her and Kara wobbled side to side and pushed and pulled her arms in and out…Stuart then pulled up his t-shirt so that his tummy was showing and wiggled more vigorously: Kara was looking and laughing at him…Stuart started to run around the table and shelves with his tummy still showing, Kara followed him doing the same. Three other children joined them in running around, although only one of them pulled up their top. It started to feel as though the excitement levels had significantly increased and was becoming uncontrollable for them”.

(Observation 9: 12/3/14: p2)

 The adults then stopped the children from running and said that they were getting overly excited and that if they continued, “someone will get hurt” (ibid). Kara then moved away from Stuart, got the Barbie dolls out of their box and started to play with them – this was something she would often do straight after an upsetting/unsettling interaction. However, on this occasion, Kara did not dress and undress the Barbie dolls as she would normally, but she went to the box of Action Men, took one out, picked up a Barbie doll and made the dolls kiss and hold hands. Kara then looked up, and watched Aaron as he entered the reading corner and led face down on a pile of cushions:

“ Kara then went to Aaron and straddled his lower back before lying on him fully and squeezing him. Mrs Brown asked them to be gentle with each other, Kara replied that her little brother sits on her like this when they are at home. Kara then led down next to Aaron with her face on the cushion next to his, and her left arm and leg placed over his body/legs. Aaron did not appear to make any overt reactions to Kara sitting and then lying on him, but did turn to her when she led next to him and moved his face closer to hers”.

(Observation 2: 13/1/14; p3)

This interaction placed Kara and Aaron in the role of a parental couple, which Aaron did not appear to be rejecting of, although he was not overtly encouraging either. This suggests that there were sexualised phantasies around of an Oedipal content at this point, which could be translated from Kara’s conscious and unconscious experiences of her interactions with her brother at home.

Another way in which both Oedipal and sibling-like relationships coloured Kara’s peer interactions was during a frequently played game, “mummy, daddy, children and cats”. Kara would usually seek to be the mummy and would compete with Charlotte (the only other girl in her year) for this role. Kara and Charlotte would also compete with one another when seeking the pre-occupation of the children and adults in class. For instance, during observation eight:

“Charlotte was showing Mrs Brown a ‘stunt’ that her Barbie’s horse could do and Mrs Brown laughed. This prompted Kara to also try and show Mrs Brown a ‘stunt’ that her horse could do, however, Mrs Brown did not respond instantly as she was still talking to Charlotte. Kara lowered her head, put the horse down, picked up the Barbie next to her and started to gently brush its hair. I then felt very sad for Kara and wondered if she was feeling slightly dejected”.

(Observation 8: 5/3/14: p2)

This highlights both Kara’s sense of herself in terms of her position within the group, and her desire to maintain links with Mrs Brown who was her key worker, but also how she would become quite introvert after not having her needs met instantaneously. Additionally, Kara would often appear to be particularly competitive with Charlotte and would seem dejected when she experienced Charlotte as having something that she wanted/needed – i.e. Mrs Brown’s pre-occupation/affection. Furthermore, this interaction can be linked with Oedipal configurations as Kara is experiencing being isolated from the Oedipal coupling which at this point was Mrs Brown and Charlotte.

Additionally, as Kara would often seek the Barbie dolls when she was feeling emotionally fragile or when the play became overwhelming, perhaps the Barbie doll represented her and through the process of gently brushing the dolls hair, Kara was looking after herself and making herself feel better.

As well as engaging with other children to explore some of her Oedipal phantasies, desires and anxieties, Kara would also use solitary play to make links with home and explore this within her family relationships. For example, during observation nine Kara was playing with playdoh by separating one block into four sections, rolling them into balls and pressing them onto the table. Kara then:

“…tried to put the pieces of playdoh onto the silver tray, but couldn’t fit the last one on. She then picked up the green tray, placing the playdoh on it before then picking up the largest piece and gently slapping it onto her face twice before throwing it in her face and laughing as it dropped to the floor”.

(Observation 9: 12/3/14; p1)

The sense whilst watching Kara was that this play may have signified an internal struggle Kara was having to see if all the pieces of playdoh – representing each member of her family – could fit together. It is then, when she managed to place all pieces together that she divides them, i.e. separating the large/daddy piece from the others and pressing it against her face, perhaps emulating kissing. This division could also be seen as a division into two Oedipal couplings; Kara and Daddy and Seb and Mummy.

This also highlights some of the conscious and unconscious Oedipal configurations that Kara appeared to be exploring at this time, for example, she is making links with her father by pressing the playdoh to her face whilst ignoring the other pieces including her mother, brother and external/real self that is not able to make links with her father in this way. She then expresses an enjoyment of her aggressive feelings towards her father by laughing when the large/daddy playdoh shape fell on the floor. 

When considering the emergence of the Oedipus complex, Klein (1928) states that:

“Besides the receptive quality of the genital organ, which is brought into play by the intense desire for a new source of gratification, envy and hatred of the mother who possesses the father’s penis seem, at the period when these first Oedipus impulses are stirring, to be a further motive for the little girl’s turning to the father”.

(Klein, M. 1928: reprinted in 1998: p192)

Considering this, perhaps Kara was not only seeking a symbolic connection with her father, but also expressing a crossness at her father for giving her mother another baby; with her mother for taking it and with Seb for being it.

This experience was also mirrored at nursery when younger children began to start their transition into the class and the older children, Kara included, began transitioning to Primary school. At this time, Kara would appear more visibly unsettled, for example, playing on her own with the Barbies more frequently; snuggling up on cushions; drinking from her bottle and being closer to the adults. All of these behaviours seemed to be consistent with the description given of Kara when Seb was born and when he joined the nursery. Therefore, perhaps this enabled Kara to get in touch with her own baby self, evoked from a fear of moving to Primary school and being forgotten by those she is leaving behind.

Furthermore, Kara would dominate the younger children by instructing the play in a somewhat forceful manner, particularly when playing “police and baddies” as Kara would forcefully arrest the younger children and lock them up. Perhaps this suggests that Kara was cross with the younger children in the class for coming along and needing the adult’s attention – similar to her experience with Seb. 

Wellendorf (2014: printed in Skrzypek et al: 2014) suggests that the presence of a sibling can evoke feelings of being dispensable, which seemed apparent not only within Kara’s repeated experiences of Seb taking her place, but also through the presence of the younger children coming into class during her transition out. Perhaps this play enabled Kara to project her anxiety about being dispensable; to explore her more aggressive feelings towards her younger brother/peers, and to protect her position as a viable and present member of her class/family.

Cassie: “It’s just not fair!”

Cassie was initially placed in care shortly after starting primary school and was placed at the therapeutic residential community after having several home and school placements due to her social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Cassie has one older and two younger birth siblings – her younger siblings were still living with her birth parents whilst she was placed with us. I became her key worker when she transitioned from the assessment house into a parallel house a few months after she joined the school.

Cassie was initially placed in care due to neglect – specifically relating to her need for medication – and being witness to domestic violence. Cassie’s experience of being at home was reportedly one of isolation and was reportedly the ‘unfavoured sibling’ (Dunn: 2014). This was confirmed by Cassie’s mother who stated that Cassie was ‘born bad’ and that they would have all been ok if it wasn’t for Cassie’s ‘bad behaviour’.

One of the main themes that emerged during work discussion seminars was Cassie’s complex relationships with her birth and foster siblings and peers at the setting – particularly her feelings of things being unfair and her apparent jealousy of both her siblings and peers.

Cassie’s predominant style of sibling relating was based on rivalry, jealousy, conflict and a sense of being treated unfairly in comparison to them. Cassie felt that her siblings (particularly her sisters) both had things/opportunities that she didn’t but should have.

Although Cassie was initially placed in foster care whilst her two sisters remained at home with her birth parents – her younger brother was not born yet – her older sister soon joined her in a foster placement[7]. When Cassie’s older sister joined the placement, Cassie became unsettled and was described as being “needy”, “clingy”, “argumentative” and “aggressive”. The foster carers then served their notice on Cassie’s placement but remained the carers for her older sister – the female foster carer died suddenly shortly after Cassie left. Cassie’s response to the loss of her previous carer was the development of a view of herself as being so bad she could kill people. This was reinforced when her birth mother had a still born baby as Cassie would describe how the baby had died after she had held him although she had never actually met him. Approximately eighteen months later, Cassie’s mother then gave birth to her younger brother, and Cassie was so anxious when he was born she wouldn’t speak his name stating that she didn’t know what he was called, although when questioned by myself or others she could recall it. Furthermore, during observation two (26.2.12: p1) Cassie was distressed and was shouting at me “don’t come near me, I will hurt you” which evoked a sense in me that she felt so toxic that she would be able to destroy me.

Cassie’s fear of being so destructively bad she could kill people not only highlights her internal sense of self but also her struggle to be seen as good, particularly in relation to her siblings. Therefore, although Cassie’s network initially sought for her to be placed with her older sister, this was unmanageable for Cassie and her foster carers. However, being placed separately to her sister and not being at home with her biological parents and younger siblings was equally challenging for Cassie. For example, after a contact visit with her two sisters, Cassie said:

“I don’t know why my mummy can look after Katie [younger sister] and the baby [Joshua] – I forget his name but you know it – and not me and Charlie [older sister], it’s not fair. And, Charlie has a huge room and a big garden, Martha [Cassie’s foster mother] only has a tiny house and I can’t play big games or anything, it’s just not fair!”

(Observation 9: 8/10/13; p2)

Although I am aware that my role as Cassie’s key worker does not equate to that of her mother, nor do her peers equate her siblings, some parallels can be drawn. For example, when new children joined the house, Cassie would revert to seeking only me for settling times and play baths and would seek help to brush her teeth/hair and to get dressed and would belittle the other children when they needed practical or emotional support, i.e saying under her breath “baby”. This seemed to also be a defensive behaviour for Cassie in terms of distancing herself from the vulnerabilities in herself that she sees within the other children whilst simultaneously seeking a “baby” role.

This links with Kriss, Steele and Steele’s (2014 printed in Hindle and Sherwin-White: 2014: p91) notion that when a new child is born into a family, the older sibling “…attempts to reinvent himself as a baby in order to adapt to this environmental shift, so he too can benefit from his mother’s affection”. Therefore, perhaps Cassie’s desire to revert to an early state (via seeking help from me) alongside her dismissal of the newer children’s needs was a way of her managing her intense anxieties whilst negotiating her new role within the child group.

Furthermore, Cassie’s desire for exclusivity within our relationship may also be linked with Cassie’s unconscious Oedipal functioning as she was seeking a solely dyadic relationship, eliminating the presence of a third person. This could also have been influenced by the lack of engagement with her real father who was described as being distant, would not take part in any aspect of her care when younger and would either not attend contact with her or ignore her when he did. Perhaps with a father that was absent and a mother that was neglectful and rejecting, Cassie may have been attempting to enact an idealised relationship with a mother figure in order to counterbalance the reality.

This desire for a dyadic relationship was common throughout Cassie’s placement, as she would struggle to share an adult’s attention, particularly if another child was unsettled. An example of this was during an after school meeting in the house:

“Cassie was sat on my left side and another child (Tommy) was on my right…Tommy started rolling backwards in a swinging motion that left him with his feet over his head and his bottom in the air, so I held his hand.[8] Cassie then got up and started grunting loudly and walked towards the door. Another adult got up and followed her asking her to come and sit by them. Cassie sat next to them and was holding onto their arm with both of her hands, snuggling her head into their shoulder and making a squeaking noise. The adult was whispering to her in a calm tone, and she stopped squeaking. When another child (Katie) next to Cassie began to struggle, the adult supporting Cassie spoke to Katie to try and help her calm…Cassie started to rock back and forward whilst hitting herself in the head with one hand, biting her other arm and looking towards me. I asked Cassie to stop hurting herself and to try and use her words to explain how she is feeling so that the adults could help her – Cassie then stopped biting herself”.

(Observation 1: 30/1/12: p2)

I do not feel that Cassie stopped biting herself because I had asked her to, but because I had offered her a direct link with an adult so she did not need to seek a connection in another way.

This also highlights the difficulty Garland (1998) recognised in terms of meeting children’s individual needs whilst keeping the group needs in mind, as well as the difficulty of placing children who have all experienced severe trauma, abuse and loss together – this also links with the emergence of unintegrated and primitive states within the children in “Lord of the Flies” (Golding: 1954). Therefore, in addition to Cassie’s early experiences; being placed in care and her internalised sense of self, her relationships with her peers at the therapeutic community were coloured by what Pughe and Philpot (2007) identified as a rivalry that is similar to sibling-rivalry.

 Finally, when considering the ways in which both siblings and peers can influence a child’s development, it is important to note Cassie’s progression throughout her placement. For instance, when Cassie first began her placement, she would often engage in conflicts with other children during play times as she was unable to consider a compromise, only wanting to play the games she selected. This is something that was reported to be similar during her contact sessions with her siblings. However, as she was nearing the end of her placement, Cassie’s relationships with her siblings and her peers began to develop. For example, during her individual time, Cassie was discussing how difficult it felt for her to start at her new school and that she was worried about how to make friends:

“Cassie looked to the floor and said quietly, I don’t know how to make friends really because its difficult, like when you want to do something and they don’t want to do the same things as you. I will do some of their games but they don’t always do what I want, like you used to do when we played in the hall with Sunset [the house group] and we all played things we like to play. When I asked her to think about how she asks the children here to play, she said, well I ask them if they like doing colouring in, playing tag or making loom bands. We then spoke about how this is something she could do with the children in her new school too, she looked up at me with a confused expression and asked ‘but what if they do other things?’. I replied that she could teach them the games that she likes and learn the things they like to do too. Cassie then sat back into the chair and was quiet for a minute before saying ‘that’s what I do with my sisters at contact, that’s how I learnt how to do loom bands’.

(Observation 27: 9/6/14; p3)

This shows not only the progression in Cassie’s thinking and understanding of how to make and maintain friendships, but also how she is now able to draw upon some of her more positive and successful interactions with her siblings to gain the confidence to approach new situations and friendships. This is similar to Reid’s (1999) findings within her therapeutic group, as it was through the exploration of peer relationships under the facilitation of the therapist that an understanding of sibling relationships could be drawn. For Cassie, the way in which she initially functioned within her peer relationships was similar to how she related to her siblings, and it was through the facilitation of this by the adults working alongside her that later enabled a change in her peer relating that Cassie then translated to her sibling relationships.



The material selected suggests that the way in which the child navigates the complex feelings that are evoked within their sibling relationships is dependant on many internal and external factors. For instance, Poppy’s relationship with Jacob highlights the struggle to manage both aggressive and loving feelings in a way that is acceptable within their family structure. This could also be seen within Kara’s relationship with both Seb and the other children in the nursery. The way in which these complex feelings were navigated was through a conscious and unconscious exploration within the external boundaries provided by the adults.

Furthermore, by comparing Poppy and Kara and Cassie’s situation, the importance of both early experiences and the children’s external and internal realities can be seen. For instance, as Cassie was not initially in an environment that enabled her to engage with, and process, her more complex feelings, her internal reality became coloured by her phantasies of being so potent she could kill people. Thus suggesting that the way in which children experience and navigate their complex feelings evoked by the presence of a sibling differs depending on their external reality; the facilitating presence of their parents/carers, and on their internal reality/the way in which they view themselves in relation to others.

This was also present within the material selected in relation to the children’s Oedipal configurations on both a parental and sibling level. For instance, the way in which they consciously/unconsciously “play-out’ their thoughts, feelings and fears and the way in which this was facilitated by the adults.

As the Oedipal situation is coloured by separation and loss, Poppy, Kara and Cassie all experienced it differently. Poppy was experiencing it as a second child, Kara as a first child who had to manage the presence of a younger sibling as a reminder of her exclusion from the parental couple, and Cassie who had experienced the arrival of new siblings, had been separated from her birth family and was partly separated from her foster family whilst being placed at the therapeutic community. However, as Poppy and Kara were experiencing separation and loss only briefly, and were consistently reunited with their primary carers, they were more able to negotiate this struggle than Cassie, who had experienced repeated rejections and some permanent losses. Therefore, this suggests that the way in which a child experiences separation and loss both consciously/unconsciously and internally/externally can have a large impact on the negotiation and resolution of the Oedipus complex.

Consequently, for Poppy and Kara, the presence of siblings can be considered as a helpful way for them to process and resolve the Oedipus complex more appropriately as their siblings offer a further space where Oedipal constellations can be played/worked out. Conversely, the presence of siblings enhanced Cassie’s difficult feelings. Perhaps it could be considered that Cassie may have done better without the presence of siblings?

When considering what skills are gained by the infant/young child through their sibling relationships that help them transition to and navigate early peer relationships, both the theoretical and observational material selected show that the presence of a sibling can enable the child to develop their cognitive, behavioural and emotional skills/capacity. This can then lead to a higher level of empathy, emotional awareness and an ability to compromise which is essential for later peer/group functioning. The role of the parents/carers is crucial in facilitating this development, as, if the children were left without the presence of a thinking and emotionally attuned adult, they will become more driven by their more primitive states, such as in Lord of the Flies (Golding: 1954).

 It is also important to note that the experience of being in a residential therapeutic community will present its own challenges for children who have already experienced trauma, abuse and neglect. For instance, the struggle for children to have their needs met within a group of children with high-level needs, particularly when they don’t view adults as being helpful and able to manage their conscious and unconscious attacks. However, they may also be given the opportunity to play-out their unconscious desires and anxieties in a safe way, thus providing them the opportunity to re-work through developmental tasks.

 This highlights the importance of early experiences on the child’s ability to negotiate their sibling and peer relationships and the impact this may have on their Oedipal functioning.

However, although the role of the parents/carers in offering good enough early experiences for the child is crucial, the way in which the child responds to what is being offered also needs to be considered. For example, the child’s constitutional bias for envy and jealousy can greatly influence how they internalise their external experiences.

Furthermore, whilst the material selected has been of children who have real/external siblings, I would like to consider the notion of there not ever truly being an only child. In other words, even if there is not a sibling real/present, I believe that the infant/young child experiences the unconscious threat of a sibling, alongside the unconscious phantasy of killing off any unborn siblings, which suggests that they have an internal concept of a sibling despite their external reality. Therefore, the internal concept of a sibling also offers a threat to take the child’s position within the family; to take the parents pre-occupation and love, and represents an exclusion from the parental couple on an Oedipal level.

 Finally, the role of siblings – both real and imagined – can have a significant and positive influence on the infant/child’s cognitive, emotional and social development if there is the facilitating presence of a thinking and emotionally attuned adult. However, without such an adult present the child’s development may be delayed, resulting in a reduced ability to tolerate the complex feelings that are evoked both within sibling and peer relationships and through their Oedipal phase of development. Conversely, through the presence of a thinking and nurturing adult whose functioning is progressively internalised, the children are able to engage in a safe exploration of the fundamental unconscious dynamics that are essential developmental tasks for all children.


[1] Freud (ibid) believed that child development takes place in stages with each stage having a libidinal bodily focus (oral, anal and phallic for instance) that drives the child’s behaviours and shapes their relationships. Freud stated that the phallic stage of psychosexual development takes place when the child is between two and five years old.

[2] Klein (1957: reprinted in Klein, M. 1997: p181) defined envy as being “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable” with “the envious impulse being to take it away or spoil it”.

[3] Klein (1957 reprinted in 1997: p181) define’s jealousy as involving “…a relation to at least two people; it is namely concerned with love that the subject feels is his by due and has been taken away, or is in danger of being taken away, from him by his rival.”

[4] Music (ibid) states that the middle-childhood phase exists when the child is between six and twelve years old.

[5] Music (2014) references Birdwhistell’s cross-cultural study (1970) which identified that children pick up on social clues to learn how to behave in a socially appropriate way and that this does not depend on their parents norms and values. He also references Martini (1994) who found that although the adults were around to oversee the care, Polynesian children were cared for by their older siblings (of three or four years old) as soon as they could walk. The children would cry when looked after by their mothers instead of their siblings.

[6] Bion (1961: p116) describes valency as “…the individual’s [unconscious] readiness to enter into combination with the group in making and acting on the basic assumptions”.

[7] The Children Act (1989) states that wherever possible, siblings should be placed together as it is considered that placements are more effective when done so. One reason for this is that there is continuity from their life before and after being placed in care. Perhaps it could also be considered that siblings act as a transitional object for one another.

[8] This is a strategy adopted within the organisation as a way of offering containment for a child when they begin to escalate into a disintegrated state/crisis.


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