Toddler Behavior: How To Handle Sibling Rivalry

I love it when parents say, “Our toddler is SO happy that she has a little baby brother. She seems to have accepted him totally!” Just wait.

Sibling rivalry usually doesn’t become a problem until your toddler has to contend with a mobile baby --one who gets into her stuff, pulls her hair, and otherwise competes with her in the Zone of Stardom she previously owned in the family. When that happens, all the harmony that existed in the home evaporates, replaced by screams of “MINE!”, “HE HIT ME!”, “STOP TOUCHING ME!”, and “AAAAAGGHHHHH!”

It’s pretty upsetting, to see it in action. Our fierce protectiveness of the baby kicks in, and it’s made worse by the fact that the offender ALSO belongs to you. “How COULD she? Am I raising a sociopath? What have I done wrong?” We worry.

First of all, it’s important to understand how painful it is for your toddler to have to share you with a sibling. Here’s an analogy: Your partner comes to you and says, "Honey, I love you SOOOO much that I've decided to get another partner JUST LIKE YOU -- to live with us, be taken care of by me, and to mess up all your stuff. Isn't that GREAT?!" Not really. In fact, pretty sucky. That's how your toddler feels (at least some of the time).

And yet: The sibling relationship has the potential to be profoundly important. Think about it: We have the longest relationship of our lives with our siblings. Siblings can understand each other like no one else, because of the shared, early experiences of our families of origin. For these reasons, we WANT our kids to get along.

Know this: Parenting a toddler AND a baby who are fairly close in age (anything less than 3 or 3 1/2 years apart) is really, really hard. In fact, IT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING I HAVE EVER DONE.

I’m here to give you two messages: 1) Don’t worry – it’s common and typical for toddlers, little kids, and even big kids to fight like cats and dogs. It’s a drag for parents, and not usually anything to worry about, BUT, 2) we have our work cut out for us, if we want to maximize the potential good relationship between our kids. There are lots of things we can do to make it smoother – maybe not so much now, but for the future.

That said, keep these things in mind:

• Safety, of course, is Job One. Never, EVER, leave a baby alone with your toddler (at least up to age 4), even for a second. The toddler can't help herself -- and you're not allowed to get mad at her if she starts hitting while you're not looking. She’s just too young for you to expect more.

Adopt a "matter-of-fact" attitude. In normal circumstances, your toddler isn't a sociopathic maniac, and your baby isn't a traumatized victim. Baby is tougher than you think, and Toddler is less evil than you fear.

Expect your toddler to TRY to hammer away at the baby -- it's simply human nature – but let everyone know you won’t allow her to hurt the baby. Your mission is to convey this: “I can’t let you hurt the baby. Tell me you’re mad, but hitting isn’t allowed. It looks like you’re mad because Baby got to sit next to me. Am I right?” Guide the interaction towards talking. This is the perfect crucible to grind out the issue of talking about feelings – instead of acting them out. Political correctness, manners and grace come much, much later (ages 6, 7 and beyond). In the meantime, expect to be there as protector -- and try not to get disappointed, worried, or critical of your toddler. She's just really bummed about having to share you.

Resign yourself to breaking up fights -- sometimes constantly. I know it feels like you're a referee all day sometimes, and it's easy to worry about the future implications of the sibling relationship. "Will they always attack each other like this?!" They might, for a really long time -- and that might actually be a good thing. Family is the pressure cooker of life, and siblings have the opportunity to work out lots of life's big issues together: Sharing, patience, and cooperation.

But you've got to emphasize the positive. When they DO get along -- notice, praise, and reward. "What nice sharing, you two! Wow, what a lovely time you're having together. That looks really fun." Even if it's only a brief interlude in the action, make a point of praising.

Finally, make it a point to regularly schedule “special time” with each of your kids – ideally, with each parent, separately and together – to get some time where that one kid can be the focus. Nothing fancy -- even if it’s just a trip to the market while the baby is home with grandma, it will help.

Smoothing out the rough edges in their relationship -- over and over -- will eventually help them create a stronger relationship.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert Sign up for my Newsletter and Follow Me: