Older sibling constantly frustrated with younger sibling

Hello! I have two boys, ages 3.5 and 1.5. My older son is gentle, extremely sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent beyond his years. Then there's his relationship with his brother...there have been weeks and months of relative calm, but generally since our younger son was born our older one has been upset - first it was (seemingly) grief that his place in the family had been disrupted, and now it is annoyance at the sight of him. He has no intuitive gentleness or kindness when it comes to his brother (which I've seen in other older siblings), and he's always plotting ways to hurt him (that he doesn't act on), like telling us he's going to put lemon juice in his brother's eye, or leave him behind on a family vacation.

To some extent, I can understand - our 1.5 year old tries to grab his toys, join his games (and in the process, ruin them), and even grab him with joy (which ends up seeming more like pinching than an actual expression of joy). We've tried so many things - talking sternly to the older one, talking "sternly" to the younger one (more for the older one's benefit), telling the older one that it's his job to use his words and teach his little brother how to behave properly, separating them during conflict and bringing them back together when it's calm... Nothing seems to work...

Is there anything that can be done here to improve this dynamic?? Does it get better with time?? Do we just need to buckle up? 

Parent Replies

Parents, want to reply to this question? Sign in to post.

Hi, I try to involve the other one in taking care of her little brother. Like choosing her clothing and his clothing, fetching a diaper, showing him the potty, reading a book, keep an eye on him when I go to the bathroom, etc. I also tell her that certain activities she can do on the kitchen table and I'll take care of the LO. Or if she takes a toy away from him she needs to tell him that she wants that toy and offer something of equal value in exchange, or await her turn. And sometimes we give in to the fantasy of leaving the little one behind and make fun of it. Just keep explaining. And maybe wait,, before you step in (i only step in, if there is crying and screaming),Sometimes being very firm helps. Explain neutrally :you are older and he is a baby. You can do things he cannot do. you are ready for more responsibilities (helping set table etc), he still needs help. You are a great example on how to be big kid...also saying something along these lines has helped: now I have given you my attention, and now it's his turn. Just say it without much emotion, so he understands that he needs to wait before his turn.  By the way, if you like reading books about education, i loved : tranquility parenting (don't remember the author), books by Jasper Juul, and montessori toddler. Good luck!

We have two kids with the same age gap; they're currently 4 and 6. There are definitely periods of extreme frustration and difficulty, and also it gets better with time. As your younger one becomes more communicative and a more fun playmate, I bet it will get easier. I would suggest having the older one practice expressing his frustration to the younger one in a respectful way -- e.g. "I hate it when you grab my toys. It makes me really mad and it makes me not want to play with you." or whatever. You can hold the little one to make sure he's "listening." Obviously the little one won't get much out of it at this stage (though he may get something out of it) but it's a good foundation for later years when they will continue to have conflicts with each other and will need to learn how to deal with them. I would also suggest (if possible -- I know a lot of us live in very small houses and/or have to make do with not a lot of childcare help) setting up either a place in your home or a time of day where older one can play uninterrupted. Maybe this is a room that little one doesn't have access to, or a 20 minute period where one parent is distracting the little one. Even if it's only a small chunk of the day, it will probably help him to feel like he has some time to himself. At 6 and 4 my oldest and youngest get along quite well but also can't stand each other sometimes. My youngest would play with my oldest 24/7 if she could, but older needs some time to himself and he has gotten very good at saying "I need some time to myself" and going into his room and closing the door. Good luck! It's tough but will get better. 

Janet Lansbury has a lot of good things to say on this topic. Look for her on the web - she has written a lot including “no bad kids” book. She is big on really hearing your older son express his emotions and empathizing with him while not letting him hurt younger one. So when he is mad allowing all that emotion to come out and repeat what you hear “you sound really mad at your brother!” “Wow he really interrupted your game” etc and just let all that emotion come out in a safe space without correcting him or telling him to be nice or share or anything. 

Hi! I feel your pain! I have an almost 4.5 year old and almost 2 year old. It has been a very tough transition for my older son-he sounds similar to yours. I actually wrote a BPN advice seeking post a few months back. Things are definitely improving now that he's approaching 4.5+. I can tell he is more in control of his body in terms of hitting and is feeling more secure. Maybe we're just in an up swing, but he also seems to be enjoying his brother more. He actually just made a comment this morning that he wants his younger brother to be 4 like him so they can play more. And he wants to play with him before school almost daily right now. By "play" I mean run around and eventually someone is inevitably in tears, but this is VERY different to how things were just a couple months ago. Both kids were fighting over me constantly and my older son was very insecure. He's also much more accepting of my husband-he let him take him to school today for the first time in months.

I tried lots of different strategies but I find that giving my older son hugs or picking him up-he sees us carrying his brother all the time-really help make him feel better and loved. We also had to separate the kids for a long time. It was really hard on my husband and me, but we didn't know what else to do. Another thing that works better for us because we don't have a big house is to spend more time outside-in the yard or in the neighborhood. My husband would take my younger son out early every morning to calm things down and they developed a little routine. Now my older son wants in and they have fun together. Also in the evenings we walk around visiting the neighborhood cats. This also helps with the toys issues. Another tip I got from someone-when possible, get 2 identical toys so there's no fighting. We got them basketballs this summer but they are different colors. Constant fights! And then we have 2 other balls the same color-no issue.

Hang in there. In my experience, there's only so much that you can do. In retrospect, I think my older son would have done better with either a smaller age gap or a bigger one, but there's no way we could have known that. I have lots of friends whose kids get along so well, so it has been really hard for my husband and me to feel like we're the only ones with kids who basically hated each other. I'm really hoping that after our younger son turns 2 and can speak more and more, we're going to see their relationship improve even more.

These are the same ages as my children. :) I’ve found it helpful for the older one to have space of her own that is inaccessible to the baby. We set her up a kitchen office- with a baby gate that she can use but brother cannot (yet !!) and she can always go upstairs with stairs blocked by a gate. She has space to do things uninterrupted or use materials with small pieces. We also have a baby cabinet lock on her art cabinet, so she can access and baby cannot. We can always remind her that she can let baby use something with her, or bring it someplace that he can’t get to. 

also- yes I expect it will get easier as the little one continues to develop more self control! (Fingers crossed) 

It will get better! My kids are 20 months apart. My daughter was frequently frustrated with her energetic and aggressive little brother who would go around knocking down stuff she built, messing up her art, trying (and sometimes succeeding) to bite her, and generally being annoying. But, the good news is once her brother started to learn how to talk they were able to develop a great relationship. I think this happened by the time my son was 2.5. My son was saying plenty of words starting at 18 months but he didn't yet have the fluency to group to his sister and say "do you want to play" until a bit later. Now they find common ground in lots of surprising ways -- my daughter is 5.5 and brother is almost 4. Although he can still be annoying to everyone sometimes :)

My kids are also two years apart. They’re now young adults but I vividly remember how distressing it was when my older son struggled with having a younger brother. We tried everything, I don’t really know what helped/hindered and it took years for my older son to have less animosity toward his brother. We tried to reflect his feelings of anger and frustration while telling him we weren’t going to let him hurt his brother. I recall things improving when they got a little older and more independent. Now they actually enjoy spending time together. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when I hear them talking on the phone, writing music together, and even when they gang up on us parents. I know it seems like this is going to last forever but I just wanted to chime in and say there’s hope!