Q&A: Sibling Rivalry

Here’s another lovely reader question and my answer that I figured I’d put up here in case it could help anyone else who happens to stumble across it.  My brother and I suffered from horrible sibling rivalry as we were growing up so it’s definitely a pet project of mine to eliminate as much as possible from our home. 

Q:  

We have been having serious issues with sibling rivalry with our son towards our daughter ever since she started crawling and getting into his space.  He will push/hit/kick and try to hurt her all the time.  We currently punish with time outs or having toys taken away, but it doesn’t work.  He doesn’t seem to care and keeps doing it.  I don’t know how to get him to stop and I’m afraid he’s really going to hurt her one of these times.   Your kids are about the same ages as mine.  Do you run across this or have any suggestions?

A:

Although the behavior itself is scary (pushing her, hitting her, ect), what I’d really focus on is addressing the root cause of the behavior. It’s completely normal for older kids to be jealous and angry at their younger siblings, but they need help to verbalize it and understand it.  Also, they need to be specifically taught how to appropriately relate to their brother/sister as it doesn’t always come naturally.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Praise, praise, praise, attention, attention, attention for ANY positive (or just neutral at this point) interaction
  • Lots of books and discussion about what it means to be a big brother. This is a constant dialogue in our house and we are always talking to Sprout about how awesome his job is and how cool it is to have a baby sister. When we are out and about and people give attention to the baby, I try to loop him in and have him tell them her name, ect.  Its helped to instill a lot of pride in his roll as big brother. 
  • However, be careful not to parentify him.  Even though children at this age love to be helpers, putting inappropriate responsiblity on him to help care for his sister will quickly turn into resentment. 
  • As best as you can (I know how crazy life with two kids is!) give him some one-on-one time and remind him that he is just as special and just as loved as he ever was.
  • Use similar language and rules with the baby as you do with him – even though she doesn’t understand, he does and it’ll help him appreciate the rules more.  Rosebud, just like any impulsive 12 month old, has a habit of going after whatever her brother has, destroying his train tracks and ripping things out of his hands.  Instead of making excuses (“oh, she’s just a baby, she doesn’t know any better”), I apply the same consequence for her as he would get: “It’s not okay to take things from your brother without asking, now we have to find a new space to play in.”  Yeah, she looks at me like I have 12 heads as I scoop her up, but he’s comforted by the fairness of my reaction – and is comforted knowing I will react.
  • When he does act up or do something to your daughter, don’t feed into it by responding with a lot of negative attention (often that’s exactly what they want and you end up reinforcing the bad behavior).  Instead, calmly and quickly separate him (or put him in time out) and verbalize his feelings for him, “You are feeling angry because I was paying attention to your sister instead of you, but when you hit her, I can’t give you any attention at all. I’m sorry you made that choice.”

Best of luck, and I hope things improve!

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2 Comments to “Q&A: Sibling Rivalry”

  1. This is great advice! I especially like using the same language for a smaller child, even if it is for the older child’s benefit.

    My niece and nephew are 3 1/2 years apart, and it seemed to help him a lot that he had some toys that he never had to share with his baby sister. It was usually toys that had small pieces, but they packed them in boxes and wrote his name on them and he got to play with them when she was napping, or at least know that there were times he could get those toys out and his mom or dad would keep her in another space. Just like getting ready for a playdate, we let our daughter put up toys she does not want to share, my nephew had special toys he was allowed to keep for himself and not have to share with his sister. When we would go to visit we would split up and each visit ith one child, so he would also get to have one on one time with one of his aunts doing something completely without his sister, and being able to play a game she was too small for, or with a toy with small parts and know it was just for him really made him feel special.

    My sister-in-law would also use the rule that if my nephew wanted something that his younger sister had, like a piece of his train track because he was not using it at the time, but now he needed it to build something with that piece, he could ask her for it, and my sister-in-law would help him get it from my niece, but he had to provide her with another toy to play with. Usually the baby was not too upset at losing the toy when the new toy was coming from her big brother. When big brothers give you a toy it is special. That may not always work, but it did help him with the fairness idea.

    Our daughter has gotten really upset by the dogs taking her toys, but it has helped reinforce our efforts to have her put her toys away when she is done so they are not in a place where the dogs can get them.

    I love reading your experiences. We have a biological child that is 3 1/2 and hope to adopt 2 younger siblings from foster care sometime when she is 4 or 5.

    Melissa in Durham

  2. Good advice! I still remember the first time we”spoke” to PBS about a behavior. LMC’s face lit up like a Christmas tree, LOL! It helped her see that the rules are the same for both and lessened her jealousy a tiny bit.

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