Managing sibling rivalry between a preschooler and an older child

Why siblings clash

If your preschooler is the baby of the family, she’s beginning to catch on that her older sibling has some of the independence and privileges she wants for herself — while your firstborn is discovering that he does not want his little sister tagging along wherever he goes. The result: arguing, name-calling, teasing, tattling, pushing, and hitting that will occupy your kids for hours on end and ultimately threaten your sanity.

The truth is, some brothers and sisters bicker their whole lives, so accept the fact that a certain level of background noise is unavoidable. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to teach your children, as early as possible, the importance of treating each other respectfully and resolving their own conflicts. Refereeing sibling rivalry isn’t for the faint of heart. But with some careful navigation and lots of understanding, you can minimize the headaches and make life at home more harmonious.

What you can do about sibling rivalry

Try not to foster competition. Resist the temptation to compare your children. The classic “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” is bound to hurt feelings. Instead, emphasize each child’s unique strengths: “Tyler, you did such a good job hanging up your towel. And Rachel, I’m so proud of you for writing a story all by yourself.” Praise and reward them together whenever possible, too: “Wow! Nobody spilled their milk tonight!”

Don’t strive for equality. Yes, you read that right. When parents, with the best of intentions, try to treat their children equally, they create more problems than they solve. Instead, treat your children as individuals. The time will come — if it hasn’t already — when one child will get to take a gymnastics class that the other is too young for. And, of course, each child will suffer the indignity of watching her sibling celebrate a birthday with mounds of presents that only he gets to open.

Instead of pursuing equality, tell your kids that you do your best to be fair — and that’s the best you can do. When one wails, “Cindy has more cherries than me,” try saying, “Would you like another cherry? How many more do you think you’ll eat?” When it comes to portions, let one child cut the cake and the other choose the first piece. The child doing the cutting will strive to make the portions identical, and both children may even enjoy the novelty of the experience.

Discourage tattling. When your preschooler runs to tell you that her older sister is sneaking candy, tell her you’re not interested in hearing from her what her sibling is doing. If she wants to tell you what she’s doing, on the other hand, you’re all ears. Make it clear that you won’t stand for your children trying to get each other into trouble. But be sure they understand the one important exception to this rule: If anybody is in danger of getting hurt or is hurting someone, then you need to hear about it right away.

Arbitrate and set limits when necessary. In general, avoid getting involved in your children’s arguments — except to facilitate communication. You can try saying, “I’ll be back in one minute. If you haven’t figured out how to share the toy, neither of you can play with it.” But keep in mind that younger kids often need a grown-up arbiter to enforce civility and guide them toward a compromise — especially if emotions are escalating and you see fury or tears on the horizon. When that happens (and if you think the children are mature enough), step in and listen to all sides of the debate. Don’t let anyone interrupt the person saying her piece. Then sum up the problem, acknowledge its difficulty, and help your kids arrive at simple solutions.

Of course, at times one child will clearly be at fault. If it’s your preschooler, take her aside and lay down guidelines for future scuffles. You might tell her, “Sometimes your big brother likes to play blocks with you, but sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t want to, you can’t chase him around with the blocks. You have two choices: You can play with the blocks by yourself, or you can ask him whether he’ll play something else with you.”

Acknowledge feelings. Sometimes talking about a child’s feelings is all it takes to end a competitive bout. Rather than trying to find your preschooler a rock shaped just like her sibling’s — which she’s been trying to take by force all afternoon — talk to her. Recognize how much she wants her brother’s rock and why she wants it. Listening respectfully may save you a rock-hunting expedition around the lakeshore. Likewise, the next time she tries to snatch a toy from her older brother, remind her that grabbing isn’t allowed — and then say you can see why she wants that toy and you know it’s hard to wait. Teach her to ask if she can have something once her sibling’s done with it.

Set personal property boundaries. Don’t expect miracles, but you can avoid a lot of conflicts by designating a special place for your kids’ belongings — one shelf for each child, for instance. Tell them that before they can touch anything on a sibling’s shelf, they must ask permission. Help them make signs with each kid’s name and Keep Out or By Permission Only. Your preschooler will get a big kick out of having her own shelf — and is more likely to respect her sibling’s personal space. If your kids are close in age, getting them identical toys whenever it’s feasible can help prevent some future conflicts.

Divide and conquer.Siblings tend to go through periods in which they’re best friends and periods when they’re sworn enemies. When your family’s in battle mode, splitting up into child / parent pairs can ease the tension. One kid gets a “Mommy day” and the other a “Daddy day.” If you’re a single parent, enlist a friend or relative to help you give each child some private time.

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