Preschooler/Toddler Sibling Relationships

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Daily struggles with four year old and 22 month old boys

Jan 2006

We struggle daily with fostering a good relationship between our four year old and 22 month old boys. There are periods every day when they play together but it seems overshadowed by negativity and frustration from our older son. The younger one has picked up hitting his brother when upset because that's how our older son deals with him. Sometimes the younger one hits his brother and other kids as a way to try to initiate play. It's just so distressing when we can't leave the kids alone for five minutes without things dissolving into violence. My older son frequently tells his brother, ''you smell like poop!'' which we ignore. He also says, ''I don't like you, go away!'' My younger one is starting to understand the ''go away'' part. We use the ''One Two Three Magic'' method for timeouts for our older son and give an immediate timeout for violence but it just doesn't seem to have an effect. We try to reflect our older son's feelings about his brother. We also allow him to have time apart from his brother and we don't insist that he shares everything with him. We also want so much for our kids to be friends and to respect and trust each other. We have consulted ''Siblings without Rivalry'' and we feel like we're utilizing its tools with little success. Any sage advice out there???
Desperate for a peaceful home

We've been having similar struggles with our 3 yr old and 11 month old girls. After MANY failed attempts to resolve this, I received advice from DayOne Center in SF, which has amazing advice nurses. For my 3 yr old, 3 minute time-outs were not doing the trick. She now goes directly to her room for a 15-minute break at the first sign or pushing, hitting, etc. We have a pressure gate up so she can have the door open. But mommy and daddy are well out of her sight. We don't talk a lot about what happened, just that behavior X is not OK and now it's time to go play in your room. After 10-15 minutes, we go ask if she is ready to come downstairs and play nicely. No other discussion of previous behavior, that's over with. If the answer is yes, she is ready (which it always is), then she can come be with us again. If she were to go into tantrum or protest, then you say, seems like you need a little more time, I'll check on you in five minutes. She can do whatever she wants in her room, including cry, tantrum, mess up her toys/books. The idea is that her room is her domain where unacceptable behavior can be worked out alone, and in the rest of the world, social rules do apply and will be enforced consistently. Feel free to email me if I can provide any clarification. DayOne does charge non-members for advice sessions, but I have gotten THE BEST advice from them on parenting, sleep, feeding, you name it -- worth every dime.

Believe me , I was really at the end of my rope on this one. One more suggestion -- role playing loving behavior with toys (Look at big sister teddy bear snuggling baby sister teddy bear, that is so sweet!) Good luck, hang in there! rundmstein

Before kids, I was friends with a mom of 3 kids who always acted friendly & supportive of one other. I was so impressed: I'd never experienced that - there'd been so much fighting among my sibs & me. I asked my friend what her secret was. She said she grew up with 4 sisters & they fought constantly. She didn't want that for her kids & simply told them from a very young age that they would have their siblings their whole lives and it was their choice how their relationships would be. They could be one another's best friends, or they could squander the special sister & brother relationships by fighting & hurting each other's feelings. That was her advice; I took it & it worked! I repeated my friend's words to my girls starting in toddlerhood - explaining that they can have the best friend in the world, or blow it - their choice. Also - I think this is important - I took every opportunity to praise my kids' relationships & behavior towards each other. If we took a drive I'd tell them what a joy it is to travel with them because there's never fighting. If they were playing together I'd say ''I'm so proud of how you're treating each other & being so fair & nice.'' It's important to frequently praise desirable behavior so as not to end up only criticizing. I also often tell my daughters how not only am I the luckiest mom to have them for kids, they are both incredibly lucky to have such a fantastic sister (which I totally believe & they do too).

I don't ignore insults. I explain how words hurt feelings & we don't allow it. I only used time outs twice in my life. With sibling rivalry, a kid needs to be with someone, not isolated. I explain she can't poke, pinch, bite (or whatever happened) no matter how frustrated she gets, & then allow her to rant & cry, & I console. I think time outs may increase resentment the older sib feels because during the time out the older sib can stew & add to it anger over being given a time out - all because of his ''poopy-smelling brother'' who now he doesn't like even more.

It sounds like you're being conscientious about tackling this & I wish you the best. It's worth trying till you hit on something that works for your boys. Monica

My kids are the same age spread and gender. Trying to foster a positive relationship isn't easy but the point that stands out to me in your posting is that you allow the older to make negative statements about the younger. I would simply say, ''We don't talk like that about our family, you need to apologize to your brother.'' If he refuses then he gets a time out. You would do the same when the younger sib acts that way. I would repeat the message of family loyalty often (pretend you're in ''The Godfather''). I would also check how you and your spouse talk about your siblings. I sat through many a ''get along'' lecture from my dad but today my 3 siblings and I are great friends.

3-year-old is mean older brother to 16 month old

Dec 2003

My 3 year old son won't let his little brother (16 months) in his room. Should I allow this. Also any suggestions on pushing/shoving and taking toys? anon

Yes you should allow this. Even a three-year-old deserves privacy. For hitting and shoving as soon as it happens take them apart, put the 16 month old in crib and tell 3 yr old Never strike your brother! and tell him because he was violent and mean and didn't mind you he can't watch TV or have dessert that night.

I think it is important to teach children to respect each others' belongings and space, even from a young age. We have tried to focus on asking for permission to use each others' toys, and praise for sharing. 16 months old children are ruthless about use of everything. At that age, we put our older child in the playpen so he could play protected with his things. He could save his best toys in there and the toddler could have the free range he needed. jc

How to get 4.5 year old to treat toddler better

Jan 2002

We have a 4 1/2 year old boy and a 15 month old boy. The older one gets a lot of individual attention but lately he is acting clearly jealous and resentful of the toddler. He'll stick his leg out and trip him or give him handshakes that get pretty rough, or bop him (nothing terrible but not pleasant for toddler). He's also barricaded him with toys in the corner, sort of poked him in the eye once, and just generally been a pain to him. He'll also says he doesn't like him on occasion. This does alternate with sweet, loving behavior (i.e. brings him a bottle, gives him his blanket, gives him kisses) but the negative stuff probably outweighs the positive about 3 to 1. We've tried punishing him when he does the bad stuff (i.e. timeouts, or toy taken away), and are having some limited success but i think there must be some better, more creative ways to deal with this issue. Any ideas greatly appreciated. Anonymous

Sounds like normal behavior to me! We see this all the time in our house. Our son is 3.5 and our daughter is 15 months. My son is getting better, though, and I don't know how to attribute that. My advice is that the punishing makes it worse. There are better ways to discipline without being punitive. Two books to check out are Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish and Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson.

Generally when our son hits his sister we say something along the lines of, We don't hit. Ouch! That hurts. If they are fighting over a toy I remove the toy (which causes much yelling on both sides) and put it away for a while. I also try to be careful not to take sides (You hit your sister!) and I just separate them by saying, If you two cannot play together, then you need to be separated. And then I move them apart (NOT in their room, which is somewhat of a punitive move). This kills my son because he enjoys playing with her.

I think it's normal for the older kid to beat up on the younger, personally. The baby still loves him (she has a very short term memory :-) and that makes my son feel good to know that even if he acts mean she will still love him. He does not like feeling bad when she cries due to his abuse so I don't try to focus on that (See? You made her cry!). Instead I try not to place blame and focus on the actions and not the kid who does it. My daughter is starting to fight back so at least he sees what it's like to be picked on. Good luck! Laurel

There is a great song by Offspring about gang fighting with the catchy refrain You Gotta Keep 'em Separated!. That's what you gotta do. My toddler was accidentally on purpose pounding on his baby brother from the time he was born till right on up thru high school, and the ONLY thing I ever found that worked was splitting them up. I got this advice from another mom in preschool who had 3 boys and she was right, though I tried lots of stuff - intervening , letting them work it out, hoping that one day the younger one would grow bigger and taller and get his retribution. Mostly nothing worked, the older one bullied and the younger one pestered in a neverending cycle. These two guys just never got along - they are very different in temperment and basically not compatible. Think how much work it takes to get along with someone you *chose* to live with, like your spouse, and then think if you had to live in close quarters with someone you didn't pick, and who rubs you the wrong way! That's when we grownups would start looking for a new place to live. Kids can't do that. But if they can have their own rooms, or even just their own space in a shared room, they can play separately from each other (and be moved there when things start escalating). My two didn't start loving each other till the older one went off to college this year, and now they really miss each other and talk on chat rooms and actually hang out together when they are both home. It's very sweet. So it doesn't last forever, just 16 years or so. -- Ginger

Ginger wrote that it only takes 16 years before the siblings start to like each other. In our case it only took 5 years! The key seemed to be getting to the age where the younger one was verbal enough and competent enough to do things the older one found interesting. At that point the older one discovered that rather than being an unnecessary deadweight, his younger brother was actually a worshipful acolyte who could also be played with! Will their newfound amity survive the point where the younger brother becomes bigger and stronger, which at current growth rates is only a couple years away? Time will tell. David

One thing I notice that really bothers my older child, is when the younger is disrupting his game or getting in his space. I try to help them come up with solutions. I say to the oldest, can you show the youngest what you want him to do. So with practice and my help, he has learned to say things like, play here and then you won't be in my way, or this is new but you can look at it for a minute or I'm using this, but I know something else you might really like to play with. I also enlist my older child's help a lot, ie can you help the youngest pick out a shirt or it's a long drive, can you pick out a few toys for the little one to take in the car or can you get a cup of water for the little one. I think this has been good for my kids. the older feels important, he can do so much to help me and his sibliing; and the younger feels cared for by the older. Of course, they still fight, but I think it is minimized. Jennifer

As others have pointed out, it seems the biggest problem is usually when the younger one messes up the older one's play or personal space. We've set up a bunk bed in my kids room, not for sleeping but for a special area that only my three-year old son can reach (we blocked the lower rungs of the ladder so my almost-two year old can't reach it). There's no mattress, so he can set up to play cars, or animals, just read or whatever he wants up there when his little brother starts to drive him nuts. Most of the time he wants to be down playing with his brother anyway, now that he knows he can escape when he needs to. Michelle