Category Archives: Siblings

Problems between probable future step-siblings

Q: Hi Laurie.  I am a single mum of two lovely girls aged 12 and 8.  I have been divorced for three years now and have shared custody.  On the whole my girls are well behaved, have good manners and generally get along well with everyone.  Of course they are not perfect angels but they are good kids.  For the past 18 months I have been in a realationship with a man who also has two children and is divorced.  His kids are a girl 10 and a boy 8.  They are lovely children but on occasion they do misbehave quite badly. Up until this point I have avoided saying anything to my partner about this as I have believed that they are his children and I can’t say anything, that is until now when it has come to my attention that his boy is hitting my girls and his girl is saying nasty things to my girls and thier friends. I have spent time with his children with just me (without my girls) and have noticed that his children punch and hit each other on a regular basis and say mean things to each other. My partner does not seem to discipline or correct this behaviour unless it gets out of hand. And even then no consequence is given and therefore no effective discipline is given to correct the behaviour.  As I said up until this point I have not interefered but now that their behaviour is effecting my children I feel something should be said but I do not know how to go about it or what to say to him.  I do not want to cause conflict between us but I don’t want the situation to get to the point that my children do not want to spend time with his children as I can see in the future that we will be a blended family.  Please help.

A: This is a tricky situation indeed and I think it’s commendable that you’ve been able to respect your partner’s role as parent, as many of us have a harder time keeping our opinions to ourselves. Though I do think there are effective ways to address your concerns with your partner, I suggest starting by addressing them with your own family.

Far better than protecting our children from unpleasantness is empowering them to handle it themselves with confidence. Putting such problems in your children’s hands, with your support and encouragement rather than advice or protection, not only builds their competence, but also prevents resentment and negative roles from developing amongst the four children involved. If your children come to you with a complaint about your partner’s children, you can try reflective listening, empathizing, and inviting them to brainstorm solutions. For example, after listening without interruption, you might say something like, “That must’ve really hurt your feelings,” perhaps followed by an example of a similar experience of your own, then, “What could you do next time?” or “Any ideas to improve the situation?”

If you choose to speak to your partner about this, I suggest a very similar approach. For example, “I noticed our children are having a tough time lately and worry it might impact their relationship going forward.” After listening to his concerns with understanding and empathy, you could then ask him what ideas he has for addressing both yours and his.

While focusing on the future and solutions rather than the past and punishment is far more effective at achieving permanent change and long-term goals for multiple reasons, it’s particularly important when siblings (or probable future siblings) are involved. Nothing builds resentment and helps solidify negative roles quite like punishment when more than one child is involved.

One rule of thumb when dealing with conflict between children, though easier said than done, is to remain neutral regardless of who you believe is “at fault.” Here’s an article with more detail on the subject: Mastering the art of neutrality before your families blend would help provide a great start for the four step-children’s relationships with each other, as well as their new step-parents.

Three-year-old has trouble adjusting to new sibling

Q:  I have the most amazing 3-year-old ever. He is normally a respectful, polite little boy. He’s extremely intelligent and bright. His dad and I have not been together for over two years, but we do co-parent very well. Kaden’s dad and dad’s girlfriend recently had a baby a few weeks ago. Kaden was so excited to be a big brother. He’s great with the baby, very gentle and all. Problem is this, since the baby was born, Kaden wants to eat like a baby, be held like a baby etc. He’s only there one day a week and every other weekend, but I have been trying to do “big boy” things that only big boys can do and stuff like that. The major problem now is he’s acting out at school and hitting his friends and laughing while being disciplined. He thinks its funny. We thought trying to do things all together (my fiance and myself and his dad and his dad’s girlfriend) might help? Maybe he’s feeling displaced? I would do absolutely anything for my son. Maybe he doesn’t know how to communicate his anger? Please help.

A: Your son’s reaction to having a new sibling, though very challenging, is also very typical. From the moment he was born, your son was deciding how to gain significance and belonging in his world. For three years, he was an only child and the youngest and center of two families. During those years, he very likely developed the belief that he is significant and belongs only when receiving attention and keeping others busy with him. Now, he sees a new child coming into the family, stepping into the role he previously filled, and will likely try whatever he can to get back there, such as reverting to the baby’s behavior. After all, your son sees how being totally helpless, getting held throughout the day, crying all the time, etc. have resulted in incredible significance and belonging for the baby.

So the first step is understanding the beliefs behind his behavior and finding new ways for him to feel significance and belonging (e.g., choosing his own clothing, helping prepare dinner), while still accepting his need to identify with his previous role.

Instead of trying to convince him of how much better it is to be a big boy (possibly leading him to think the adults in his life don’t really understand and creating a “devil’s advocate” scenario where he’s got to work that much harder to prove his own experience), try empathizing with how hard it must be and understanding how being treated like a baby could make someone feel very special (e.g., “Sometimes it’s fun to feel like a baby and have others take care of you. Sometimes, I like it when people take care of me.”) Allowing him to pretend to be a baby can help him experience and process the baby role in the safety of play, eliminating some of the need to “play” baby in real life. You might even take turns pretending to be a baby and having the other do everything for you.

You can further validate his experience, freeing him from some of his frustration, by explaining that it’s possible and okay to feel two ways about something–to really love his new sibling and being a big brother, while at the same time, feeling very jealous and angry about him.

When you hear of misbehavior at school, try not to get too hooked by the behavior itself, discouraging him further, but instead try encouraging him, reducing the need for misbehavior. For example, you could say something like, “What’s happening at school tells me something’s bothering you and I want to help you feel better.” Then listen to what he says and problem-solve solutions together as his supporter and advocate, rather than as someone judging his mistakes.

One of the greatest tools for reducing displacement is scheduling special time, which is uninterrupted, scheduled time alone with a child. Even 15 minutes of planned special time can do wonders (see The Daily 15 at for more information). A wise person once said “Love is spelled T-I-M-E” and special time proves to our children that when we say how much we love and like them, we really do mean it.

Five-year-old hurts toddler sister

Q: I’ve been reading (and re-reading) my PD books to help me learn to respond in a more positive way to sibling conflict between my 18 month and 5 year old.  I believe in the value of letting the kids work out problems, either by themselves or with some coaching from me, but I’m not sure how to do this when there is such a big difference in age/power/verbal ability, etc.  I don’t want to shape a bully and victim dynamic…but really,  most of the hurtful behavior is in only one direction, and often occurs with no direct  cause. How should I respond when my older daughter bites, pushes or otherwise inflicts harm on her toddler sister, even when there is no actual “problem.”

A: While this scenario is quite difficult, it’s one many parents face with their first two children. From the moment children enter the world, they begin forming beliefs about how to obtain significance and belonging in their families. For firstborns, many of those beliefs involve being the center of mom’s and dad’s lives. When younger siblings upset the balance, older children shift about trying to reattain the significance and belonging they once experienced. To get things back as they were, they may want to get rid of the younger child or to keep mom and dad busy with themselves. Or they may simply strike out at who they see as the source of all their problems. Every time mom and dad step in to defend younger siblings from such strikes, older siblings feel even more displaced, less accepted, and in their own private logic, less loved.

The first step is seeing the world through your daughter’s eyes and really accepting her feelings, no matter how painful they are for you. You could start by pulling her up on your lap and saying something like, “It must be so tough sharing mom’s and dad’s attention and time with ____.” Then listen, ask questions, and validate without trying to change her mind. After really understanding her feelings, you can ask her for ideas that might help, such as spending scheduled special time alone with you every day. Even 15 minutes of planned, uninterrupted time can do wonders for letting your daughter know how much you enjoy and value her. (See The Daily 15 at for more on the benefits of special time).

Another important step is helping your older daughter see her little sister in a new light (e.g., as more than just someone who steals her parents, destructs her creations, gets her in trouble, forces her to compromise, makes lots of noise, etc.) When your older daughter gets hurt, instead of rushing over yourself, you could whisper to your toddler that a favorite toy, an ice pack, or a blanket may help big sister feel better and allow her to provide the comfort. When you give your toddler a special snack, you could ask her to bring a serving to your oldest. Whenever you have good news (e.g., going to the park, drinking hot cocoa, playing in the sprinkler), you could ask one to tell the other so they share in the joy together. Finding ways for them to work as a team, such as saving each other when wrestling with daddy, can also help build their own special relationship.

Even after your best attempts at prevention, transgressions will inevitably occur. Although remaining neutral is extremely hard, particularly when injury is involved, the long-term benefits to your children’s relationship and identities make it well worth the effort. Please read for ideas on why and how to achieve neutrality.

With such a significant age discrepancy, your younger daughter will have a hard time advocating for herself in the beginning. Still, treating her the same as your older daughter will benefit her by preventing victim training and preserving her relationship with her sister. When your older daughter hurts your younger, you could step between them, put a hand on both, and offer a limited choice by saying something like, “Kids, we need to keep each other safe. Would you like to try again, or make yourself feel better first?” Children (and adults) rarely problem-solve effectively when upset because they’re unable to access their higher-level thinking, so discussing ways to help your daughter feel better (e.g., reading a book, retreating to a special place, listening to music) in advance makes the second choice a great option before attempting to problem-solve.

When everyone is ready to problem-solve, you can begin by validating what each feels and wants without sharing your opinion (e.g., To older daughter: “Sounds like you’re really frustrated after working so hard on your tower only to have __ knock it down. You really want to build a tower and leave it standing for awhile.” To younger daughter: “Looks like you’re sad because __ wants to play alone. You really want to play with __ and wish you could play together.”) Then, you could ask both, “So what can we do?” Your older daughter may suggest ideas like building two towers, one for knocking down and one for leaving up, or playing something different with your youngest when she’s done. Or, she may decide that she still just wants to play alone, in which case you could accept her decision without judgment and suggest she let your youngest know if she changes her mind.

You can also ask your children for ideas to make each other feel better (e.g., apologize, get an ice pack, give a hug, rebuild a destroyed tower) and to better assert themselves next time (e.g., say what they want with words). Role playing scenarios gives children much-needed practice outside the heat of the moment. Once you recognize particular triggers, you can also ask questions in advance (e.g., “If your sister looks like she’s about to knock over your tower, what can you do? If she knocks it over, what can you do?”)

For more details on responding to physical aggression by an older sibling, please read

Sibling conflict is incredibly common and even more complex, partly because our own emotions get so involved. Many great books, such as Siblings Without Rivalry, can help guide us when the going gets toughest.

Four-year-old bites younger sibling

Q:  I have a just turned 4 year old boy and a 21 month boy.  My 4 year old is having extreme behavioral issues when it comes to dealing with his frustrations, especially when interacting with my 21 month old.  Understandably though, my older one will create or build something and his little brother will come by and knock it down or want to join in something uninvited.  Today, my younger one came and interrupted something and my older one bit him very, very, very hard on his side back.   I sent my 4 year old to his room, explaining to him that right now he has shown me he can’t play well together and needed some alone time, he went on for about 30-45 minutes throwing stuff and destroying all he could.  He had to clean up his mess to leave his room later.  We talked and that was the end of that. But later in the evening, I was vacuuming when I hear my younger one in a horrible cry.  Again, my 4 year old got mad at him about something and squeezed his face and scratched it.  I was so upset I couldn’t think straight and brought him to his room (at least this time he knew not to destroy it, because he would have to clean it). For the evening I had him on the couch while I played with the little one.  Explaining again, he has shown me he cannot play well with others and hasn’t learned to keep his hands to himself.  He lost all bed time privileges. Why isn’t he learning to keep his hands to himself and not bite?  Isn’t he too old to still be biting?

A: First of all, thank you for sharing this issue. While such behavior is incredibly challenging for the best of us, it’s not at all uncommon, so everyone with mutliple children can benefit from taking a closer look.

The first step (aside from maintaining safety) is putting things in perspective. Most of us have little problem accepting that our children can’t perform cognitively beyond their years, yet struggle when they can’t behave socially beyond their years. Four-year-olds are not only egocentric by nature, but also very poor at perspective-taking. Learning to read is actually far simpler than learning to understand another’s perspective, but until that understanding is fully developed, children can’t truly realize the impact of their actions on others. Further, you’ve had a lifetime of experiences causing your gut reaction to biting and hurting others, so the biting looks very different through his eyes than through yours. Parents may say, “But he knows better!” But how often are we short-tempered with our children or irritable with our spouses despite “knowing better”?  The difference is that we have years of experience and brain development, while children lack both. Yet quite often, we expect more self-control from our children than from ourselves.

The next step is prevention and a little goes a long way. Children behave better when they feel better, so avoid punishment, which only adds more cause for misbehavior and models the poor use of power we want our children to avoid. Instead, focus on solutions. When everyone is in a good state of mind, discuss the problem. Try to understand what’s going on in your son’s head. What purpose does the biting serve? Is he seeking attention? Power? Revenge? Once you understand the cause, ask for ideas about how you can address both his purpose and your concerns. For example, if he’s seeking attention, you could schedule uninterrupted special time alone together (even 15 minutes does wonders). If he’s seeking power, you could engage him usefully in a task or offer limited choices. If he’s seeking revenge, you could validate and understand the hurt underlying his actions (revenge seems a likely cause for both the room destruction and the second incident). If he bites because he’s angry and unable to control impulses or because he lacks communication skills in heated moments, then the issue is developmental rather than behavioral and requires coaching on coping skills (such as taking time to cool off) and social skills (such as using words) and lots of patience. These topics warrant at least their own blogs (if not their own books!), but for now, I’ll say role play, role play, role play. He may get the concept of using words, but developing the habit takes LOTS of practice and time. But even the best habits can fall away when the purpose of a behavior isn’t addressed first.

So as every parent wants to know, what should you do if all your best prevention strategies fail and a bite occurs despite them? Separate the children without judgment. Tell the biter you love him and cannot let him hurt another. Then, when he cools down, show understanding for his feelings without condoning, share your own concerns, and ask for ideas to solve the current problem (e.g., his sibling’s hurt body or feelings) and to prevent its recurrence.

The goal with discipline is not to make our children pay with blame, shame, or pain for the past, which only increases misbehavior, but to focus on what they can do in the future to solve their problems. Often feeling understood and accepted is enough to break a negative behavior pattern.