Our responses do matter. A lot. The choices we make when dealing with situations of conflict between siblings can calm fears, build confidence, and help to ease sibling rivalry. Or, alternatively, they can fuel and intensify it.
When our more reactive, less helpful responses are knee-jerk and repetitive, they can create insecurity, cause siblings to identify as “bad” or “inept”, and even instill lifelong resentments toward one another.
Obviously, this isn’t the dynamic we envisioned or wanted when we had more than one child. We had hoped they’d be best buddies. If they didn’t luck into that kind of chemistry, we’d settle for mutual love, respect, and a bond that would strengthen and support them long after we’d left the planet.
Here are some guidelines for ensuring positive outcomes (in order of importance):
Safety is always our first priority with children, and dangerous struggles between siblings are never okay. In the early years, especially, children often behave impulsively and express intense emotions through limit-pushing behavior that can be aggressive. Add the transitional trauma of a new sibling to the mix and, well, it’s going to be rough. For instance, if a toddler or preschooler is jumping on the bed anywhere near the baby, chances are very good that something not too good is going to happen, no matter how many firm reminders we provide. He or she needs us to follow through and help him down.
Child specialist Magda Gerber recommended safe, enclosed play spaces (like cribs or playpens) for very young infants and a larger, gated-in play area for mobile infants and toddlers up to two years old. With a second baby in the house, these safe spaces can be a godsend for protecting infants, safeguarding an older child’s more complex toys and projects, preventing dangerous testing, and easing parents’ minds.
Of course, despite even the most thorough preventive measures, stuff happens. Children know they shouldn’t have done it, but their impulsive feelings make them do it anyway, so our under-reaction is best, while we also acknowledge the child’s perspective without judgment. For example, while removing our child’s death grip from the babies arm, we might acknowledge, “You feel like squeezing your sister very hard. I won’t let you. You’re letting me know you need my help. Come, I will hold your hand while you sit next to me. If you’re feeling too excited, you can play over there away from the baby.”
These older children are in a sort of crisis mode, caught up in their fears surrounding this huge change in the family dynamic, sometimes lashing out, often completely out of themselves. Intense feelings might seem to disappear and then reappear as the baby develops motor skills and becomes more of a serious rival.
Intentional unsafe behavior is always a reflection of our children’s emotions and inner turmoil. To consistently behave in a physically safe manner they need to feel emotionally safe…
Helping children to process emotions about the addition of a sibling (or anything else, for that matter) is not as active as it sounds. We don’t help by reacting impatiently when they’re upset, or by feeling guilty or responsible for calming them down. We definitely don’t help by coaxing or forcing them to express feelings through manipulative tactics like purposeful roughhousing or the sinister-sounding “scheduled meltdowns” some experts advise.
Processing feelings comes naturally to young children, but seldom on cue. In fact, because of their openness to the flow of their emotions, kids are astonishingly good at getting the feelings out. What they need is for us to accept their emotions in all the random, inconvenient places they might appear.
The emotions kids feel around the addition of a sibling are processed in a manner similar to the way adults grieve. (The big and obvious difference: children have far less emotional self-control than adults do.) Grief can seem to appear out of nowhere. We might not shed a tear at the funeral, but then later a random and trivial experience sets us off and opens the floodgates.
If only young children could sit with parents or on a therapist’s chair to discuss and express their feelings of fear, sadness, loss, betrayal, and jealousy. That would be so much more convenient for us and certainly easier to recognize and understand. Instead, they push limits, make unreasonable demands and explode, or meltdown over the most trivial, random things. This is the “grief” that they need our help with, and the help they need is pure, unconditional acceptance.
Acceptance is challenging, because we forget. We don’t think to connect our child’s massive overreaction to the deeper emotions he or she is very likely processing.
Lauren shared a perfect example: the “terrible” experience her family had at the grocery store when her 2 year old had a full blown tantrum over a seemingly miniscule disappointment and needed to be bundled into the car, screaming all the way home. It ended well and provided healing, because Lauren accepted her daughter’s feelings. She just let them be:
“I took both kids inside and, as I was nursing the newborn, I sat on the couch and let my (very verbal) two year old get all her feelings out. She basically re-told me everything that happened at the store (“I didn’t want the lady to checkout my foo,” “I wanted my cart back,” “I got in a fight with Daddy”), and after each statement she made I simply repeated back what she was telling me (no judgment, not trying to make her feel better, just “You didn’t want the lady to checkout your food,” “You wanted your cart back,” etc.).
Each time she told me something I could see her starting to cry again, but then each time I repeated back what she had said she became calm. In that moment I really felt connected with my daughter and knew that, despite what had happened earlier, she felt heard and respected.”
Allowing feelings to be expressed provides the assurance children need to know that they are okay — safe in our care and our hearts. This sense of safety lessens impulsive, emotionally-fueled behavior. So accept and acknowledge even the most minor sibling complaints without judging, defending, explaining, or trying to fix them. For example:
“She gets more than me every time!” You feel like your sister’s getting more than you are. That’s upsetting to you.
“I don’t want him to touch the wall!” You don’t want the baby to touch the wall. You have some very strong feelings about that.
“He won’t play with me!” You really want your little brother to play with you, and he’s saying no.
“She punched me!” The baby punched you! Ouch!
In calmer, quieter, one-on-one moments, talk to children about their feelings; again, not expecting them to emote on cue, but simply offering them messages of reassurance that their feelings are normal and expected:
“Being a big brother is very hard sometimes. It’s normal to get angry at the baby or at mom or dad, feel sad, worry or just be upset and not know why. If you feel any of those things, I want to know. I will always understand, love you, and want to help you.”
A parent I consulted with recently shared that when she described to her son the difficulties of being a big brother, he suddenly became very quiet and attentive. He took in every word and then murmured, “More talking.”
An all-feelings-allowed environment that helps children process their emotions safely creates safety, peace, and genuine love between siblings.
Why do older siblings take toys? Probably because the younger sibling’s birth ripped the rug out from under them, and they have a powerful impulse to take back control. Our irritation with this relatively harmless activity will tend to increase it, while a more relaxed, trusting, forgiving attitude helps this urge to control subside. Perspective is the key.
Remember that in an infant’s or toddler’s eyes, older siblings are akin to movie stars. And to think, for one moment a celebrity actually looked at me while taking that object from my hand. In was in my hand, and now it’s in her hand. Wow! She noticed me!
If we can avoid fueling these situations with our adult perspectives, babies and toddlers generally find them more interesting than problematic. It’s just stuff after all, not nearly as exciting as momentarily playing “together” with their riveting older sibling.
I had to smile when in a recent parent/toddler class, a 15 month old systematically handed off toys to her peers. She has an older brother at home and is accustomed to toys being taken from her. But, surprisingly, rather than using her peer play as payback time, she seemed to believe that toys, like hot potatoes, needed to be passed off. I joked that it probably didn’t feel right to her to be the one holding the toy. Playing together had come to mean that the other child has it.
If we’re open to their messages, young children will repeatedly demonstrate to us that it’s not about the stuff, it’s about the connection.
But if we react with anger, annoyance, even a bit of impatience, we risk making our older child feel like we have taken sides against him or her, even though these are impulsive actions sparked by intense, understandable feelings.
What we can do to help ease toy taking: stay calm, lead with trust, give casual tips and an occasional boundary if the toy taking is continuous. “Hmm… It seems you’ve been taking lots of toys away. I’m going to help your brother keep this one. What else might you do to play with him?” And then if the older child reacts, “That’s frustrating for you, I know.” Releasing these feelings is always positive.
Replacing our reactive instincts with trust whenever possible empowers siblings to take baby steps toward conducting their relationship independently and gives them the emotional safety they need to truly appreciate each other.
Once in a blue moon, if we’re very, very lucky, we might even see the evidence.
I share more about toddler behavior, boundaries, and emotional health in
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
I also highly recommend:
Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (one of my all-time favorite parenting books)
Ask the Parent Coach: 7 Ways to Help Your Child Adjust to a New Baby by Susan Stiffelman
Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury
Dealing With Sibling Aggression by Amanda Morgan
(Thanks to Sara Prince for this enchanting photo!)
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