How can I help my children get along with each other?

Family dynamics change drastically when a second child is born. While parents give constant care to their infant, their older child often reacts negatively because of the major adjustments she has to make. Reactions vary, of course, with the age of the older sibling. A four- or five-year-old will be much more independent and understanding than a one- to three-year-old, but all older siblings will have some negative feelings. The way parents respond to their older child’s feelings about the baby often sets the tone for the children’s future relationship.

Some parents who pressure their older child to love the baby try to censure their child’s feelings: “Don’t say that about your little brother—it’s not nice.” “Be gentle with the baby.” A child who’s not allowed to share her negative feelings with her parents will continue to have those feelings; she’ll just express them in other ways. She may not take her anger out on her parents since she, like all young children, fears losing their love, but she may take her anger out on her sibling.

The older child needs the freedom to express her negative feelings so she can resolve them. If her parents allow her to say, “Take the baby back to the hospital,” and show that they understand her situation by Saying, it’s sometimes hard, isn’t it to have a new baby in the house. Mommy and Daddy can’t give you all the attention we used to, but we love you and know how you feel,” the child will be reassured. She’ll begin to accept and even like the baby once she knows that she can express her dislike without risking her parents’ love. The more she’s accepted and reassured, the more likely she is to develop positive feelings about her sibling, although there will always be some negative emotions as well.

Your older child will begin to feel good about her sibling when the baby starts smiling, giggling, and seeking her out: “He likes me!” you should support and encourage this early interaction by saying, “yes, he really does like you. He seems to think you’re funny and nice.” At this point, she might enjoy helping you take care of the baby.

As your children grow, you’ll have to consciously encourage them to respect each other. When they show consideration, give them positive feedback: “That was nice of you to pick up his toy.” “Thanks for letting him play with you and your friend.” If you treat each of your children with love and show that you accept them and their similarities and differences, they will respond positively.

Don’t make one child seem more important or more deserving of consideration than the other. If you say, “Let him do it—he’s younger,” or, “She’s older, so she can go,” or, “She’s better at it, so let her go first,” you will give your children reasons to feel resentful and jealous, and you will encourage a cycle of competitiveness. And if you say, “The baby needs to be carried, but you’re big enough to walk,” or, “Don’t play with the baby’s toys. You’re too old for that,” your older child will feel anger that will be directed at her younger sibling, not at you.

At times you may sympathize with your older child, but be careful not to encourage her negative feelings. Listen to her complaints about her younger sibling, but don’t say, “Yes, he really is a nuisance, isn’t he?” She will consider your comments a license to feel and say what she wants about her sibling, and your younger child may end up feeling rejected.

Be matter-of-fact about the different things you do with your children: “She’s going to bed later because she slept later this morning.” “I’m putting this together for him because he doesn’t understand how to do it.” If your children are four or more years apart, there will be many times when you treat them differently. The older one will be allowed to watch a special television show or stay outside by herself while the younger one won’t. In such cases, don’t present the older child’s activities as “better,” or as privileges, since your younger child will interpret the privileges to mean, “She’s better than i am.” Discourage them from feeling competitive about what they’re allowed to do. Rather let them both know, “This is just the way things are right now.” Each child does what’s appropriate.

When your older child wants to play alone or with his friends, you may have to distract your younger one by reading to him or having one of his friends over. The older child needs her privacy and her possessions, but at times she also has to give in and let her younger sibling join in the play. You may be tempted, if your children are at least four years apart, to make the older one responsible for entertaining her sibling. However, this is unfair to the older one, who may resent having someone “follow me around all the time.” Forcing one child to stay with the other will probably increase the bad feelings between them.

If they are one to three years apart, they’ll share many of the same interests, toys, and friends–a situation that can lead to conflict. When a friend comes to play, encourage them to include everyone. The child who brought the friend can have more control over the games, but siblings should be allowed to play. Although the child who must share her friend may be resentful at first, she’ll soon focus on playing. If you let one of your children exclude the other from all play, the one left out will develop strong negative feelings about his sibling.

If your children are close in age and argue over toys, try to downplay the issue of possession. Rather than say, “That’s his toy,” encourage them to share and trade their playthings, and provide some toys that will interest both. If our younger child wants to play with something that belongs to his sibling, distract the older one for a moment so the younger has a chance with the toy. Then thank your older child for sharing, even though she did not do so intentionally. Similarly, distract the younger child so you can return his sister’s toy, and tell him, “Isn’t it nice she let you play with this for a little while?”

In Spite of all you do to encourage a good relationship, your children will I still argue with each other, probably some every day. Allow them to work out some of their minor problems themselves and try not to take sides. Too often parents end up blaming quarrels on the older child “who should know better.” When this happens, she gets angry at her parents for scolding her, but she takes out her anger on her sibling because he is a safer target. Try to understand and accept that some arguments are inevitable. And take comfort and pleasure in the times you see your children showing genuine love and consideration for each other.

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