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:

Dealing With Sibling Rivalry: When A Toddler Bashes Baby (or Preschooler Bashes Toddler)

Shawn poses as this unassuming urban Dad who backpacks around with his two young kids while his wife toils away at a high-powered job.

But in reality, he's scary-smart, this close to getting his PhD at Stanford, in philosophy -- of all things. He can write (and backpack) circles around me, and in the couple of years we've both been blogging he's built up a massive following and hob-nobbed with all the big online names. All while I'm toiling away in obscurity, 2500 miles away from the action. (Don't feel too bad, though, since I'm in Hawaii.)

So I was happy to oblige him when he asked for a guest post -- that is, until he suggested a topic that has been argued and written about for thousands of years -- sibling rivalry. Typical philosopher. I reminded him that HE'S the one who still needs to finish his dissertation, not me. But last I heard, he had bailed out of the library and was headed down to the Happiest Place on Earth, so it looks like that PhD will be claimed another day.

But I hope you come check out my advice to him over at Backpacking Dad, because I gave him some ideas that should help you smooth out the relationship between your young kids, too. Toddlers bash on babies, preschoolers bash on toddlers, but there ARE things that we, as parents, can do to minimize the bashing (and maintain some semblance of our own sanity.) And thanks for the guest spot, Shawn. (Now -- get back to work!)

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parent Tip: Advice For Easing School Pickups

Today is the first in my series of quick parent tips designed to make your life easier. As a shrink and parent of 4 young kids, I feel your pain -- and I've worked out some of the wrinkles along the way. I hope you enjoy these -- and comment below if you have a question you'd like me to tackle. Today, I'm picking up my 2 big kids from school, with a baby and preschooler in tow. Sibling rivalry is a common problem, especially after school when everyone is jockeying for your attention. The energy of the house totally changes once the big kids are in the mix. PREVENTION is the key to a smooth afternoon. Try this:

Greet each kid separately, even if it's just for a few seconds. Get down on his level for a sincere smile, hug, and as much of a discussion as you can.

RE-GREET the little ones so they don't feel left out of the special attention given to the big kids. Yeah, I know they've had more of you during the day, but it's still hard to let go and share with the big kids. Give a special few seconds as you strap them back into their car seats.

Music and other media in the car make it tough to decompress and talk after a busy day. Turn it off to bring everyone's stress level down.

When you get home, limit your computer and phone use to a different time of day. Your kids will ratchet up the activity and noise level when they notice you aren't "present". Give them this time with you and your sanity will improve.

Give big praise when siblings get along, and let them know you LOVE when they talk and play nicely after school together. Try to ignore negative behavior...practice the Deep Breath and Look Away approach for copious use. The less attention you give to their antics, and the more you give them props for their good behavior, the better it will get.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: How to Handle Aggression in Your Young Child

Recently, I've gotten lots of questions about how to handle aggression in young children. It's a common concern, and it's always startling when your previously sweet little baby starts to bite, hit, or generally wreak havoc. How did this happen? Did I do something to cause this? Surely, we rationalize, he's learning it from daycare...(or a sibling, or a neighbor)...ANYONE but us, right?How To Handle Aggression in Young Children Well, he MIGHT be learning it from daycare. But guess what? Aggression is an INBORN DRIVE. Aggression is NATURAL in young children (and older children...and adults!). We ALL have some aggression in us....thankfully. Aggression helps us protect ourselves and our offspring, and, when properly re-directed, gives us energy to pursue our goals in life.

But there's a lot of parenting "advice" out there that seeks to squash any hint of aggression in our kids, and indeed to pretend that it doesn't exist. Worse, to punish the expression of it in children.

Instead, we must understand that aggression is a normal drive; as inescapable as hunger, thirst, and the developmental urge to get up and walk. When I see a child in the clinic who expresses NO aggression -- THAT worries me.

Of course, the problem is not with aggression per se, but with HOW IT IS EXPRESSED. That's the key, isn't it? Aggression must be re-directed appropriately, so as not to be destructive.

So, how do we do that, as parents?

First, get comfortable with aggression, including your own Yes, your own. I will bet that the Dads reading this won't have as much difficulty with this part of the assignment. After all, boys and men are typically more direct in their expression of aggression. I'm all for women's rights, but there's no doubt that most boys (and men) are more directly aggressive than girls and women. My husband is a lot more comfortable with our kids' aggressiveness than I am. But I've had to learn from him that it's not good for me to automatically chastise the kids simply for being aggressive -- kids need healthy outlets for their aggression, as long as they're not hurting anyone (or anything).

Moms need to understand that we, too, have an aggressive drive within us. Think about it. How do you channel your aggression? One friend of mine goes on a pounding run. Another paints vivid pictures. My sister likes horror films. Personally, I'm a head-banger. I feel so much better after a good power walk, listening to Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins or Black Sabbath (am I dating myself here, or what?). Get comfortable with your own aggression, and think about how you channel it in a positive way. Then, think about how you can help your children with the same issue.

Next, convey this to your kids: I understand you want to break that toy. I know you're mad. That's OK. But I can't let you break things. Sometimes when I get mad I listen to loud music and jump up and down. Wanna try it with me? Or: You guys can't hit each other. I know you got mad at each other. Let me help you use your words to say how mad you are at each other. Then when we're done, we'll try to find out how we can be friends again.

More tips on handling aggression For babies and young toddlers (up to about 18 months), IGNORE it as much as possible. (And yes, even babies express aggression. What breastfeeding mother can't attest to that? One minute you're having a nice nursing session, and then all of a sudden --- OUCH! Your sweet baby has decided to act out his aggressive impulses -- on your nipple!) If baby is biting, physically stop her, in as unemotional manner as possible (you don't want her to be reinforced by a big reaction from you), and try to move on. Babies will misinterpret any chastisement, and internalize it as shame. Not good.

For older toddlers, you can express your understanding of the emotion, but firmly show him what you'd prefer. You also want to praise and reinforce his HEALTHY expression of frustration and aggression. I know that little girl made you mad. I could see you were upset. But I am so proud of you for being a big boy and walking away from her. You didn't hit. Great job! And try really, really hard to stay unemotional about it yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but if your child can trigger YOUR annoyance and aggression easily, it's reinforcement for his own aggression. If you act out your aggression, so will they.

For preschoolers, you can talk more about their conflicts and help them role play or plan out problem situations in advance, or even after the fact. I know Ashley sometimes makes you mad. What will you do in school today if Ashley upsets you again? Can we practice what you might say or do, instead of hitting? Or try a role-playing exercise. OK, I'll pretend I'm Ashley, and you try using your words instead of hitting. Let's practice.

I also want to say a bit about "scary stories". Preschoolers naturally gravitate towards "scary stories", because they fulfill an important psychological function. They offer a way to SAFELY MASTER FEARS -- as well as their own aggression. Because fears and aggression are related, psychologically. Fears crop up when children start to see what their OWN aggression can cause. They then start to generalize this fear of aggression to others. Some parents or "experts" suggest avoiding scary stories, but this is actually counterproductive. It's important to give your child an opportunity to process and deal with scary things in a safe and manageable way. Why do you think the classic fairy tales have been around so long? Because they offer children a chance to process their natural aggression and fears. Of course, follow your child's lead. Don't expose him to scary stuff he can't handle. But recognize that it's important psychologically to allow him to deal with aggression in stories, at school, and at home.

In general, you want to convey your empathy and support for all your child's feelings. When he feels understood, it will be easier to show him how to appropriately channel and redirect his aggression and other negative feelings. This is an important lesson for him to learn now, so that he can manage his aggressiveness throughout his life.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Child Discipline: Discipline Tips & Techniques for a 3-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Heather, When my 3-year-old son hits, pushes, or bites me, my husband, or his 6-month old sister, or is throwing things or generally being threatening (he likes to act like a mad dinosaur), our response is to tell him he needs to calm down and spend some time playing quietly in his room. Theoretically, this gives him a chance to calm down, plus teaches him that the consequence of misbehaving is that he doesn't get to be around the rest of us. He gets to come back downstairs whenever he feels he's ready to be nice.

In the last week, though, he has started really testing how much he can pinch, slap and otherwise hurt his sister. This culminated in him biting her thumb - HARD. He had missed his nap and it was late afternoon, but otherwise things were calm, we were relaxing in the bedroom, and he had climbed up on the bed to give her a hug. While hugging, he apparently decided to bite her. Thankfully it didn't break skin, but it was close. Our response was to make him spend the last few hours of the day in his room playing quietly, although we let him come out whenever he had to use the restroom and to join us for dinner. We tried not to be overly dramatic about it, and talked about how he needed to stay in his room because he isn't allowed to bite or hurt his sister.

What are your thoughts on our discipline approach? Is it ineffective because he gets to play in his room (i.e. is a "naughty chair" a better approach?). I like the idea of having a consequence that is related to the crime - removal from the family area and time alone if you are not behaving as expected toward family members - but only if it works. And the recent biting and acting out makes me wonder, but maybe that's typical behavior toward a sibling. Also, he is really focused on talking about how I love him even when I'm mad, which of course I confirm and say I love him no matter what, all the time. But I worry we might be messing with his psyche in some unknown way. Okay, so I'm worried about that a lot! Your thoughts are appreciated.

Thanks,

Cherise

Hi Cherise,

I must say that you sound very thoughtful in your approach; your thinking is right on. You seem to have developed a way of thinking through these situations that makes sense, based on your kid. Bravo!

I do think, though, that he's too young to spend an afternoon in his room; it's simply too long, at his age. The usual rule of thumb is about one minute of time-out per year of age, so he shouldn't have more than about 3 minutes in his room. Any more than that is overkill.

His biting should be met by immediate attention to the "bite-ee", plus an unemotional reminder to him about the rule against "no biting". He can then be removed for a time out, and when he returns, have him check on the "bite-ee's" condition. "Check and see if your sister is OK. She us how you can apologize." Don't over-react to biting, but make sure your approach is consistent. Overreacting is likely to INCREASE the behavior, so respond unemotionally, but firmly.

His asking about "Do you love me even when I'm mad?" is fine....as long as he's not using it to distract you from doling out some kind of consequence. I think it's great to introduce him to the concept that even though you may or may not like his behavior, or even if YOU'RE having a grumpy day (Moms are allowed!)...you love him, no matter what. And that people can get mad at each other, but then get over it; and still love each other the whole time. "Anger" doesn't equal "loss of love". That's a difficult -- but important -- concept to start conveying to your kids, even in their early years.

In terms of "naughty chair" vs. "time out"...I think it totally depends on your own preferences, the layout of your house, and last but not least....WHAT WORKS BEST for YOUR PARTICULAR KID. For some, a quick trip to the end of a hallway met by a closed door is enough to turn around the behavior. Other kids need longer time outs, or more specific locations that work best. Experiment. GO BY WHAT WORKS.....that's a BabyShrink theme.

There are also some relevant tips to look over in my "Biting Babies" post; click here to check it out.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Child Development: Help for a Jealous 3-Year-Old

There are still more people to thank, as I celebrate the first year of BabyShrink. But questions keep pouring in, so I thought I'd post this one today. It's from a mom struggling with the "Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde" attitude change in her 3-year-old, following her new baby's birth: Hi Dr. Heather!

I have a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-month-old son. I was working full-time and had my daughter in daycare (where she was the apple of everyone's eye) up until a few months ago. I stopped working and pulled her out of daycare to spend some "quality time" with her before the baby arrived.

Things were great for the first week or so, and then everything went downhill. I was trying to keep up with daycare by drawing with her, teaching her the alphabet, numbers, and how to write her name and other small words. She had fun in the beginning, but would start to become very upset and not want to have anything to do with it. She also started this "shy" thing. She hides behind me when we go anywhere and doesn't want to talk to family...she tells them she is shy. All of this has led to a lot of frustration between the two of us. I can't understand why she clammed up all of a sudden and have begun to lose my patience. She, obviously, doesn't understand why I am frustrated, which has made it an endless cycle of irritation between us.

After our son arrived, and she began to realize he needs attention as well (I include her with everything I possibly can), life became even more rough for her. She basically does anything for attention, positive or negative. I decided to enroll her in a Montessori school just to get her out of the house and interacting with others again (and I needed some sanity after sleepless nights). This has turned into a chore as well. Getting ready in the mornings is a nightmare. She is the happiest child alive when she first wakes up...then as soon as I try to get her into the morning routine...her world turns upside down. "I don't like this." "I don't want to do that." I mean...she can't even get herself dressed in the mornings! I am also concerned that she is doing everything backwards, upside down, and inside out. Letters, numbers, clothes, shoes...you name it. Is this an early sign of a learning disability? Could this be the root of our problems? The frustration just builds and builds.

I don't know what to do. I try to nurse my 2-month-old before she wakes up so I can spend some time with her in the mornings (just us)...but everything just blows up in my face.

I love my daughter to pieces and want life to be happy again for her. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you! G.

Hi G.,

I've been there myself. Your little angel becomes a terror when a new baby arrives on the scene. You try hard to arrange for some rare "special attention", but they throw it back in your face. And your daughter is old enough to know which buttons to push to get you upset.

But don't forget that kids REGRESS when a new baby comes on the scene. They also famously behave way worse for you, as opposed to a teacher. So your plans for "keeping up the schooling" after she came home were perhaps doomed to fail.

Getting ready in the morning (or NOT) is also a famous 3-year-old strategy for making parents nuts. So please don't worry that your daughter is unusual or abnormal -- she's not at all, from what you tell me. (Of course I can't evaluate her myself, so take what I say with a grain of salt, and check with her pediatrician to make sure).

All you can do is DIAL BACK YOUR EXPECTATIONS, try to EMPATHIZE WITH HER SITUATION, and try to TAKE THE EMOTION OUT OF YOUR REACTION TO HER. This doesn't mean you should allow her to monopolize every situation; she needs to remember how to wait her turn and share. But you have to go back several steps in the "lesson plan" for her behavior. She's been hit by a ton of bricks, in terms of a new baby on the scene, and she's old enough to understand how much it jeopardizes her previous place in the sun.

You, as well, are in a different place -- you're exhausted with a new baby, and upset with your daughter. HANG IN THERE. This is sort of a "do whatever works" time. I know you want -- and need -- some kind of routine and predictability, but right now, you just need to get through each day as reasonably as possible. If she wears her pajamas to Montessori once in awhile -- so what? If she's late sometimes -- so what? She's only 3.

Focus on what she IS doing right. Praise her mightily when she behaves "like a big girl who knows how to wait for her turn so nicely". Make her into your "helper" with her brother, and point out what she is able to do -- and what he's NOT yet able to do. When she regresses into a tantrumming 2-year-old, take a deep breath and try not to over-react. YES, she knows better, but she's just not capable of it that second. Don't take it personally, just deal with her as a 2-year-old in that moment. And when she's a little angel again, don't hold a grudge, even if she was a little devil only a minute ago (easier said than done, I know, but keep trying).

About her doing everything backwards and inside-out; it's tough to say, but usually we don't diagnose a formal learning problem until second grade. She's obviously upset with you, and she knows it makes you upset when she does things backwards. So again, dial back your expectations and let that stuff go for awhile. You will have plenty of formal schooling time and firm rules for school in her future, but relax while she's still in preschool. Try to get in some fun "big girl time" when she is open to it, but don't put the pressure on her that "the baby is asleep and so we have to make the most of our time together!" If it happens, it happens. If not, maybe next time.

HANG IN THERE, and let us know how it goes.

Click here for a related post; this on one a 5-year-old who started hitting her new baby brother.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

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.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink