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Sibling Rivalry

By Armin Brott

Dear Mr. Dad: When our now-18-month-old son was born, my husband and I thought he'd be a wonderful playmate for his big brother. Instead, our older child seems to hate his baby brother—the two of them yells at each other, snatch each other's toys, and fight all the time. I'm actually afraid my older one might do some serious damage to the baby if he got the chance. Is this normal?

A: Absolutely, which is why I always advise expectant parents to give their older children plenty of warning that a new baby is on the way. A lot of people think their older child is too young to understand, or they want to savor the last few months of being alone with their child before the new family member arrives. But without any time to get use to the idea, the new baby is likely to be perceived as a threat to the older child's status as center of the Universe. No matter how careful the preparation, a lot of older siblings are less than delighted a crying baby invades their space, takes away their parents' love, and gets smothered with gifts and attention.

Don't expect things to get a lot better very soon. Despite your best efforts and promises, you simply can't give equal time to both of your children. A toddler's needs are different from a preschooler's. Fortunately, you can still get a lot of mileage out of giving your older child special treats and privileges. Things as simple as getting to spend an uninterrupted half-hour reading with you or going out for ice cream can go a long way toward making him feel less inconvenienced by the presence of a high-maintenance interloper. Whenever possible, children should resolve their arguments between themselves. But of course, safety is a top priority. If fighting becomes dangerous for either child, you have no choice but to intervene. Trying some of the following strategies to keep sibling rivalry from getting out of hand.

Don't try to talk an angry child out of his feelings. When children complain about each other, acknowledge their frustrations. You may be surprised at how quickly anger dissipates when children know that you understand how they feel.

Don't compare then, even when one is clearly better behaved or more cooperative than another. Comparisons will only lead to envy, and may make children want to get back at each other. Try to appreciate their differences instead.

Don't take sides. You can't always tell who started a dispute. And even if you do know, taking sides will only make it worse. Blaming one child more often than another may lead to long-term resentment or self-esteem issues in future.

Don't force them to share, but encourage it. Parents who force kids to share often inadvertently make things worse by confusing ownership boundaries, particularly if what the kids are fighting over is especially important to one of them. Instead, discuss the virtues and benefits of sharing (if you share with someone else, he'll share with you.) Let children work things out for themselves. Things often settle down more quickly if children know you won't get involved. It also teaches them to resolve their own issues and get along with people—a valuable lesson in life.

Step in if fighting escalates and the kids can't work it out or if either one is in danger of getting hurt.

Set reasonable boundaries and expectations for behavior. Resist giving in to the child who creates the biggest fuss. Teach children that expressing their feelings or taking time alone to cool off is fine, but throwing a temper tantrum until they get their own way is not. Do appreciate the individuality of each child. Attempting to give and treat equally only leads to comparisons where one child almost always feels cheated. Give to children according to their needs and let each one know he is unique and special.

A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. Armin serves on the board of advisors of the Men's Health Network in Washington, DC. He also hosts “Positive Parenting”, a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at

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