Why you shouldn't compare your children to their siblings

Sibling comparisons can leave children feeling as if they are never good enough.
Sibling comparisons can leave children feeling as if they are never good enough. Photo: Getty

I was 24 years old when I finally learned to embrace my individuality. I spent most of my childhood hating who I was and wishing I was different. My low self-esteem and self-confidence would often be triggered by comments made by my mother. When I was in high school, if I was doing well at English, it didn't matter to her because I was struggling in Chemistry and Physics – subjects my older brother excelled in. When I was accepted into university to study Psychology, she didn't bat an eyelid because I had failed to secure a spot in my brother's university. What hurt me the most was when she would yell at me, "Why can't you be more like your sister?" 

At the time, I felt that I'd failed as a daughter, as a person, that I wasn't good enough, that I wasn't loved for who I was. The comparisons that she made between my three siblings and I not only hurt the relationship that I had with my mother. But they undermined the relationship that I had with my brothers and sister. Even now, our relationship as adults is strained because we never knew how it felt to really be there for each other as siblings.

When parents compare their children to others

As human beings, it's natural to want to compare our own progress with the progress of others. By the same token, parents often feel compelled to compare their own children to other people's children.

But there's nothing wrong with engaging in a bit of comparison, according to parenting expert, Dr. Justin Coulson.

He explains, "We like to see how we're going as parents, and how our kids are going in their development ... It's an entirely normal and natural thing to do."

Clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, says that comparing our children to others can even be incredibly beneficial at times.

"Some comparisons are quite helpful. They help us notice whether our children are reaching all the appropriate developmental milestones," says McCormack.

However, it's our intentions behind these comparisons that are really the crux of the matter.

"A minor degree of comparison is fine because that's normal, human behaviour. As long as it's observational as opposed to judgemental."

"But if parents are constantly doing it - looking unfavourably either at other people's children, or their own children - then that's damaging for everyone," says McCormack.

When parents compare siblings

Dr. Coulson says that parents often compare siblings as well, which isn't always a bad thing.

We can evaluate their progress, compare their strengths and weaknesses, and look at the remarkable way that we are all so different.

"It can be fun to look at how tall a child was at one age versus the sibling," says Dr. Coulson.

"But when the comparison starts to become laden with judgements and evaluations that make kids feel superior or inferior to their sibling, we start to get into dangerous territory."

McCormack says that in pitting siblings against each other, we might overlook one child's athletic ability because we're too focused on the other's academic skills.

"We forget to celebrate differences. We place our values on our children and expect them to live up to certain expectations, but these might not be reasonable or possible for our children."

The effects of sibling comparison

Children who are constantly told, "Why can't you be like your brother/sister?", are likely to end up basing their self-worth on how they compare with others.

"It teaches them that life is about competition and comparison, and they will always feel that they can never be enough - because there's always someone better than they are," says Dr. Coulson.

"It undermines sense of worth, it reduces motivation, it increases anxiety, and it leads to sub-par outcomes on a range of measures."

McCormack says it's very important to be mindful of our words.

"Our children value our opinions. Before they have their own little inner voice, they hear ours. If ours keeps saying, 'You're not as good as your brother/sister', then that will be the self-talk that they grow up with – 'I'm never going to be as good as my brother/sister'."

When you compare your child to their sibling, what they actually hear you say is, "You're not good enough. You're a failure," says McCormack.

Embracing your child's individuality

McCormack says that rather than focusing on what our children can't do, we should be focusing on what they can.

"Every single person is different. Focus on the positives and strengths in every single child, rather than looking at what they're missing," says McCormack.

"Learn more about whatever strengths they show - whether it's sporting ability or even social skills. Whatever their strength is, do what you can to promote that."

"So, if you have a a child who is incredibly social, for example, enrol them in acting classes."

"Note down their strengths and then find avenues for them to express it in some type of activity."

Dr. Coulson adds that we should always look for ways to acknowledge our children's unique contributions to the family.

"This will make them feel loved unconditionally for being who they are, regardless of what their sibling can do. They will be recognised for their individual strengths and capacities. They will become resilient, confident, and happy."

McCormack reminds parents to reflect back on what they truly want for their children.

"Most parents want happy, healthy children. The only way to do that is to make them feel valued, special and important."

"That can only happen if we embrace and value their positive qualities."

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer and mother of three. She is incredibly passionate about raising happy and confident children. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.