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 http://www.pdparenting.com/parenting-articles.html 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 http://www.pdparenting.com/a-deeper-look-at-sibling-rivalry.php 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 http://pdparenting.com/blog/?p=119.
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.