Dr Judith Guedalia

On Siblings, Jealousy And The Normal One

By Dr. Judith Guedalia and Chaim K.

"When I was healthy and my brothers were young and bothered me," said an exasperated and frustrated Chaim K., as we began another session, "I'd shout at them or even hit them. Now, after the car that hit me left me in this wheelchair with a spinal cord injury, even my younger siblings don't listen to me. I have to yell at them for at least 10 minutes to get them out of my room, if they are annoying me."
"My younger brother thinks that it's funny to hit me; he's 15 years old and I yelled at him more than once or twice. You can't hit me, you have to respect me as your older brother, and you can't hit me and think it's a joke."

Dr. J.: Where does he hit you?

Chaim K.: He slaps me on my face. I told him that I don't think it's funny.

Dr. J.: Does he think it's a way of connecting with you and treating you like you're okay.

Chaim K.: No, he knows I'm angry at him for doing it and that I don't think it's funny.

Dr. J.: How would you act?

Chaim K.: I would act towards him appropriately. If he was my older brother I would respect him, not bother him. I would help him in any way I can.

If I could walk, I'd break every bone in his body, and send him to the emergency room; now, the situation is different.

He's the only one who hits me; the others bother me, annoy me. They come and they kiss me; they know I don't like to be kissed. They wet their mouths first and then kiss me; they do it on purpose to annoy me. They spread their spit all over my face when they kiss me. I know they love me a lot, but it still makes me sad and angry. I yell at them but it doesn't help so much. 


Dr. J.: Do you think that maybe they are jealous? (He is now looking at me as if astounded by what I said.)

Chaim K.: Of what?! Can't you see I am a quadriplegic, I can't move anything but my face, of what would they be jealous?!

I sit quietly and wait a few minutes.



Chaim K.: My mother spoils me, I can understand it; she wants to make me happy, to put me into a good mood. It's hard for her to see me like this.

(I sit quietly.)

"Why do you think? Because she can't do anything that can help me! It is the feeling of helplessness for a mother to feel that is so hard for her, for a mother to see her son suffer like this and not be able to do something to help him. Because of this she spoils me.

"And maybe that does make them jealous".

Dr. J.: You are 19 years old, what can you do to change this? Are there any adults that treat you with disrespect? Maybe you should live with people your age.

Chaim K.: I love to be at home.

Dr. J.: Tell me about that, being at home.

Chaim K.: It's different being at home, with family, everything has its benefits and its negative sides.

(He has an uncontrolled spasm, and his hand and arm fall off the tray of his wheelchair, I ask him if I can touch his hand to raise it and put it on the tray, he acquiesces.)

Dr. J: "When this happened the first time (during our first visit) I wouldn't have asked you to help me and give you permission to lift it up.

Chaim K.: "When I was in Alyn (Children's Orthopedic Hospital) I only drank water once a day. I didn't want to ask anyone to get me anything, even water, I was embarrassed to ask anybody to help me.

Our time is finished and I think that we might discuss Yosef and his brothers from the Torah portion.

Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life. All children become jealous of the love and attention that siblings receive from parents and other adults. When a new baby is brought home, older children may, as part of normal development, feel betrayed by their parents and become angry, directing their anger first toward the parents and later toward the intruder who is usurping their position. How many of us (we Sephardi wives "out there") would easily acquiesce to our husband bringing home his second wife? (Even though Sephardim did not accept the takana of Rabbainu Gershon against the Biblically-permitted state of bigamy, they may marry more than one wife in countries where this is permitted).

Just imagine your husband saying: "Hashem saw how much I love you so he blessed me with another one just like you; you'll grow to love her; you'll be best friends" - or other such statements, that we expect an older sibling to accept with equanimity.

We have to look no further to read about this type of conflict than the in the Bible:

Hevel and Cain, Avraham and Nahor, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esau, and Yaakov's preferential treatment of Joseph over his other sons are only a few examples. Physical as opposed to verbal fights usually peak before the age of five. All these Biblical cases had violent sequelae.

Another Type of Sibling Rivalry:

The Normal One

There exists another type of sibling rivalry which is hardly ever addressed, either by most parents or by professionals (or educators and rabbanim). In her excellent book: The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer interviewed 60 adults who grew up with a disabled brother or sister, and they themselves may have been labeled "the normal one". She used her own personal experience as a catalyst.

The book examines the pathology of this experience in a systematic and nosological manner. She noted that "the normal ones" exhibited very clear, similar and definable behaviors in their childhood and later in life: premature maturity, emotional and intellectual perfectionism and deep guilt about their own health. She analyzes Shakespeare's The Tempest, and the character, Caliban, using some psychological theory, but it's the memoir and her candid style that makes the book unique. (You don't have to know Shakespeare's works or any psychology to understand the syndrome.)

She examines the double-edged reality of normal ones: how they both compensate for their siblings' abnormality and feel guilty for their own health and success. With both wisdom and empathy, Safer describes what she calls the "Caliban Syndrome", a set of personality traits and characteristics of higher-functioning siblings: premature maturity, compulsion to achieve, survivor guilt, and fear of contagion.

When Chaim K. and I meet, we discuss "our articles," we edit them, and he gives the "final okay" as to what we send in. Even though the articles are very personal, Chaim K. feels that if it helps one person or changes their way of thinking/behavior for the better, it is worth the effort.

We may not say everything that is on our minds. Both of us though, experience a lot of "incidental learning," and I guess that is what life is all about.

Further Readings: birth order blues: How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet The Challenges of Birth Order by Meri Wallace, M.S.W. (H. Holt, N.Y. 1999). The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling by Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. (Free Press, N.Y. 2002).


Originally published in the Jewish Press on March 15, 2006.


Tags: Caliban Syndrome | Chaim K. | Jewish Press | Sibling Rivalry