Our children’s behavior is always reflective of their comfort level. Unkind, controlling and even aggressive impulses are eased when they are accepted and, ideally, understood, rather than shamed or punished. It’s very common for older siblings to assert dominance as a way of countering the loss of control they feel around the existence of their younger sibling. They need our help with these impulses when they become unsafe or destructive, but the behavior makes sense.
When children routinely sense our impatience, annoyance and anger with them, they can’t help but feel ashamed and rejected. We’ve likely all heard some form of the expression “children need us most when they are at their worst.” Nothing could be truer. Children flourish when they feel accepted by their parents, warts and all. Distance between us is frightening for them, and their discomfort might lead to more negative behavior. Perhaps worse, the feelings can go underground and affect self-worth.
Our over-involvement and micromanagement are unproductive, because they tend to fan flames of conflict and negative behavior. And besides being generally futile, our investment in fixing play or sibling relationships can easily wear us out, making us even more impatient and on edge, which in turn can create more erratic behavior and limit pushing, continuing the cycle.
Our judgments are sensed by our children and can cause them to self-identify as bad guys or victims. Like all labels, these can be self-fulfilling prophecies and are, at best, restricting and inhibiting for each of the children involved.
From the older sibling’s perspective, it’s hard to have positive feelings for someone who’s not only forced themselves into your life and made you share your beloved parents, but also unwittingly caused you to behave in a manner that has turned you into the “bad guy” in their eyes. Our children have such a deep need for our acceptance that our judgments can be almost suffocating, making it much harder for them to feel good about themselves, which is the oxygen they need to establish a loving and generous relationship with each other.
One of the many positives of siblings is that both children get an abundance of practice developing adaptive social skills, like conflict resolution, self-regulation, problem solving, and role-play. As with all learning, young children are the experts in the room. Yes, they need our safe boundaries and intervention when their impulses overwhelm them (separate, age-appropriate play spaces can be a helpful preventative boundary, because they allow children opportunities to choose to play on their own). But generally, kids learn best when we give them as much free rein as possible.
As often as not, our judgments are a total misread of our children’s perspective and experience. Laura’s video of sibling domination (which looks pretty gnarly to me!) demonstrates:
“I wanted to post a success. I have a really hard time not stepping in when my 3-year-old grabs toys from her 10-month-old little brother. Had I stepped in here when she took the block, I would have disrupted their play.”
If we come from a place of basic trust and empathy, we can intervene selectively, calmly, and neutrally, with openness to each child’s perspective and feelings.
Trust sees children in their most positive light and gives them the best chance of succeeding. Most of us will perform best at any job or role when we are entrusted with it, rather than over-managed, doubted or nit-picked. Children are no different.
Trust places ownership of sibling relationships where it belongs – strictly between the children involved. In truth, their relationships will always be their own, so we may as well let go. We will never have the power to dictate how they feel about each other.
Trust builds confidence.
Trust and empathy heal wounds, repair mistakes, bring us closer.
Children thrive when we believe in their basic goodness.
I share more about challenging behavior, boundaries, and emotional health in
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
For more about sibling issues, I 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
(Photo by Mads Bødker on Flickr)
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