Surviving Sibling Struggles

A parent recently posed this question in a Facebook discussion group: Why do older siblings sometimes hurt younger ones? Take toys from them? I don’t really understand…

I commented: The question for me: why wouldn’t they? The younger child ripped the older one’s life apart. It is natural for the older child to want to control, dominate, and take out frustration on this person that rocked their world.

In that exasperating moment when our toddler or preschooler is acting aggressively toward the baby, or when our child (of any age) is picking on a younger sibling, it is certainly challenging to temper our emotions and understand.

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):

Physical Safety

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…

Emotional Safety

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.

Taking Toys

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

A Call for Sunshine and Enlightened by Nadine Hilmar

Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury

Dealing With Sibling Aggression by Amanda Morgan

(Thanks to Sara Prince from bonzo, chooch, mushy and me for this enchanting photo!)


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

  1. such a useful post! thanks janet!

  2. One query regarding roughhousing. My husband does a lot of roughhousing with our 18 month old toddler once he’s back from office. I always thought about it as a way of connecting. Now I’m confused if its being manipulative in the sense that we both know it gives him a good night’s sleep! Also with scheduled meltdowns. I know when a meltdown is on its way and sometimes i find myself encouraging him to cry:-/ now worried that I’m being manipulative:-( we don’t deliberately time his meltdowns as such but kind of help him get through it!! Any advice what should be the right approach?

    1. Roughhousing is fine, although I would be careful not to consisently overpower a child. That can be confusing to children in regard to their personal boundaries and the boundaries of others. The older and more of an equal partner the child is, the better. But regardless, when we engage in rough play (or any kind of play) with children, I believe it should be purely for the sake of mutual enjoyment, not to provoke a response. That is when it becomes manipulative. I’m glad this is helping your boy sleep! I would just remain aware of the messages he might be receiving.

      It’s wonderful that you notice when a meltdown is on its way… but by “encouraging him to cry” do you mean you behave differently than you normally would? Why? Does this make the meltdown come faster or work better? I’m sincerely curious as to why parents would use an artificial approach instead of simply trusting their children and letting feelings be. Trust is an extremely important parenting basic. Laura Markham from Aha Parenting said a “scheduled meltdown” is for the parent’s convenience. That make no sense to me and, yes, it is manipulative. It sounds like you mean very well and are a great parent, Nimitha, so please don’t take this as criticism.

      1. Hi Janet,
        Thanks for taking time to clear my doubts. Parenting is a journey of self discovery and betterment for me. Any suggestion or criticism is welcome.Yours was the most gentle and constructive advice I ever got one on one so far. I was invalidated, hushed and manipulated as a child(sometimes even as an adult). When I became a mother I knew I was not going to raise my son the same way. so Till 5 months I raised him according to my instincts(Which was not very bad except for doing things envisioning my son as a helpless being), then I read your blog by chance.I loved the idea of respecting babies because that felt in resonance with my inner theme.I still believe it was God’s will I found RIE so that I could give our son what I missed- to reach one’s full potential.

        Back to my queries, its not much of roughhousing then.its the other way around. Husband gives our toddler chances to jump and roll all over him while he remains passive. I somehow don’t find that too very comfortable. I fear that may set wrong ideas about boundaries in our son’s mind. Although They both seem to enjoy it, the inferences and associations are mine(I can’t seem to stop analyzing :-/)

        Regarding encouraging to cry, I realize I don’t behave like my usual(good) self which is more understanding and empathetic. Instead I get impatient and can’t wait the storm to get over. worse I justify my acts that it’ll help him relax once the meltdown is over:-/ I understand where the real trigger is coming from. Thanks for reminding me, I need to work on this and remind myself not to help or rush and trust trust trust in our toddler.

        Once again thank you and RIE for helping me to be a better’s a slow process but truly rewarding. In my efforts to become a better mother, I’m learning to stop pleasing others and to set healthy boundaries 🙂

      2. I found your article helpful and I usually appreciate your point of view, but was shocked to hear Markam’s strategies described as “sinister.” I am quoting her book here: “What is a scheduled meltdown? It is the same meltdown your child would have had at the playground or supermarket, except you give him a chance to have it at home when you’re ready to pay attention, while the baby is asleep.” It is so hard to balance the needs of both children, so if I find this suggestion very helpful and have used it successfully. It certainly isn’t sinister! And with regards to your snip at her purposeful roughhousing, I would just like to clarify that she isn’t suggesting roughhousing with children who cannot consent and her games are gentle, but allow children to discharge tension and stress in a natural, uplifting way. I find Dr. Markham’s peaceful parenting practices to be in the same evidence-based, non-punitive, connection-centered “camp” as your philosophies, Janet, and so your degrading of a like-minded colleague in this way disappointed me. If you haven’t had a chance to read her new book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, I suggest you read it!

        1. With respect for you, Laura Markham, and the other experts who share this view, I strongly disagree that we should be manipulating children’s emotions for our own convenience (or for any reason!). That is not our right, nor is it healthy. Feelings happen when they happen. I don’t believe that it is “degrading” to disagree with an approach (and, yes, “scheduling” another person’s explosive release of emotions sounds sinister and inhuman to me). A reputable therapist would not attempt to schedule a client’s meltdown and then coax it out of them, so how is this okay for a parent to do to a child? You are welcome to your opinion, of course. Mine is shared by my mentor Magda Gerber and most in the respectful parenting community.

          1. I see Dr Laura’s approach as being about providing regular, convenient opportunities for children to melt down. If we’re limit setting, this should happen as part of our routine lives with our kids anyway, right? I was a bit taken aback by the way she worded it, though.

            1. Children are actually experts at processing their emotions. They don’t need us to provide opportunities, so much as allow the feelings whenever (and however) they show up.

  3. Molly Dodin says:

    Yes! Great post. Thank you so much for the wonderful insights as always. I just had one of the beautiful, rare moments of harmony this morning when my 2 year old was gently stroking his baby brother and whispering “I love you soooo much” over and over. But I see the intense arm squeezes you mention here a lot, so I’m very glad you included that here!! Any advice for when my 2 year old asks to nurse when the baby is nursing? He keeps saying “I want to nurse on the other side.” He has been weaned since a couple months prio to the baby being born. I have a hard time knowing what to say! My answer is no, just not sure how to phrase it kindly. I usually say that he nursed when he was younger and now he eats food, and offer something to munch on, or some water… Thanks again for the wonderful post!

    1. Wow! I love that moment, Molly!

      Regarding your son’s request to nurse, I would focus on acknowledging his perspective, rather than explaining your point of view: “he nursed when he was younger and now he eats food”. I would acknowledge, “You want to nurse, too! You want to nurse while the baby is nursing. It must be very hard to see the baby nursing and not be able to join in. I understand. You and I are not going to nurse anymore. If you want something to drink or eat, I can get you something as soon as I’m done nursing the baby.”

  4. I love the article, but I have a question. I have a four year old daughter and a 16 month old son and he definitely does not look at her like she’s a celebrity when she’s taking a toy from him because he starts screaming/crying and pulling it towards himself. It seems a bit unfair to keep letting the older sibling take things from the younger sibling and then decide to intervene. Also, this isn’t related to the article, but my son hits/bites/pinches/scratches my daughter even though we’ve never done any of that to him, the only thing I can think is that he learned it from her because when she’s angry she’ll swing her fist at him but won’t actually hit him (she learned hitting from a couple of friends her age) I’m not sure how to stop it because it’s a daily occurrence. I know that reacting that way is natural to a degree but I want to make it stop somehow.

    1. Thanks, Emilia! I’m wondering how you’ve been handling the toy taking in the past… If there’s been anger, annoyance, anxiety, etc., on your part, there’s a very good chance you will have “charged” these situations at least a bit. Nothing to feel guilty about! Just to consider. There aren’t many 16 month old’s that care more about toys than they care about older siblings, but they will buy into the drama in these interactions (hence the biting, hitting, scratching, etc). If it seems unfair to you, then intervene as you believe best, as calmly and nonjudgmentally as possible.

      1. I had a bit of a hang up with that portion of the article as well. My son is 7 months old…though was 6 weeks early, so he’s developmentally somewhere between 5.5 and 7 months 😉 The past two weeks he is NOT happy when big sister takes toys away from him. Or if any of us take something from him really (for instance if he got ahold of something not safe to chew on). He becomes so angry and cries immediately. My toddler at first did this when he got ahold of her toys, and I told her to give him a baby toy instead. Now she is doing it with his toys. Anyway, he idolizes her, but not when she yanks a beloved chew toy out of his hand.

      2. I find it funny that you suggest that if a baby gets annoyed/ angry that a sibling has snatched something from them, it must be that the parent has caused that by charging the situation with anger. I would think that you of all people who advocate respecting a child, would understand it’s perfectly natural for a baby to feel that way. You yourself are an advocate of not interrupting a baby’s concentration and play. Why is it any different if a sibling does it? Just because I idolise someone doesn’t mean I would appreciate them wrenching something from me with no warning, and I’m pretty sure my baby feels the same. Janet I like a lot of your philosophy but I don’t like your tendency to suggest, when someone says that their child doesn’t behave as you think they should, that that behaviour stems from something the parent did “wrong” so to speak. Maybe all babies don’t react kindly to things being snatched by their siblings, completely based on their own feelings and not because of any “emotional charge” from their parents?

  5. I’d also add to the list of 1:1 time with each child. It reminds me of Magda Gerber’s advice of “quality time not quantity of time”.

    It really helped me, let my 3 year old at the time that our time was just as important as his months old infant brother.

    I was single mom at the time and working and couldn’t imagine how it was going to unfold until I decided that their bath routines would be completely separate from each other.

    I would meet my youngest ones needs first then say aloud “And now it’s time for your brother”.

    By being consistent with the 1:1 time (which was approximately 15-20 mins) with my oldest, his empathy for his younger brother grew exponentially. And their relationship was transformed.

    Thank You for the post

    1. I couldn’t agree more with the 1:1 time, especially with the older child. The younger child will ideally get this through feedings, diaper changes and bedtime rituals. If at all possible, I recommend parents have an hour long outing with the older child once per week. This was a life-saver for me with my children, because it allowed me to nurture our relationship…and remember what we loved about each other!

  6. Heather Joy says:

    This past summer I regularly babysat two of our good friends’ seven-year-old son. I also have a 3-year-old daughter. During their time together he would often dominate play, try to control what my daughter did/didn’t play with, hide and steal her toys, and be verbally and physically aggressive with her. I had to constantly be close by them to block his advances. This was not an occurrence that happened occasionally, but it occurred almost constantly. This post reminded me of their relationship, because it was so much like sibling rivalry, but it was hard for me to understand the boy’s perspective because I lacked knowledge of his regular family environment. I acknowledged both of the children’s feelings throughout their time together especially during conflicts. When I suggested to his parents who have been close friends of ours for years, that he seemed like he was dealing with some intense feelings inside and needed his feelings to be listened to, they became highly offended and ended our friendship. It is hard for me to understand how the RIE method of parenting seems so taboo to some people. Our friends were highly educated people who had both worked in the mental health care system. I am so glad I found this method of parenting because it resonates so strongly with me, but sometimes it sure does feel isolating.

    1. Heather, your non-sibling playdate anecdote is so interesting to me and here’s why: I have two children, a seven year old boy and a three year old girl. The way you described your child and your (former) friends’ child’s play together sounded as if you were describing the play between my two sibling children about 60% (or more) of the time. I know for sure I’ve charged a bunch of stuff for them and I’m working my butt off to better keep cool, yet your post fascinated me and makes me wonder if there is also something about the chemistry of 7y.o. boy with 3y.o. girl. (That’s too bad your friends got so offended, sorry about that for you.)

  7. Thanks so much for this article Janet! My sister-in-law just asked me a couple of days ago if I knew any Janet Lansbury advice about siblings. Sometimes her 14.5 month old daughter lashes out at her 4 year old son. Sometimes it’s provoked and sometimes it’s just when her daughter is generally frustrated. She’s been scratching his face and he just sits there crying. My sister-in-law wanted to know a)what her response should be and b)should she teach her son something that he could say to her daughter when this happens?

    Thanks so much for all you do for parents!

  8. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for this article. I really appreciate your general concept of waiting and seeing how the kids actually feel about something (like sometimes the baby could care less if the 3 year old takes something). That said, one thing I have always focused on with my 3.1 year old and my 9 month old is encouraging the 3 year old to trade a toy if he wanted something the baby had, as a general routine. He’s pretty willing to do this, and the baby is usually up for the trade and seems to enjoy the interaction. More recently, I’ve been asking the 3 year old to notice how the baby responds if he tries to take a toy, whether it’s without asking or offering a trade, or even if he did give something to the baby then take the other thing out of his hand. Does he pull his arm away? Does he let you have it? Does he cry? I’ve encouraged the 3 year old to play with the new toy himself for a moment before offering it as a trade to encourage the baby to be interested in it.

    In your view does all this seem like too much intervention? Maybe it just makes sense to encourage myself to wait a bit and observe more times to just see what the interaction looks like without my intervention.


    1. Hi Cynthia! That’s more intervention than I would recommend, but if you are happy with the results of your approach, I see no reason to alter it.

  9. Catherine says:

    My 2.5 yr old has just started to make some aggressive advances towards his 4 mo old brother. The tally now is 3 hits and a bite. Twice it happened when the older son was upset. The other two times were completely unprovoked…but admittedly when I’d stepped out of the room for 30 seconds or less. (I see that I need to stop leaving them alone together even for a moment.)

    This is the first time that my son has truly found a button of mine.

    When I’ve been out of the room, he has hit/bit the baby, caused a reaction, then immediately told me what he did (sounding matter of fact/ borderline happy rather than remorseful). Then he wants to kiss the baby to make it better.

    My hunch is that he is curious about the baby’s reaction (the one time that baby didn’t cry, he seemed disappointed or at least surprised) and about my reaction, with frustration being only a secondary motivation, though a real one certainly. (Come to think of it, there have also been moments where he told me “I want to hit him and kiss him”)

    What would you suggest as an appropriate response? This situation is slightly different from the arm-grabbing one you describe, because the moment is over and he’s perfectly in control by the time I intervene (even when I am present). So, I don’t/ can’t help him stop, exactly.

    The advice in Siblings without Rivalry is what has come to mind first in the moment – to focus attention on the victim, though I generally try to avoid the bully/victim roles and remember that the book advocates that as well… The first time it happened, I think I picked up the baby, talked to him until he was calm (not responding to the older child repeatedly telling me he’d hit him and/or wanted to kiss him), then told the older child something like “I expect you to keep your brother safe.” The second time, after the baby was calm I helped him move away from the baby even though he wanted to kiss him, and told him to let me know when he wants to hit the baby, so that I can help him take care of the baby by doing something else. Then we’ve moved on, and when my son brought it up again later in the day I gave very little response – something like “mmhmm.” I don’t love acting as if it’s not a big deal. Since the incidents, I’ve thought of saying “I hear you crying. You’re telling your brother you really didn’t like that”…but I know you’ve also talked about how sensitive and aware toddlers are, how they don’t need you to point out things like this.

    For my clarity, what would you guess is the underlying cause of these aggressive moments?…impulsive response to emotion? curiosity about whether I can/will stop him (I have failed here)?…curiosity about whether his relationship with me will still be okay? (Of course it will, but the violence still Really bothers me).

    1. I would love to hear the response to this post Catherine as it almost perfectly describes what is happening in my house at the moment.


  10. Katerina Konstantinidi says:

    Hallo Janet, I just discovered your website….It feels like sent by the skies…I already read some articles around your site, and feel so much relief and support in many ways concerning some of the challenges I am facing lately with my 2,5 year old daughter..her tantrums, testing me and the relation with her 5 month old sister…. I was feeling so helpless, and confused… my biggest challenge is the acknowledgment of her feelings and full acceptance of her expressions …. it is so difficult to be a conscious parent all the time and act like one, and not be overwhelmed by feelings… and fully trust the leadership role, not being afraid of it, afraid of crushing the kid´s personality…(and I find myself finally doing that by losing my temper…).Parenting is the most difficult thing i ve ever had to do…having to set limits all the time,provide support, and not project my own limitations….not trying to do things in a perfect way, but instead just relax in my love for my children and purely enjoy…. Your approach is so down to earth,,.. well structured , understood, and transmitted… thank you for sharing your experience in the articles you write..

  11. I’m trying to process all the info 🙂 … The topic about safety it’s very clear to me. However, I am not clear on the toy taking. Do we let the older sibling take toys from the little one without intervening and letting them work it out? Sportscast? What about when I’d like the baby to have some alone play time and a safe place isn’t doable. I believe baby needs to have her play time like floor time that helps her development and brother taking her toys seems disrespectful to me. What about when it’s not a sibling and it’s another small baby and other adults expect the older child to be “nice” to the baby?

    Sorry for all the questions, I’d appreciate your input.

  12. Hi Janet, great post with a lot of food for thought. I have a 20 month old son and a 2 1/2 month baby boy. I always try to spend 1:1 time with my eldest each day and encourage him to talk to his brother. He likes to give him kisses and high fives and has recently tried to share his food with him. He is generally gentle with the baby and I watch them interact without hovering over them, as I don’t want to make it seem like a big deal or that I’m worried. Today my eldest wanted to offer the baby his sippy cup and he held it near baby’s mouth.I explained that baby is a bit little and when he grows bigger, he can use a cup. In a split second my boy hit his baby brother in the face with the cup. Reacting quickly, i grabbed my older son by both arms and sat him on the ground away from the now crying baby. I said quite loudly “we don’t hit people. Look at the baby, he’s crying, you hurt him.” Or something along those lines. He looked shocked and like he was going to cry (he didn’t) and then I picked up the baby to comfort him. I didn’t mention it again after the event, should I have said something once the baby was calm? I’m not sure if he was being aggressive or just frustrated that the baby wouldn’t drink from the cup like he wanted. Any suggestions as to how I should have handled the situation? I don’t want my older son to feel like I’m on the baby’s side against him.

  13. What a wonderful article. I’m trying to figure out how to apply the same concepts to my 2 children, my 10 year old son and nearly 5 year old daughter. Do you have any thoughts and suggestions that might help me convert it to apply in sudden situations where I can necessarily be 100% present in the moment, like driving where I can’t accuser what’s going on?

  14. Sorry the “can” was meant to be “can’t”.

  15. I have a question on how this relates to cousins rather than siblings. My sister has a12 month old boy and I have a 2 year old. My 2 year old takes toys from his cousin and tries to hit or push his cousin when his cousin tries to “play” with him. His cousin tries to follow him everywhere and it just upsets my son. And my sister and mom keep saying my son needs to share. I am not sure how to handle it especially since my nephew doesn’t understand of course.

  16. Hi Janet, i am a new reader and enjoying your articles thankyou. I was half thinking about asking you this question and this article has prompted me. The problem in my house is the reverse: my 3 year old son is always dominating his 5 year old elder brother. He will physically hurt him (ie hitting him, sitting on him) and will also get his own way by having a melt down if his older brother say is playing with a toy he wants or wants to play a different game then he does. We intervene when we see it happen and say things like ” i know you want that toy and when A is finished playing with it you can have it” or that i know he is angry but we dont hit people etc but nothing works, or stops it from happening next time. It is to the point where if A thinks C is about to have a tantrum he will give him the toy “ok ok” just so he doesnt lose his playmate and to stop the tantrum. What are your next steps beyond a conversation with the child? Advice welcome

  17. Catherine says:

    Firstly, thank you for a really interesting article. I’ve been following your advice for a while now.
    What you’ve written works very well for my 5 year old son and 2 year old daughter. However, I’m not sure how to handle the jealousy my 7 year old daughter feels when her 5 year old brother learns something new, that before only she knew how to do, things like reading, turning cartwheels…. I understand that she feels she’s loosing something that made her unique and that we were excited for her to have accomplished, but it hurts me to see her little brothers face fall as she belittles him when he tries so hard to do what she does. Who do I help? At the moment I praise him, and try explaining to her that he loves her so much he wants to be like her, I understand she doesn’t want him to be like her, and that’s ok, but it’s not ok to make him feel bad. so far, this approach isn’t working. I’ve tried praising her for being a good teacher and example, but she says she didn’t teach him.
    Please help!

  18. Janet,
    I loved this article and in many ways it was very helpful and reassuring but in other ways it doesn’t entirely relate to my situation and leaves me needing more help and still feeling bewildered.
    I have been able to stay at home with my 18 month old son, our first child, until recently when finances dictated a change. I took a job caring for two little girls in their home and am able to bring my son along. The oldest girl is just a few months older and the younger girl is 12 weeks old. I took this job because it would allow me to continue to be a part of my sons days which at first seemed like a wonderful idea. Boy was I mistaken.
    It has turned into a really frustrating situation for him, the oldest girl, and myself. He continually ignores me even refusing to look at me when I try to engage him in conversation, constantly rips things from her grip, takes advantage of her timid personality constantly terrorizing her and the icing on the cake is that I’m often holding or feeding the baby and can’t always offer him or the little girl my assistance in controlling their feelings or preventing what is about to be a physical battle over something before it begins.
    I fear I have done more harm than good in choosing this nannying job over a traditional job and sending him to daycare part time. I’m at a total loss for how to improve the situation and interactions that occur. I imagine my situation is one that blended families have to deal with but can’t find any advise in books or blogs. Your opinion and objective views would be greatly appreciated.

  19. Hi,

    I sometimes look after my friend’s kids and am not sure what to do about the constant teasing and occasional aggression from a nine year old to his four year old brother. The older siblings have all been bullied at school and although they are thr sweetest kids, I can definitely see the four year old feeling downtrodden and affected by how constantly it is passed on to him. It seems like almost every interaction involves the older brother withholding toys from the younger and enjoying how the younger one cries for them. I also saw them playing cops and robbers and the younger brother ended up pinned to the ground with his hands behind his back.

    I tried asking gently asking the older boy to stop, asking how he would feel, etc. as it is bullying and can’t be ignored, while also interacting with him positively and giving a lot of encouragement. It didn’t appear to make a difference. What would you do?


  20. Was wondering how the rules will be for siblings of the same age (twins). I have 1 yr 4 month old twin girls and they’re anything but friendly to each other!!! One is more reserved and gentle (with movements) while the other is playful and strong. The string and playful one keeps taking the other one’s toys, sometimes she’s ok with it, other times she’ll fight for the toy but ends up losing the toy coz the other one is much stronger. I try to let them resolve things but can’t keep letting the strong one win so I eventually step in and stop her from taking. What could I do so that the toy taker will stop taking toys, and the other one will be more assertive if she doesn’t want the toy to be taken from her?

  21. You say that an older sibling is “like a movie star” in the eyes of the younger. That sounds like the dream perspective of an oldest or only child. This is Not always the case. Sometimes the older sibling is feared as a monster, very frightening because they are larger, they hit harder, they squeeze harder, they scratch deeper and steal more easily. They speak more fluently and make their needs known more clearly. They have more experience communicating with powerful adults and move more freely in their company. We also need to understand and help the intense emotional struggles of a younger sibling: the terrifying feelings of oppression, fear of exploitation, humiliation and bullying. The second child is born into an unfair world where someone else always has the skills, the experience, comfort in the spotlight, the size, and the power. As you’ve pointed out, from the perspective of the older sibling, this upstart should have no right to take up space in their known world. However, that is the only world the younger can inhabit, and difficult as it may be for the brother or sister to accept, they do have a right to take up space and to live. Sometimes believing that becomes the life work of the second born. Just by being born, they become the identified enemy of the older. That’s some frightening and tough emotional terrain to negotiate and we owe our sense of reality and fairness to explore and understand it too.

    1. Hi Joan – I agree with you. My work is about the beginnings of the relationship and setting children on course to not exhibit the dysregulated, frightening behavior you describe. Those behaviors are about a child’s unsafe feelings and sense of deep loss of the parents’ affection. We can avoid this result by understanding and easing, rather than demonizing the older sibling’s emotionally-driven behavior. For infants, the older child is usually a big draw and source of excitement and they couldn’t care less about a toy being taken from them. They see it as a way to get attention, or even as play. Parents tend to see this through their own lens, which tells them that something “bad” has happened — their older child is being “mean” and so the judgments, rejection and distance begin. All of which are the older child’s worst fear coming true. We truly can head this off at the pass by working at seeing through our children’s eyes.

      If it’s relevant, I’m the 3rd of 4 kids, so I have both younger and older siblings.

  22. Mihai Alexandra says:

    Hi Janet! Thank you for your insights, I’ve read your books and your master course!
    While I try to be calm and only reiterate to my 3 years old daughter that we do not push, bite, squeeze, hit, whenever she’s getting aggressive towards my 1 year old , I sometimes get triggered and react in anger by raising my voice. The thing that bugs and triggers me the most is that my 3 years old daughter behaves well at kindy and I couldn’t imagine her hitting, biting, pushing her friends and colleagues, but she does it with her sister. While I do understand that family dynamics and social dynamics are different, it makes me wonder if this sets the tone that it’s ok to do this because “we’re family”.
    It triggers me because I grew up within a family that didn’t know how to set boundaries with each other and because “we were a family” we could be mean and disrespectful to each other.
    I’d like to hear your thoughts on the idea that kids can inherently think that because it’s a sibling they’re allowed to be mean and cross boundaries, and how to teach healthy boundaries starting with their toddler years.

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