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How to Stop Sibling Struggles

I could tell by the look on my toddler's face that he wasn't sure what all the fuss was about. His dad and grandparents were all huddled around me in my hospital bed while I held what must have appeared to him to be a red, wailing bundle of noise. Just as someone snapped a photo, he looked up from his new little brother with an expression that said, "We aren't keeping that thing, are we?"

The first grandchild on my husband's side, my eldest was occasionally treated like the second coming of the Messiah, or pretty close to it. Really, I'm surprised trumpets didn't announce his arrival at family gatherings. So when his little brother arrived, it rocked his world. He went from being the center of the universe to something more akin to Pluto.

Meanwhile, I went from tired to supertired. One way you'll know you're there with me: You change the baby's diaper twice in a matter of minutes and leave your toddler altogether diaperless. Okay, yes, I speak from experience. I discovered this mistake when I realized that my toddler was wandering around the family room with his snaps undone and fresh pee staining his jumpsuit. (I think he liked the nice breeze, though.)

Having a baby and a toddler is only half the problem, though, I discovered a few years later: These kids are going to get older, and pretty soon you have a toddler and a kid to deal with. Here's how to handle both sibling stages:

TODDLER + BABY

Hey, jealousy

Your toddler may feel like she's been knocked off of American Idol by some up-and-coming, no-good, talentless singer who seemed to come out of nowhere. Curb her jealousy by:

Preparing her for the new baby ahead of time. Spend time with other people's babies, read her books on how great it is to be the big sister, and talk (very excitedly) about how she will be the big kid in the family soon. Even young toddlers understand "baby." And if you can sell yours on the idea that a new baby means great stuff for her, the transition from only child to sibling will be smoother.

Showering her with gifts. Make sure your toddler gets some big-sister goodies from relatives and you when you bring the baby home. It'll not only make her feel special, it'll keep her mind off all the new-baby fuss. Who doesn't like new toys?

Never blaming any disappointments on the baby. If you admit to your toddler she can't go to the playground because the baby needs his nap, you're only fueling the jealousy fire. Instead, just tell her you'll go to the playground later, then divert her attention with something else fun (and quiet and indoors). Toddlers have a short attention span. Use it to your advantage.

Spending alone time with her. Ease her fear of displacement by reassuring her that she's still loved. My husband spent extra time with our older son while I tended to the newborn. But I also made sure my toddler and I had time alone together whenever I could, especially during the baby's morning nap. He got a lot of one-on-one time with his grandmothers as well, and, frankly, they spoiled him during the time they were together, thereby making me a little jealous.

Strike zone

Your kids are going to wallop each other over the years, but your baby is no match for a walking, whacking toddler. Prevent trouble by:

Never leaving your toddler alone with the baby. Even if he doesn't have an evil plot to harm his new little sibling, his well-meaning help (such as "feeding" the baby some of his favorite snacks) just might.

Never telling your toddler he's in charge of the baby. He's too little to babysit, and he shouldn't think he can take over for you. Thank him for handing you the soap, but don't ever say, "Ryan is in charge of the baby's bath." He might believe it.

Never laughing when your toddler hits you. Sure, that teeny little fist trying to land a blow might be pretty hilarious and worth laughing about with your husband later. But it's important to teach him he can't hit anyone, so he doesn't try to hit the baby.

TODDLER + KID

Spats over stuff

When your baby becomes a toddler, no matter what the ages of her big sibs, chances are they won't want their runny-nosed, grubby-handed sis to touch their stuff. Minimize the struggles by:

Keeping dangerous and breakable items, such as older siblings' pencil sharpeners and handheld video games, out of your toddler's reach.

Putting toys that belong to siblings in separate toy boxes, closets, high shelves, or other containers.

Keeping your toddler out of her older siblings' rooms whenever possible, even if it means having them close the door.

Letting the kid who touched it first play with it first for a set amount of time before turning it over. Try using a timer -- it may help train your toddler not to stand next to the sib with the coveted item, stamping her feet and screeching.

He started it!

You're going to hear this one for a long time. You turn around as one kid clocks the other, so you punish him, and then he shouts it isn't fair because your toddler started it. Nip it in the bud by:

Having zero tolerance for pushing, hitting, and so on, even if it's the little one smacking the big one. Sternly, but calmly, warn the offender not to hit, and remove him from the room for a short time-out.

Not refereeing. Unless things are getting so heated that hitting might soon follow, stay out of your kids' conflicts and see if they can work things out for themselves. If you need to step in, there's no point in getting to the bottom of who did what (unless someone has clearly injured someone else). Just break it up and move on. If you always jump in to referee, you'll find yourself the star of your very own Judge Judy show.

Splitting them up. Remember what your mom told you: "If you can't play nicely, you can't play at all."

Excerpted from Stop Second-Guessing Yourself--The Toddler Years: A Field-Tested Guide to Confident Parenting, by Jen Singer. Copyright © 2009 by Jen Singer. Used with the permission of the publisher, Health Communications, Inc., hcibooks.com. All rights reserved.

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