Helping Siblings Engage Safely and Positively

In this episode: A mother writes that her toddler son “can’t keep his hands off” his 10-month old sister. She describes his demeanor as a mixture of excitement and affection, but she also senses an undertone of aggression. She wants them both to feel her support when they’re together in one space, but she finds herself either holding him back or removing the baby altogether. “I’d like to find a safe way for them to engage with each other,” she writes. “At least sometimes.”

Transcript of “Helping Siblings Engage Safely and Positively”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent who has asked about encouraging her two-and-a-half-year-old and 10-month-old to engage safely. The two-and-a-half year old is having some difficulties with that. So this mother wants to intervene in a manner that really encourages both of them while keeping them safe.

Here’s the note I received:

“Greetings Janet. Your books and podcast have been my go to parenting guide. Thank you for providing such a wonderful resource. I’m writing about the relationship between my two-and-a-half-year-old son and 10 month old daughter. During this transition time we have prioritized one on one time with our son giving him extra focus during all caretaking. We’ve also provided separate “Yes” spaces in our home. In most ways the transition has felt smooth but in recent months as my daughter has become more active and engaging, a challenge is developed, at least a challenge for me.

When we are all playing together in one space I’m there directly supervising and engaging, he cannot keep his hands off his sister. He is constantly grabbing her or putting his head on her and leaning on her. It isn’t overtly aggressive, no hitting are pushing. It truly feels to me like a mixture of excitement and affection with maybe an undertone of aggression. I believe he wants to learn how to engage with her so I have tried giving him ideas but that doesn’t seem to stick. Other than holding her and keeping him away when we are all together or just not having them in the same space until this phase passes I don’t know what to do. Otherwise she’s constantly looking at me with help me eyes and I’m constantly removing her and physically separating him. I know they both need my support in this situation and I’d like to find a safe way for them to engage with each other at least sometimes. Thank you.”

Okay, I think it’s important first of all to understand that this is all par for the course, all very, very typical behavior. I say that because sometimes I think as parents that’s all we really need to know — that there’s nothing strange going on here, this is all to be expected.

Coming from that perspective will help us to intervene in a manner that is calm and unruffled, instead of coming in with panic, worry, fear that we’re not doing something right as parents and that we’ve created a problem. All of that will cause us to respond in a way that isn’t as confident, is a little more reactive and doesn’t give our children that message that we are the leaders and we’re comfortable in that role and therefore they can feel secure.

When children feel that security and that comfort that we’ve got their back, that we’re there taking care of it and we’re not judging them, we do see it as normal, when they have all of that, they feel less stress and less over excitement and it has a calming effect on them. These dynamics really are top down in that it has to come from us first.

So, it sounds like this parent is doing everything wonderfully. She’s giving them safe places to play, she’s actually even made what I call a “Yes” space which means it’s a place where children are completely safe and can explore freely and they don’t have us saying, “No, no, no, ah, ah, ah, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” Sometimes we don’t need two separate “Yes” spaces, but at least we need there to be some ability for our older child to not have that younger child constantly disrupting play, which is what happens. We want the younger child to have safety so that we can look the other way and not have to worry that one of the smaller toys that the older child has is going in that younger child’s mouth or there are other unsafe things happening between them.

So she’s got all of that taken care of, which is great, and now comes the part where she’s supervising. What’s so interesting about this is that her son knows she’s supervising and her son is sharing with her, actually, his feelings. He’s using this time where she’s paying attention to show her “this is how I feel.”

I’m not suggesting that that’s this conscious idea on his part. But she has noticed that the younger child has what she calls “help me eyes.” What I would see also is that her son is saying through his behavior “help, help me a little here. I’m out of myself.”

She nails it with her description, this mixture of “excitement and affection with maybe an undertone of aggression.” Yes, so that is where children go when they are excited and out of themselves. They’re in impulse land. They’re not centered and grounded in themselves. Probably this is his fear coming out, this is his rivalry, his feelings of “this little pumpkin is not just a little infant anymore, she’s moving about and she’s becoming more of a threat to me. She’s a real person that can take my parents’ attention and love away from me.”

Again, these wouldn’t be conscious thoughts that he would have. But it’s this feeling, “whoa, she’s on the move, yikes. This is real, this isn’t going away, she’s a person.” It’s making him feel out of control.

It’s wonderful that he does seem to kind of have a lid on this to a certain extent. That’s a reflection of the comfortable environment and leadership that these parents are giving him. It’s also great that this mother has prioritized one on one time with her son, giving him extra focus during all caretaking, that’s fantastic so that may be a part of this is well, why he hasn’t gone over the edge too far. He does feel that security at his core.

A lot of times parents in this situation where they have an older child and a younger sibling and this whole transition is going on, they’re working really hard to give that older child attention and they don’t understand why hey, I’m giving all this attention, we’re really putting out for this guy to make him feel safe, to make him feel comfortable or this girl and still they’re acting up these feelings, they’re still doing this stuff. Come on, this isn’t fair and that it’s true, parenting isn’t fair. Children still have feelings no matter what.

This couldn’t be a more positive situation. He’s sharing his feelings with his mother when she’s there watching. He wants her to see him, he wants her to help him. So with all that in mind, this mother can come into the situation with confidence and an unruffled attitude. The best way to do that is not to wait until something looks like it’s crossing a line and then scurry in. We want to notice early that he’s in that excited place and I would expect that to happen when she’s supervising so that she’s ready. She’s not taken by surprise.

Let me go to what this mother’s actually said that he does… “He can’t keep his hands off a sister. He’s constantly grabbing or putting his head on her and leaning on her.”

Yeah, so his hands are on. Make sure those hands aren’t pushing, make sure those hands aren’t restricting her. Make sure she wants those hands on her, and the way to do that is to put your hand in between and say, “I see you want to touch your sister” (and you’re saying that in an encouraging tone), that’s a good instinct that he has, he wants to touch her. “But I’m going to ask if she is okay with that. Is that okay with you?”

And then perceiving her as a capable partner in this is also important. Even this idea that she has help me eyes, that can be, I’m not saying that it is in this case, but that can be a bit of a projection on her part that the baby feels scared or that she feels victimized in some way.

But if he’s not really hurting her I would doubt that she’s feeling any of those deep things about this. I think she might be feeling, “Huh, what’s going on? and this kind of gets some confusion out of my mother. So I’m looking at her, are you going to know what to do mom, are you going to get worried about this, how do you feel about it?” I think it may be more along those lines than, “help, he’s hurting me, I’m afraid he’s going to hurt me.”

We have to remember that children are learning through their experiences and this is what she knows. She knows that she has this brother. She’s probably already got him pegged in a lot of ways and here are these interactions that they have and there’s this interesting energy coming from her mom when this goes on. So I think she may be more interested in that than actually concerned or afraid.

Why do I even go into these things? Because again, the way we perceive our children, their behavior, is everything. It will guide us, it will make us say the right words, do the right things. It’s freeing. So, seeing them both as capable people is important.

Now, if you feel like she’s saying she doesn’t like that or you’re not sure you could say, “You know, I’m not sure if she wants you to touch her that way.” Meanwhile your hands are calmly there ready to stop him. You’re modeling the kind of calm and the gentleness that you want him to have. That’s another reason to be close, not rush in or be abrupt in your behaviors with him and your gestures. We have to model the behavior that we want.

This mother says he’s constantly grabbing her. So if he grabs, I wouldn’t instantly take his hand off. Just be close, look at her and then ease his hand up a little and say, “Maybe if you touch her this way, I don’t know, maybe that’s okay. Is that okay with you?” asking her. Encouraging them to engage together, that’s what respectful interventions are about. Doing the smallest thing because you really don’t want them to depend on you. You want to encourage them to do this on their own. You’re just there for backup.

So looking at her and saying, “You can move away, you can put your hand up if you don’t like that.” And as she gets older, “You can say no.” And this isn’t with an expectation that now they’re going to suddenly be able to do that, especially if she’s that much younger than him. It’s just letting her know that you believe in her and that you believe that she can handle her brother as they develop together. So it’s more the message behind those words than it is actually that we expect her to follow that direction. She’s probably not going to do that, but it’s opening up the possibilities for her, letting her know that you want to help her be the one to handle this.

So with siblings, we’re definitely not going to be able to prevent physical behavior between them, it’s just impossible. The overall message that we want to give them is we want you guys to engage, we want you both to engage safely. We’re on both of your sides, we’re not blaming anybody here. We don’t see a victim, we don’t see an aggressor. We see two children in a relationship.

We understand why the older child has a lot more feelings about all of this than the younger child has. The younger child was born into this family. The older child had a whole different kind of family that was more focused on him and now he’s had to give up so much. It is very scary to have someone intrude in your life that way. They see how lovable that baby is. They’re young, they’re cute, they have a lot of physical needs but they can’t be that baby, they are themselves and they need to feel like they haven’t lost anything besides a little bit of time. But they haven’t lost their parents’ high regard, they haven’t lost their parents’ patience with them, they haven’t lost their parents empathy and unconditional love. Those are the messages we want him to get. And if he gets those he will love his sister and want to engage positively with her as he moves out of this transition.

This parent is spot on: “I believe he wants to learn how to engage with her.” I’m sure he does. So she’s tried giving him ideas but that doesn’t seem to stick. Yeah, I think it doesn’t stick because he’s still asking a different question. He’s not saying “tell me some different ways I can engage with her safely.” He’s saying “what do I do with these feelings?” He’s just not ready to jump to “oh, here I can do these other things and be fine.” He’s not fine, he’s got rumblings inside and fear as all children do in this situation on some level. The fact that she’s had a smooth transition, great. Well now he’s showing you his pain.

What will also help him engage is to see his feelings in that situation. So you’re not only checking out with your baby, “is that okay with you?” you’re noticing him too. You’re saying, “You want to touch her, that’s just a little bit too strong. I’m going to stop you when you do that and help you. I see yeah, you want to hug her, you want to touch her.” And even seeing that aggressive part under there too, seeing it in a way that makes him feel safe in those feelings, if he can share that with you it’s going to ease his mind and warm his heart so much. There’s no greater gift than someone seeing us in our aggression and our fear and our anger. That’s the deepest way to bond with any child.

So she says, “other than holding her and keeping him away when we’re all together, just not having them in the same space until this phase passes, I don’t know what to do.”

So yes, I wouldn’t keep him away. I definitely wouldn’t hold her when he’s doing this because that’s saying, “okay, here’s my baby and you’re the bad one acting out there.” I know she doesn’t mean that at all obviously but that’s the message children get. So I would not do over respond to him by moving him away. Do these smaller things. Be there. Let this dynamic happen. This is gold he’s sharing with you and if you can handle this with that empathy, and confidence in your ability to protect things from going too far, and acknowledge both of their point of view and really want to hear it, then this will pass. But if you keep avoiding it, he doesn’t get to express this to you and then he may find other ways to do it.

So, rise to this moment, this is a great opportunity. It really is. She says, “I know they both need my support in this situation.” Yes, absolutely. So support, don’t end the situation. Give support. That’s how they will find safer ways to engage. We can’t really show them that, they have to discover it. And they will. I hope that helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

2 Comments

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

  1. Hi Janet thanks for this article! I can definitely see the benefit in what you have explained however what if the baby is crying each time the toy is taken or their movement is restricted by the elder sibling? Or when you gently intervene the elder becomes more rough deliberately? I find my preschooler is a dream If he feels needed but when I need to direct him because the baby is visibly distressed he becomes more controlling and aggressive and will NOT leave the baby alone! I don’t have space for yes spaces either where I live. thanks again for all your advice!

  2. avatar Anna Gunn says:

    Hi Janet, this was a great podcast for me so thank you so much. I’m very interested in your response to Hannah above but also have a question of my own. I have a nearly 5 yr old girl and a nearly 1 year old boy. My daughter can be like the older boy in the podcast but as the gap is wider she seems to exert her strength more. It can start very loving and go to neck grabbing and nearly dropping him head first. There is often no way to. Communicate with her at this point and anything that she does hear is argued. I’m struggling to find a way to approach this calmly as its a very stressful time from the minute she wakes until he goes to bed with very little respite in between. She really is a beautiful loving girl and I understand this can be just testing the boundaries, but the word that comes to mind is relentless. Can you please help to re-frame this for me. Thank you for all that you do. Anna 🙂

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