Helping Siblings Get Along


Dear Dr. Sue,

My four year old daughter is very jealous of her four month old baby sister, even though at times she smiles and talks to her, and she’s very good at bringing me things and helping with her. At first I just thought the jealousy was normal, but two things happened recently that scared me and made me wonder if it might be above and beyond what’s acceptable. A couple of weeks ago I had to leave the room for a couple of minutes. When I walked back in my older daughter was gazing intently at the baby, up close, saying “die, die, die,” over and over. That was scary enough, but this week was worse. She was playing nicely with her sister, dangling a toy near her and talking sweetly. Then I glanced away briefly at something and looked back to find her with her hands around the baby’s throat acting like she was going to choke her. When I shouted at her, her answer was “she tried to choke me first.” How worried should I be about this, and what should I do?

Dear Mom,

Let me reassure you that what your daughter is doing is probably well within the range of normal behavior. Jealousy can be a very powerful emotion, and your younger child is getting cuter and more interactive daily, but not taking up any less of your time. It’s natural for your first child to feel like she’s been pushed out of the nest. Inborn temperament has a lot to do with how each child reacts to this feeling of being replaced. Some children may act withdrawn, some may regress and try to act more like babies themselves, and many will have aggressive feelings. Some, like your daughter, will let those aggressive feelings show, while others, whose negative emotions may be just as strong, will be better at masking them.

There are three important messages your older daughter needs to hear, over and over, (but not at a shout). The first that needs to come through loud and clear is “I love you. Daddy loves you. We’re so proud of the big girl that you are.” Saying that in words as often as possible is very important. Saying it in your actions may be even more important. Don’t forget to spend time alone with your big girl, preferably every day. Maybe her bedtime could be fifteen minutes later, “since you’re my big girl now,” and that time could be spent one-on-one with Mom. Make dates for her to go to the movies with her dad, and make a big deal out of how special that is. They could stop for a big-kid dessert afterward. Let her have jobs that are important and fun. Maybe she could be in charge of choosing the outfit the baby wears each day. Mention to relatives that she’s feeling a little displaced, and you’d like them to spend the first part of each visit interacting with her, before moving on to the new baby.

The second message is this: no one has any control over their feelings, but everyone has control over their actions. Talk to your daughter honestly about the way she feels, and don’t tell her that she is wrong to wish the baby would go back where it came from. If she uses the word “hate,” don’t tell her “we don’t use that word.” She needs to feel free to express feelings to you, and to feel like you will understand. She also needs to understand that she will NOT be allowed to act on aggressive feelings.

The third message that she must understand is that you will not allow anyone to hurt the baby, just like you will not allow anyone to hurt her, ever. Follow that through by never leaving her alone with the baby, just to be safe. Keep that supervision subtle, though; don’t throw it in her face that you can’t safely leave her alone with the baby, just don’t do it. You want the relationship between the two of them to improve steadily; the last thing you want to do is create a situation in which one of them is portrayed as the good child and one as the bad or dangerous child.

Share the following books with your daughter. They will help both of you!

1. A New Baby at Koko Bear’s House, by Vicky Lansky

2. I’m a Big Brother, and I’m a Big Sister, by Joanna Cole

3. Julius, the Baby of the World, by Kevin Henkes

4. Aren’t You Lucky! By Catherine & Laurence Anholt

5. Darcy and Gran Don’t Like Babies, by Jane Cutler

6. A Baby Sister for Frances, by Russell & Lillian Hoban

7. The New Baby at Your House, by Joanna Cole

        and finally, make your big girl feel special by getting her this book, and helping her complete it:

8. My New Baby and Me: A First Year Record Book for Big Brothers and Sisters, by Dian Smith


Dear Dr. Sue,

Our four year old has become very jealous of her one year old sister. We are trying to give her lots of extra attention right now, but there are only so many hours in a day. Can you give us some ideas about sibling rivalry, and how to improve it?

Dear Parent,

It's wonderful that your first instinct is to give your daughter more time and attention, rather than more punishment and time-outs! Your daughter is undoubtedly feeling insecure as she sees her sister becoming more of an individual, while still taking up an immense amount of your time and attention. The baby is probably also getting into her belongings more, as well as using and wearing the things that used to be hers.

You may see your daughter acting out more, becoming more clingy and whiny, or wanting to act like she's a baby. You may also catch her hitting the baby, or pulling her hair! Of course, the latter can't be tolerated. You will want to remind your older daughter that you're not going to let ANYONE hurt the baby, just like you're not going to let anyone hurt her.

It's best to ignore the other behaviors as much as possible. Instead of drawing attention to them, draw attention to the activities you want to see more of. Talk about how much you love it when she entertains her sister while you make dinner, and how much it helps to have her bring you things when you're changing a diaper. Take her with you to the store and ask her to pick out some of the best toddler foods for her sister ("because she probably would like the things you think are good"). When the baby imitates her big sister, say "Look, she's trying to do it just the way you do!"

Help your four-year-old have a space, and things in it, that are hers alone. When the baby grabs something that belongs to her sister, demonstrate how to get it back without a fight (by trading something else for it), but be prepared to intervene if that doesn't work.

Make sure that your older daughter gets to do some things that babies can't do. Perhaps she can go to a movie with her father (who can remind her that such treats are only for big kids). And although you should save some of the evening for kid-free-time, it would be best if her bedtime came after the baby's so you could read, or color, or do other "big-kid" things with her.

If someone compliments the baby, be gracious, but accept the compliment in a way that includes your older daughter. ("She's so beautiful," or "She's so smart," can be answered with "Thanks, she's just like her big sister.")

Baby's just naturally get held, hugged and kissed more than older kids. Remember to seek out your daughter for her share of those things if she doesn't demand them. Tell her you need hugs from her and you just can't stand to be without them. This is important, since she may equate the amount of physical affection shown with the amount of love available for each of them.

Help your older child develop special bonds with other people, too. Set up play dates with other preschoolers. Let her visit Grandma or an aunt or adult friend of yours when the baby won't be there.


Dear Dr. Sue,

My two sons, ages 8 and 11, fight constantly. It's driving my husband and me crazy! Every day begins and ends on a sour note. What can we do to help them learn to get along with each other?

Dear Mom,

Sibling rivalry can certainly cause a lot of stress in a home. A certain amount of conflict is to be expected, is entirely natural, and actually acts as a dress rehearsal for conflict resolution in adulthood. Many siblings, however, carry the fighting to an intolerable level.

Your sons are at peak sibling rivalry ages: competition between siblings is often at its worst between 8 and 12 years of age. The competition is usually worse between siblings of the same sex. If they are close in age or have the same interests it can be even more intense.

Don't expect that sibling rivalry will die away promptly if you do everything right: your boys may still be competing fiercely in their 30s! There are some things you can do to help minimize their rivalry, though.

  • Don't compare one to the other. In some families it seems as though there is one troublemaker that starts many of the conflicts. If this is the case in your family, don't bring up the cooperative behavior of the other child; doing so will only increase jealousy and conflict. Don't brag about one boy's athleticism or academic ability. Ideally, each boy should be trying to improve over previous performance. If you must boast, talk about how much one improved, or how hard each one worked.
  • Don't even try to treat the boys identically. You can't win at this one, and they will learn to scrutinize every situation for possible unfairness. They need to learn that people are individuals, and that each individual has different needs at different times. A parent's job is to try to meet those needs as they arise.
  • Even though you can't treat them identically, however, make fairness your starting point. If your older boy had a bedtime of 9 pm at age eight, your younger should be able to stay up until 9 if all of the circumstances are the same. If he has to get up earlier in the morning or if he just can't get out of bed with that amount of sleep, then you change the rule to fit his needs.
  • Don't take part in their fights! Let them work out their differences without you as much as possible. Of course, if they are about to come to blows you will need to step in. When you do, simply send them to their rooms and ask them to each come up with one solution to the problem while they are in there. If they can never come up with solutions, try problem solving at a family meeting. Some families assign every other day to each child; if there is a stalemate, the child whose day it is wins by default. The other child gets the same privilege on alternate days.
  • Make sure that tattling doesn't pay in your household. (This means that if Jimmy comes to you and says Johnny spilled milk all over the kitchen all three of you should be involved in the clean-up.) Remember to teach your children that it is not tattling to tell about potentially dangerous things, however
  • Respect your child's dignity and privacy. If you have to scold one, take him out of earshot of the other child.