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Sibling rivalry is defined as strong competition among siblings for recognition by and the attention of one or both parents. It normally begins when a baby is introduced to a family and the older sibling fears the baby will replace them. In some cases, the long-term illness of a child who requires some special needs could also lead to sibling rivalry. The older child may become extremely jealous and display aggressive behavior toward the baby. Some children exhibit rather regressive behaviors, like bed-wetting or baby talk. This is considered the older child’s way of reestablishing themself in a dependent role with their parents.
Sibling rivalry can be at its worst when both children are under 4 years of age, especially when they are less than three years apart. This is because children under the age of 4 depend on their parents a great deal and have a very hard time sharing them with siblings.
However, sibling rivalry can be especially severe if you have a newborn baby. Your newborn is a physical reminder to your older child that they no longer occupy that special baby place. All they know is that they now have to share their mommy’s love with someone else. Your toddler may also cause fights to get a reaction from you.
You may be accidentally playing favorites with your kids and not even notice. Kids notice the smallest of things and may take things the wrong way if they feel isolated or unnoticed. You really have to take a closer look at your actions and decide if this might be a factor causing the sibling rivalry between your kids. For instance, your older child can smell favoritism by how many chores has been allocated to each one of them. This a clear indication that the child with the most chores isn’t a favorite.
How does it show?
It can be tough for a toddler to welcome a new baby into their domain. As siblings get older, they may show their jealousy by arguing, name-calling, teasing, pushing, and occasionally fighting. Their aim is to get at the brother or sister who is breaking their toys, spoiling their games, or stealing their parents’ attention. It’s completely normal for this to happen. Take comfort that children who fight the most in their early years are often the closest as they get older. Competitiveness between siblings is perhaps good preparation for when they enter the wider world.
However, your toddler won’t understand their feelings of jealousy or what they can do about that annoying newborn. They just want your attention and may react by misbehaving or even regressing.
For example, Papa (my son), who’s almost 1, sometimes messes up his two-year-old sister’s stuff — he’ll knock down a Lego tower Nana’s made or color on something she’s drawn. Nana gets so frustrated that she’ll sometimes crumple to the floor in a tantrum.
Some other signs of jealousy in the older child include difficult and demanding behavior, mood swings or temper tantrums, irritability, dependent or clingy behaviors, and problems with eating and sleeping. Some children may even undergo changes in their toilet routines and habits. Parents must also be aware of a child’s hurtful behaviors toward younger siblings. An older sibling may taunt or say unkind things to the younger child, or display aggressive and physically harmful (pinching, poking, etc.) behaviors. If the situation continues to elevate and the younger sibling retaliates, shouting matches as well as kicks and punches may ensue. By the time these behaviors manifest, parents should consider professional counseling to restore order in the home.
Spend time with your children to reassure them that they are loved. If you have a newborn in the house, set aside one-on-one time with your toddler. Try to get in at least a few minutes each day. It could be a walk in the park, watching a movie together, or singing some school rhymes. It’s amazing how much even 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time can mean to your child.
This baby has entered into your special group and you want the older sibling to embrace them as one of you. You also want the older sibling to feel that they are a participant in this new and exciting experience. Let them be involved with taking care of the baby – although of course the help that they provide depends on their age and ability. Teach the older sibling how to be helpful with the baby by asking if they can hand you diapers, put on the baby’s socks, or sprinkle powder on baby.
Getting them involved makes them feel important. Your child will think “mom needs my help in taking care of baby!” You can also teach your toddler how to play with the baby in the same way you teach them anything else. Talk, demonstrate, guide, and encourage. Besides, children learn what they live! Your older child will be watching as you handle the baby and learn from your actions.
Let them cling, suck their thumb, or drink from a bottle filled with water. Give words to your child’s mixed emotions. Try something like, “It looks like you really want to be a baby now too,” suggests Dr. Berman. Then, let your older child play baby for a while. My daughter, Nana, and I used to do this when Papa (my son) was a newborn: She’d sit on my lap and I’d cradle her, legs spilling over the side of the rocking chair, as she said variations of “odoodoodo” until we both started to laugh. The more I let myself get into it, the funnier it became – which I later realized soothed her sadness and helped her move on. She didn’t ask to play baby more than a few times after that.
Whenever you see the older child touching the baby gently, make a positive comment. Make a big fuss about the important “older brother.” Hug and kiss your older child and tell them how proud you are. Point out the perks of being bigger: “Your little sister can’t have ice cream, because she’s a baby and babies don’t eat ice cream.” Praise them when they show maturity and celebrate any big-kid achievements. Give positive remarks and avoid focusing on the regressive behavior. It’s a phase and will surely pass.
Let your older child know it’s okay to be angry or sad sometimes. If they make a resentful remark about their new sibling, don’t say, “You don’t really mean that.” Instead, encourage them to talk about their feelings: “You can always tell me how you feel. I always feel better when I talk about my feelings.” Most importantly, avoid comparing sibling – even about seemingly innocent topics such as when each first crawled or had the first set of teeth. Instead, celebrate each of your child’s individual talents and successes; encourage them to support and cheer each other on.
Being fair is very important, but it isn’t the same as being equal. Older and younger children may have different privileges due to their age, but if children understand that this inequality is because one child is older or has more responsibilities, they will see this as fair. Even if you try to treat your children equally, there will still be times when they feel as if they’re not getting a fair share of attention, discipline, or responsiveness from you. Expect this and be prepared to explain the decisions you have made. Reassure your kids that you do your best to meet each of their unique needs.
If none of the above advice helps to ease the situation, it may be useful to chat with a professional. Consulting a parent-infant psychotherapist or a play therapist where both caregiver and child are seen may be beneficial. “Remember that a caregiver and a child (whether the little one is regressing or not) work together as a system and not in isolation so any problems need to be addressed as a unit,” says Sarah.
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