Parenting Tips: Dealing With Sibling Rivalry That's Alive And Well

Of the tons of emailed questions you’ve sent me, one main theme is coming through loud and clear: SIBLING RIVALRY. Dear BabyShrink,

I thought our five-year-old daughter Emma was doing great with her baby brother, but she has hit him twice. His cries of distress alerted me to what was going on. I want to stop this behavior, but frankly I am stunned by it and don't know how to help the situation. Both times I had a discussion with her about how the baby is so little and how she could really hurt him even if she didn't mean to. She replied that she hated him and hated all little babies. I told her that she still should never hit a baby. BTW, she loves little babies, I just think it's her own flesh and blood she's having the problem with. Needless to say, I am not leaving her alone with him after the second incident.

What really breaks my heart is when Emma tells me, "I need you, Mommy".  She misses me and I miss our time together; I just returned from a visit with the baby to my aunt in Florida. I did tell her that her baby brother is getting bigger and bigger and will be more fun and take less of my time.

Emma has a sister who is 17 months younger, who has accepted her little brother it seems without problems.

Help ~~ Dara

Hi, Dara,

I think Emma should be given a medal for her great verbalization of her feelings. Yes, it's true! I wish ALL 5-year-olds could tell us so clearly how they're feeling. Probably not what you wanted to hear. But I am MUCH more worried about the kids who look like little angels all the time...but have secret plans up their sleeves. The kids who keep it all bottled up often have more trouble later on.

Little ones have incredibly powerful emotions, ones that are still unchecked. As they get older, they learn more “socially appropriate” expressions of them. A great deal of development comes along to mute and contain those feelings as they get older. But for now…watch out, and don’t be surprised.

But of course, you can't allow hitting. Never. Give her the opportunity, regularly, to explain how hard it is to be a big sister, to not one, but TWO siblings! I mean, I bet she did great with the first, but this one is really too much for her! ;) Empathize with her feelings; how the younger ones mess up her things, take away your attention, and get to go on trips. Sometimes it really stinks! Letting her have the space to verbalize her aggressive feelings will lessen her need to act it out physically.

Help her control herself by not letting her alone with the baby, as you've already done, but don't make her feel like a criminal for it. "I know sometimes you get mad at Baby, and the feeling to hit is so strong, but we don't allow hitting in our family, so I will keep you with me so that I can help you use your words about it, instead of hitting."

You can also talk to her about how you know she needs you, and you will always be there for her, even if you have to take care of the babies. Try to plan something special with her now – nothing fancy, like a regular weekly trip to the grocery store, even just 30 minutes, while the other kids are with Dad or someone else. Say, "I need you to come with me on our special weekly trip to find some good fruit for the house for the week! You are getting so good at picking fruit!"  or something.  It does not need to involve anything "special", beyond regular, predictable time with you.

The other thing: when the baby gets bigger, in many ways he will be MORE of a pain to her, since he will be mobile, getting into her stuff, and requiring even more from you. So don't set her up too much to be loving that! I think in many ways, the 10-20 month age is the hardest; they require so much direct supervision, since they are mobile, but not really trustworthy yet!

I promise, a fierce and wonderful love will grow between them, despite all of this, especially if you can help them manage their aggressive feelings towards each other.

I love Dr. Brazelton's approach to these issues, so for more see his book on sibling rivalry.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink