Sibling Struggles

Hi Janet,

I am very fortunate to have been introduced to RIE, as my children’s childcare providers shifted to a RIE based program.  We have been very happy and impressed with this shift, and we are trying to incorporate much of the RIE philosophy into our own parenting.  I found it very helpful to read Magda Gerber’s books to get examples, and see scenarios to help guide my interactions.  I would love a resource to help me figure out how to apply the RIE philosophy to my older son — almost 4. It is challenging to adapt what seems to be appropriate for infants and young toddlers to this preschool age (and older).   

In general, I get it, but I could really use help figuring out how to deal with situations when he runs away, won’t listen or engage at all or just yells, “stop talking to me” again and again.  I also do not know what to do when the two siblings have a conflict.  I see that at school with the infants and toddlers, they really let them work most of it out.  But when my almost 4 year old snatches something from his 16 month old brother, it seems like the power difference is so great that I am not sure this is appropriate.  

I would love suggestions for resources to help!  I am sure there is something in your blog about at least parts of this, but I have not found it yet. 

Thanks in advance for any suggestions and for your insight.


Sorry it took me a while to get back to you!

Four year olds can be very challenging. Like age two, it can be a time of testing and rebellion. Being a big brother, sharing your mom and dad with a younger “rival” can be tough, too. It is a little hard for me to guide you without knowing, for example, what it is you are saying that your son doesn’t want to hear, or where you are when he’s running away. Running away when you are walking on the street or somewhere else that is potentially dangerous is one thing (and I would insist he hold your hand when you are on or near the street, in a parking lot, even on the sidewalk). Running away when you are trying to tell him something at home is another.

Generally, try to see his misbehaviors as just impulses — behaviors that he will learn to control — rather than viewing them (or him) as “bad”. In the meantime, you are there to guide him by helping him regain self-control. Getting upset, lecturing (even briefly) during the episode can fuel the fire and cause him to act out more. The approach I describe in my discipline post No Bad Kids being kind, but firm, unemotional and “in charge” — works best for this age, too. Stop him, but don’t get mad. Specifics would really help me view the situation more clearly.

I would calmly stop the 4 year old from hitting or hurting his brother, but snatching toys is going to happen and I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.  Little brother probably doesn’t mind as much as you do. If you ‘charge’ the small stuff with a lot of energy, it can make things worse for both of them. It would be great if little brother could have a safe, gated-in area where he can play. Older brother could be allowed to go in and join him if he is in a calm mood. This also allows him to keep his older child toys (especially those that are unsafe for his brother) to himself, away and protected.

I HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend the book Siblings Without Rivalry. I re-read it all the time. Also, as it happens, we are discussing sibling issues on my community forum right now!

I encourage you to try posing a couple of your questions in my new Community section, and here’s why… Many of the people who have joined so far are professional caregivers. At least three of them have their own child care centers. Two others are RIE home caregivers. A few are already RIE Associates, some are enthusiastically training. There is a wealth of information that they could share with you. We also have a book review section, and I’ll bet you can get some recommended resources that are RIE compatible and geared toward children your older son’s age. I can’t think of anything to suggest myself besides Siblings Without Rivalry, or 1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years. You’ll see with your younger son that by practicing the RIE principles with an infant and toddler you create a relationship dynamic that naturally extends into later years.

I hope this helps! (Thank you for asking!)

Take care,


P.S. One of my favorite children’s picture books is about a mother dealing with a rivalry between two sons.  It simply and exquisitely captures the feeling I’ve had of loving each of my children differently, but with equal passion.  I Love You The Purplest always brings tears to my eyes. It might bring some clarity and comfort to you and your boys.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thanks for this post Janet! Siblings Without Rivalry is a great book, and I recommend it all the time. There are so many great picture books for parents to share with older siblings that can help them feel understood, without being too overbearing. I Love You The Purplest is one of my favorites too. Another one I love is called On Mama’s Lap. I actually think four is a more challenging age than two- I always think it should be called the Terrific Twos and the Fearsome Fours. LOL. But you are so right that the same principles that work with babies and toddlers work with older children as well- focused attention, staying calm, being consistent, talking less and listening more, modeling gentleness and sharing, and trusting children enough to allow them to take an active role in solving their own problems, while intervening primarily for safety, are all tools that help adults to help children to build their relationship and co-operation skills. I can’t tell you how happy and grateful I am that you are providing such a wonderful resource for families and professionals through your blog, and now your community forum. I share about it every chance I get. I’m also inspired myself, as I’m reminded of the many principles and practices that I hold dear, and endeavor to practice as best I can with children and families every day. Thank you, again and again!

    1. Lisa, excellent suggestions for dealing with the Fearsome, but Fabulous Fours! I am so grateful to you (as are readers, I’m sure) for contributing your wisdom here and on the forum! HUGS.

  2. I love that book – Siblings Without Rivalry – too! I re-read it about once a year. It’s been a tremendous help, and the little cartoon wrap ups for each chapter make it a fast resource when we’re stressing as moms! I recommend it all the time when I speak on stress management in families!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations