Children who touch too roughly, or hug too tightly, or hit or poke or hurt their siblings are sending clear signals that they have some upsets that need to be listened to. Even very young children can be gentle with younger ones, as long as they are feeling “filled up” with attention, and relaxed.
So any sign of harshness from one sibling to another can be taken as a sign that the child is not feeling connected or relaxed enough to function thoughtfully. When you notice that a child has been rough, scolding him or ordering him to do things correctly won’t help. This only frightens your child more, and makes it less likely that he’ll be able to act thoughtfully.
What does help is to move in quickly and gently. Very gently but firmly stop the tense child from touching the younger child, but don’t remove him. Say, “I’ll help you be next to Sammy,” and guide his hands or his kisses so that they land softly, Move so that you can make eye contact with the older child, and invite him kindly to take a look at you.
Usually, because the child is tense with upset, he can’t look at you for long, and when he tries, the upset begins to make him want to go away. Gently stay with him and keep him close, continuing to let him feel your attention and your support.
Usually, the child will move rather quickly into a tantrum or a big cry about wanting you or not wanting you, or about wanting to touch the baby, or not wanting the baby. All those feelings are important facets of the nugget of upset he’s trying to offload. If you stay with him, without criticism, he’ll be able to cry or tantrum it through.
It’s also very common for feelings of frustration and competition for attention and for toys disturb siblings’ good intentions sooner or later. When there’s a tug-of-war over you, or over a desired thing, you can help your children by listening the feelings through.
Children can tolerate necessary unfairness (Daddy isn’t going to give Sally the hammer because she could easily hurt herself, but Kenny can handle it) as long as the feelings of frustration or insult are heard. Feelings that are listened to all the way through are feelings that evaporate afterward.
When you listen to crying or frustration, the child lets the awful feeling out, and your attention and caring then flow in. So siblings can get back to loving each other, even when you can’t give them the same experiences, or the same amounts, or the same time, or the same toys.
Below, we’ve broken down some of the most common struggles parents encounter when raising siblings. In each section, you’ll learn some insight behind the behavior struggles and some ideas for how to intervene or prevent it.
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