You are here

Ask Dr. Sears: Promoting Sibling Harmony

Q  My almost-4-year-old daughter has always been sensitive, polite, and loving. Since her baby brother was born almost a year ago, she has become very aggressive. Now she is hitting, pushing, kicking, and even biting her brother. What can I do?

A Put yourself behind the eyes of your 4-year-old. She was the center of attention for three years, until all of a sudden, a new baby comes into the home and gets lots of attention and presents. Her baby brother is always in mom's arms, and when friends and relatives come to visit, even they may pay more attention to the baby than to her. While some children welcome a brother or sister into the home as a playmate, it's very common for children to regard the new baby as an intruder. Try these siblings-without-rivalry tricks:

Timeshare. While it's normal for the younger baby to get more time and attention, try to reserve some time alone for just you and your 4-year-old. Set up daddy-daughter dates and mommy-daughter shopping trips. Make this your own "special time." And when there isn't time for just the two of you, remember to maintain the bond you have with your daughter. While you're sitting and feeding your baby, you might talk to or read stories to your older child. Or you could wear your baby in a carrier, so you'll have a hand free for your 4-year-old.

Give her a job. Make her feel important by giving her a role to play in the family organization. Offer her a snazzy job title, such as "mommy's helper" or "super sister." Throughout the day let her help you in the care of the baby, by feeding and dressing baby for instance. When you shop for the baby, ask for her help and input: "Help me pick out a nice outfit for your baby brother. What do you think he would like?"

Promote sibling sensitivity. It's hard to hit a person who you feel loves you. Talk about what it means to be a big sister. Tell her that because she's so big her baby brother looks up to her as someone very important. At four years old, you daughter is just beginning to grasp the concept of life-long sibling relationships. If you have an older brother or sister yourself (and you get along well), point out what a good friend her aunt and uncle is to you.

Here are some tricks we used to promote a caring attitude among siblings:

* Sib as comforter. When one of our younger children was hurt, we would have an older sibling act as "doctor." You might say, "Dr. Erin, would you hold baby Matthew's leg while I put a bandage on it?" Or, "Erin, would you put the bandage on Matthew's cut?" Praise her doctor-like compassion by offering, "See, he feels so much better when you hold him and talk nice to him."

* Sib as minister. If one of the younger children was sick, we would try what we called "laying on of hands." The older sib would put her hand on the head of the younger child and pray for him and say comforting words.

* Sib as teacher. "Since you're so big and know how to hit a ball (or furnish your dollhouse, or stack blocks, or whatever her favorite activity is), would you show your baby brother how to do it?" Take all these opportunities to give her frequent, uplifting comments, such as: "Because you're so big..." or "Because you're so smart...."

* Sib in charge. Put her "in charge" of the baby while you do tasks around the house. Simply say, "Would you watch your baby brother carefully while mommy finishes my work?" In this way, you convey to her that you trust her to act like a caring sister. Of course, always keep a watchful eye on them.

Know when to step in. There will be times when you are tired of playing parent-psychologist and you simply need to be the referee. Your 4-year-old needs to know the behavior you expect. Let her know how you expect her to act toward her baby brother and list the consequences of aggressive behavior.

It's good that you are concerned about this now, because the 1- to 2-year-old stage that your baby is entering can be difficult for older children to accept. Yet, time is on your side. You will find as both of your children grow, the more they will grow into a compatible relationship. Eventually they will realize what it truly means to be a brother and sister. I remember watching our first two children, Jimmy and Bobby, as squabbling siblings during this age. Now, Dr. Jim and Dr. Bob are best of friends and partners in pediatric practice.