Sibling Interactions

Sibling Interactions

When the younger child is a baby, the responsibility of sibling interactions falls entirely on the older child:  she must touch gently, etc. etc.  If anything looks dicey, mom comes in a swoops the baby away.

As the baby starts to crawl, the older one knows she mustn’t hit, but she doesn’t really know what to do if she’s building a tower of blocks and the baby starts crawling toward them.  So she yells as loud as she can, and mom usually comes in and swoops the baby away.  Then the baby starts walking, and the wailing gets louder and louder, as the destruction gets greater.  The little one wants nothing more than to do whatever the older one is doing, and the older one wants nothing to do with it and is used to the adult taking the baby away.  By the time the baby is 18 months, mom is being run ragged running interference between the two children all day long.  There must be a better way!


Siblings & Crawlers

There is a better way.  First, teach your older child to ask for your help in a way that makes you want to say yes, instead of just shrieking.  You can give them a phrase to say, either a “mom, will you help Joshua move away?” a simpler, “Help Joshua, please,” or you might come up with a code phrase that works for your family.  You could even teach your child to say, “Mom, break the cycle!”  As long as you both know what is meant, and it makes you want to help, that’ll work.


Next, help the older child learn to distract the baby herself, instead of depending on you to do it.  When she sees the baby coming, have her pick up a toy that she doesn’t want, and start playing with it in front of the baby.  Have her lead the baby away from her play space with the toy, then give it to him.  Wait till he’s settled, then tiptoe back to her older-kid games.


Both of these skills will take quite a bit of help and guidance on your part to establish as habits, but it’s well worth it.  It’s worth it because you’re laying the groundwork for your children’s future interactions.  It’s worth it because there’s a lot less shrieking, a lot less feeling put-upon, both on your part and your older child’s part.  As the baby gets older, he may start to be less easy to distract.  You see him crawling over to your daughter, and she distracts him by playing with a toy car and leading it away, then giving it to him.  But as soon as she goes back to her games, he starts making a bee-line for her again.  She distracts him once more, but he’s not very interested in being distracted.  You can see that your daughter is getting frustrated.  You remind her that she can ask for help, and give her the words to use: “Remember, if you need help with you, you can just ask: ‘Mom, will you distract the baby?’”  She repeats after you, and you reply, “Yes, I’d be happy to help.  I saw you trying and trying.  Come on, little guy,” and you pick him up and take him into the kitchen.


Siblings & Walkers

As the baby starts to walk, things get a bit harder.  You usually have a tough couple of months where the new toddler is very mobile, and has hands free to grab, and has very little impulse control.  You’re using the same techniques as before, but they’re not working as well, since your little one isn’t distracted as easily.  You find yourself running interference a lot more than you were before.  Keep your patience as well as you can, and keep reminding your older child to address you and her little brother with respectful words, in a respectful tone.  Will things ever change?  When?

The Younger Child as a Full Player

Things CAN change for the better much more quickly than many people realize.  The time from 12 to 18 months is a time of huge developmental leaps, and by 18 months most children are capable of much more than many people know.  We’re so used to them being babies, and we’re so used to doing everything for them, that we continue to do so.  But this is a time when kids long to show that they know how to do things, that they are capable.  So by the time a child is about 18 months or so, it is time to stop focusing solely on the older child as being responsible for sibling interactions, but allow that the younger child is a full player as well.  They are not someone just to be swooped away.  It is time to move away from being the person who comes in and ‘solves’ the problems, and start being the person who comes in and facilitates the interaction between two people.

What is the 18 month old capable of?  He is capable of re-directing himself, with help.  For instance, if you see that he is about to throw a wooden toy, you can say, “Wait!  What CAN you throw?” and he’ll run to the basket of soft balls and grab one to throw.  If he’s about to stick his finger in the cat’s eye, you can say, “You can pet the kitty!” and much of the time he will be able to change his behavior.  The closer you are, the easier it is for him to do it, but it’s getting easier day by day.  Sometimes he might go over to the kitty, look at you to make sure you’re watching, and stroke her deliberately.  He knows what’s appropriate and he’s showing you his capability.

With this growing capability in mind, what might it look like to facilitate an interaction between an 18 month old and an almost-four-year-old?  Let’s set the scene:  Suzie is your older child, and she’s setting up a horse-barn with ponies and stallions, some in their stable and some in the field, which she’s made by laying out a green cloth.  Jay-jay is her little brother.  He sees what she’s doing and starts making a bee-line for her.  She sees him coming and starts to shriek:  “No!!  No!! He’s going to RUIN it!”

The first thing to do is to think about what words you want used in your house.  I think it’s fair for an older child to want to be able to play with more complex toys without having the scene be ruined.  And yet, it’s still important to ask for that in a respectful way, without shrieking.  So you might have her say, “I’m playing with this right now.  Please find something else to play with.”  Help her to say it every time, so that some ritual can form around the experience (one that doesn’t involve shrieking).

Next, you watch Jay-Jay like a hawk, and you help him respond respectfully to his sister’s request.  “Oh, I heard Suzie say that she’s playing with that right now.  What can YOU find to play with?”  You are helping that little guy build his capacity not notice and respond respectfully.  You’re helping him get in the habit of being cooperative.  You’re setting the stage for them to be able to enjoy being around each other without you running interference all the time.

*Note: It IS important for an older child to be able to have some space to himself or herself.  Try blocking off an area for the older child, using bookcases or pet gates.  Perhaps the older child can be in a hallway that’s near the livingroom, with a gate to keep the little one away.  Or clear off the dining room table for the older child to do building projects one.


When Nothing’s Working

If nothing’s working, or if it works for a moment but keeps degenerating, then it’s time for you to step in again, but in a new way.  This time, become the most interesting thing in the room.  Do an adult-led activity: a puppet show; take the kids on an imaginative journey; do domestic task; a seasonal activity.  When children can focus on you, they can give each other a rest.   It gives time for the “reset” button to get pushed, and after an adult-led activity, children are often able to play together again.


Typically around age 2.75 or 3, children are ready and longing for some more structured activities and inspiration.  So instead of just going through the day and inviting children to join you in your domestic tasks, start incorporating more: more stories, more activities, more trips to interesting places.  Pick a theme and have some fun with it.  Say you choose the theme of pumpkins.  Go to a Pumpkin Patch and pick pumpkins to bring home.  Make home-made pumpkin pie together, or pumpkin bread or muffins.  Make jack-o-lanterns.  Paint pumpkins.  Bake the seeds.  Set some out for the birds and squirrels.  Go on google and search for stories about pumpkins.  Use pumpkin rhymes throughout the day.  Don’t know any?  Here are a couple of my favorites:  first, the classic Mother Goose rhyme “Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her.  He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”  Say it when you’re tucking a child into bed, or putting them in the bath, or wrapping them up in hug.  Other times, use this little rhyme (use your five fingers for the pumpkins, and you can add motions for each phrase as well):


Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.

The first one said, “Oh my, it’s getting late!”

The second one said, “There are witches in the air.”

The third one said, “But we don’t care!”

The fourth one said, “Let’s run and run and run,”

The fifth on said, “It’s time to have some fun.”


Then whoosh went the wind, and out went the lights

And those five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.


When you’re able to bring this type of ‘curriculum’ to your days, they’re more interesting for the children, but also more interesting for you!


When You Lose It

What about those days when nothing’s working, and you don’t have the energy or the imagination to be interesting?  What about those times when you’ve corrected them a thousand times and they do it again, and you get angry.  Do you punish them?  Of course, the answer is that it’s up to you.  Different parents do things differently.  But I believe that children do the best that they have in any given moment.  I believe in setting consequences, but not punishing out of anger.  If you find yourself getting angry, you might try giving yourself a ‘time-out.’  “I’m really angry!  I need a time-out.  I’m going into the kitchen.”  Go into the kitchen and calm down.  Come back out.  “Do you know why I was angry?  That’s right, because you hit your sister.  We must ONLY touch each other with gentle hands.  You forgot.  This is very important, to be gentle.  You’re learning though.  Someday soon you’ll remember to be gentle every time.”  This is so much better than losing it and punishing your kid because you’re angry.  That type of punishment only makes children feel angry, hurt, and misunderstood.  This method sees the child as striving to do right, and on the path to getting there, even though they messed up this time.  As an added benefit, this way of giving yourself a ‘time-out’ shows children a method of handling anger in a way that’s not destructive.  This is something that they could use themselves, in the future.

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