Sibling relationships can be highly volatile but they can also be incredibly special. For many of us with multiple children, it is our dream that they will be best of mates, that they will care for one another, look out for one another and play happily together like all best friends do. The fact is, that at one point this was more than a dream for me, it was an expectation.
I was told countless times that due to the close age gap between my two children (13 months) they would become good little mates, keeping each other company and making my parenting role quite easy. Now, after two and a half years of having more than one child in our household, I know that the expectation I had is not only not helpful to me or them, it is actually detrimental to them forming a unique, authentic relationship with each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I still hold onto the dream but only time will truly tell. What I have realised, though is that the first step in my daughters forming a loving relationship is for me to butt out!
The whole way through my pregnancy I thought I was doing my eldest child, Lucy, a favour preparing her for her role as big sister with comments such as: “You’re going to be a great big sister when the baby is born!” etc. Then when the baby (Penny) arrived, I encouraged Lucy to show affection: “Give Penny a little kiss. Awww that’s lovely. You love your little sister, don’t you?”
Initially, Lucy happily obliged, after all she was only 13 months old and still quite amenable. I have many happy snaps of those first few blissful months when things here were actually peaceful and calm. I couldn’t wait for Penny to develop a little so that the two of them could play together and truly be great mates. I often used to make comments such as: “Penny is your best friend, isn’t she?” etc.
Then, much to my horror, only a few months in, my sweet little one year old started lashing out at her sister, being rough towards her, making her cry and taking her toys. She was beginning to realise that being a big sister wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was quite clear that they were now far from the best of mates but strangely enough I still carried forward this expectation that they should be.
Still unaware of respectful or peaceful parenting philosophies, I chose to use time outs and other punitive methods of punishment when Lucy was mistreating her sister. I was trying to force her into being her sister’s friend by giving her negative consequences when she dared think otherwise. I would follow it up with, “Penny is your little sister, you need to be nice to her.” or “That’s no way to treat your younger sister. She loves you and you’re hurting her. How would you like it if she did that to you?”
But it seemed that my appeal to her better judgement was falling on deaf ears. In that first year she simply amped up her quest to cause misery to her sister; screaming at her, seeking her out and using physical aggression towards her with no provocation. I hadn’t worked this out yet but Penny didn’t need to do anything to provoke Lucy, it was simply her existence that provoked her. It wasn’t the toy she had or the cup she was using or the area she was occupying, it was simply her!
My forcing Lucy to be kind and loving to Penny, this invader, was doing nothing to create a loving relationship between the two of them and everything towards destroying not only theirs but ours. Lucy needed someone to understand the hurt she was feeling, the loss she was suffering and support her by giving her the time and space she needed to accept that Penny was now a part of the family and would not be returning to the hospital.
By the time Lucy was 18 months old, the toy taking and physical aggression was peaking. It was at this time I discovered RIE (respectful) parenting and revised pretty much everything I was doing. Over the next year and a half, I took frequent opportunities to acknowledge how hard it is to be a big sister and to show Lucy I understood and wanted to help her. Perhaps the biggest change I made through was to simply stay out of it.
This did not mean I left them to battle on their own in the ring until a victor emerged. I did everything in my power to protect them both from physical altercations but was sure to remain neutral in my interactions with the girls. I sportscast their actions towards each other, putting it into words for them to digest and learn from.
I did not want Penny to feel victimised or disempowered by my constantly stepping in to save her. She did not need me to do this for her. She is a strong soul and even without words to verbalise her feelings, she is not only effectively learning to communicate her limits to Lucy, she is also demonstrating an acceptance of her sister’s hardship and unconditional forgiveness by seeking her out for play only minutes after an altercation.
Two and a half years on and after many moments of sitting on my hands and biting my tongue, my children now know each other implicitly. By giving them the space and tolerance to struggle with each other, they have a deeper understanding of one another than even we do and with their growing emotional intelligence, they now listen to each other with empathy and are fiercely protective of each other when the occasion calls for it.
In fact, when one of them is unusually upset and we are trying to ascertain the cause and make out what they are trying to tell us through their sobs, often, the other will simply state what they are upset about and what they are trying to tell us. They are so in tune with each other’s emotions in this way and I strongly believe it is because they have been allowed to communicate them freely with each other.
They still regularly have altercations but through these they are learning conflict resolution, negotiation and empathy, so as much as I would dearly love for them to always be cooperative, considerate and to put themselves in the other’s shoes to avoid these struggles, I will continue to stay out of their sibling relationship. I will model these qualities for them to adopt when they are ready and they will continue to forge their special relationship, being nothing but authentic and honest with each other and hopefully, one day, they will look around and realise that their sister is the one person in the world that truly gets them.
You might also enjoy reading:
Sibling Rivalry: 5 Common Mistakes Parents Make
Resolving a Toy Fight With One Simple Phrase
The Worlds Best kept Secret for Managing Sibling Rivalry
My parenting is inspired by the RIE approach. You can read more about this approach here. I also highly recommend the following books (affiliate links)
Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too ~ Adele Faber
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities — From the Very Start
~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury
This is timely, as I am dealing with a similar situation. But much like Ms. Lansbury’s posts I am often left confused. So what I’m currently doing is wrong, now what do I do? You say stay out of it, but what do I do when he’s pulling his sister’s arm? You say sportscast, but what do I do when he’s all over her and I’m nursing her and we both need some space? I can sportscast until I’m blue in the face but how do I stop the behavior right then and there? Specially since whatever I say it’s like he hears the opposite or does it anyway again and again almost like taunting me.
Hi Steph, when he’s pulling his sister’s arm, gently remove it and state: “I won’t let you pull her arm, it could hurt her.” Any time, he is using his body physically to express his frustration towards his sister, you have to step in and physically stop him. He needs you to do this for him because he can’t stop himself.
There are several things you can do if you need space to nurse. One is to have a special basket for him to access when you need time to nurse full of busy activities, and if that isn’t effective, are you able to create a safe space for you and baby or for him that seperates you for the feeding time? He may not be happy about this and it is ok for him to voice his disapproval, just be sure to acknowledge his feelings and find time for him when the feeding is done. “I know you want to be close to me right now. I can’t wait to have some special time with you when I am done feeding X.”
My daughter sounds similar to your son in that she likes to do the opposite to what I have said. I have learned that she requires physical limits not verbal ones. I have to actually move straight to her when she is testing me because she doesn’t respond to my verbal instructions to stop etc.
i have a 2year old daughter and a 4month old girl. I’m trying to find my ways out of difficult situations too. So if I need to nurse the baby, I make sure the older one has something interesting to do, whatever she likes most. If the situation gets hot, I try physictly remove my daughters hand if she is trying to hurt the baby. I never tell her that she is a big sister or something like that. Whenever I get a spare moment I try to show as much effection to my older as I can. If baby cries, I dont run immedeatly to see her while the older one is on my knees for excample. These are few things that work for me;)
Thank you, Ilona!
I used to talk constantly to my older child when feeding his sister. I would ask him to help me get this and that and praise him for being so helpful to me. He lived this positive attention and felt a part of what was going on. I was also given the tip of not saying “I can’t give you attention because I am feeding x” but instead ‘I’ busy right now and I’ll play with you when finished” not mentioning you get siblings name avoids older child linking being left out with sibling. Also I always kept my promise and played with him afterwards, therefore giving him a happy anticipation of waiting.
The struggles described sound exactly like what I am seeing with my kids (daughter, 2.5, and son, 9ms). But I’d really wish for some more concrete advice. She HURTS him, throws him down or sometimes hits him. I can’t let her do that, can I? So how do I make that stop?
Yvonne, if she is hurting him, you have to stop her. You need to gently block her hands and state: “I won’t let you hit/push X.” Stay close and pre empt the aggressive acts to prevent them before they occur. The only way to make them stop without using punitive punishments is to prevent them happening and set the limit. Eventually, your children will see that you wont let them express their frustrations physically towards each other and stop doing it. It takes a lot of effort but it is very important.
The countless time I bite my tongue and say let it be..Dont say anything or interfere..has left me with my daughter(15 months) bruised or wailing away resulting in her now being traumatized by my sons'(2.6 years)presence. I know he feels neglected even though gets more attention than she ever has had so far.. So to make things peaceful I just make sure they play separately most of the time!I don’t know what to do… Help!
Hi Rachel, interfering in squabbles by weighing in on their argument, demanding a toy is returned or insisting they be nice to each other is different to supporting them and protecting them from hurt. You don’t need to leave children to battle it out, even verbally. I would move close to them and sportscast what you hear them say whilst gently preventing them from hurting each other by lashing out. Let them play together, they need time to get to know each other’s tolerances but be there with them all the time in the beginning and then gradually only when needed in the future.
I have read and found it useful to place a hand in front of the one doing the hitting or whatever or stop them somehow and say “I won’t let you hit your sister”
we have values written on our as wall, “calm, gentle and nice” our 5 yr olds words to describe how we want our family to interact with each other,in the heat of the moment, I may ask “is that calm, gentle and nice?” That sometimes helps or the older and more recently the younger one will say sarcastically yes! I find it so hard too, my oldest is so sensitive. It is hard to know what to do sometimes, but trying to stay out of it as Much as possible
Hi Erin, it’s great to gently block the hitting action as you are doing and use those words. I like the idea of the words on the board and I think talking to the children about their meaning during non-heated times would be helpful.
Usually, when children are acting aggressively in the heat of the moment, calm, gentle and nice are as far away from the genuine emotions they are feeling. Accepting their feelings is important as is allowing them to express them in a safe way.
I have had this issue with my two boys for what feels like a very long time!! I too was told they’d play nicely together; they are 5.5 and nearly 4! Now that they are at this age, is the response any different? I feel confident with the physically preventing any hitting, pushing etc but I feel that the boys are constantly arguing and fighting about one thing or another and I’m not sure when or if I should intervene except if it gets physical? It really drives me crazy that it feels like the second I step out of the room, they need to start arguing!
Claire, I don’t think your response should be any different for your older children. If they are not physically hurting each other then let feelings be. What I do sometimes do for my children is sportscast their arguments. “L, I hear you telling P in a strong voice you don’t want her to use your truck. P, you saw the truck wasn’t being used and wanted a turn. You both seem to be very angry/upset.” I find rephasing what is bothering them, without weighing in on the argument or solving it for them helps them to feel heard/understood but also helps them hear what is troubling each other and models the use of calm voices. This normally always gives them the stepping stone they need to come to an amicable arrangement.
Thank you, I’ll certainly give it a try! It’s so hard when you’re in the moment! x
It sure is! Easier with practise though – good luck!
Great article, Kate! I needed some reassurance of this, as were expecting #2 in January. Thanks! Also, you might want to link your Sportscasting article at the end of this one. I refer to it often and I think it would help answer people’s questions about what to do. 🙂
Thanks Tiffany, I linked to it in the text but didn’t think to add it at the end. I will do that!!
All the best for your #2
Great article- lots to chew on. I’m still learning how to ‘peaceful parent’. I grew up in a very punitive household (physical, verbal, emotional) and still work on controlling my automatic responses to yell, demand and sometimes spank- especially with my older daughter when she doesn’t listen (clean up her mess, ect). I want to be better, because I see how it doesn’t work. For the most part, I do really well at redirecting, and staying calm. When my girls fight, I talk to them about why their reaction isn’t ok- but reassure them that it’s ok to feel that way, and help them find a better way to express it. And I do my best to empathize with how they are both feeling, and help them think of a better way to handle it peacefully. I do find myself saying things your pointed out in the article, like, “Show your sister you love her. She loves you so much..” ect.
Question though- when my 5 yr old daughter gets angry at my 2 yr old daughter, what is a healthier response (for ME) when she starts to yell or say mean things? Do I ignore it, as long as it isn’t physical?
Hi Kera, I’d be interested to hear what you have been saying at those times and also what the reaction of your 2 year old is.
I would sportscast to the eldest. “You seem angry with xyz. (pause) You didnt want her to zyx. (pause)”
If your youngest is upset you could acknowledge her feelings. “Xyz, you are upset. You didn’t like being called abc. (pause)”
Often times, putting into words what has happened helps children find the words they are looking for to tell each other how they are feeling in a calmer way. It doesnt happen straight away but over time, they will start saying these phrases to each other in an argument. My 2 year old regularly tells her older sister “I don’t like it when you yell at me.”
Also, it’s quite rare that I completely ignore my children’s scuffles. I usually move to their play area in the first instance to ensure I am close to block any physical aggression then I will observe for a while to see whether their negotiations are progressing or whether I need to step in sportscast. I am usually there I just make sure I never judge or blame one or the other. I keep my thoughts to myself and simply reflect theirs back to them.
Great post Kate! Hopefully it will help bust that myth that twins and siblings close in age will always get along no matter what. It simply isn’t that easy. Why should it be? In a classroom, all kids are typically within the same year and it does not mean that they all are friends. I think you have made the right decision by staying out of it (and writing about it in your blog). My DD is an only child for the time being, but I have 2 younger brothers. I had a volatile relationship with the youngest, and the assumption from adults that I was jealous of him really made me feel bad. Even the statements such as “You don’t cuddle him much, do you?” annoyed me, because of the expectation. I do wish my parents, grandparents etc. had stayed out of it.
Thank you, Celine!
When my husband is home, he often hears the girls (4 & 2 years) squabble and challenges why I’m not dropping everything and stepping in to police the situation. I’m trying to explain to him that I’m waiting for them to ask for my help, and that until that point, their arguing is part of growing up. If I step in too early, I’m not giving them the chance to sort it out themselves. He doesn’t quite agree…
Rather than coaching ‘you love your little sister don’t you’ I gave my two daughters space to express their own feelings. However I did intervene physically. Before my second child was born I researched strategies in child care centres for encouraging amicable play. Useful suggestions included having play materials that were in abundance, and avoiding toys that are in single units. For example ‘special dolls’ and one off toys were a sure means to ensure battles while sandpits, bubbles, Lego and farm yard play scenes generally resulted in happy scenes.
Eventually of course there will be situations that disgruntlement occurs, and rather than leave my kids to work it out on their own, I stepped in, and taught them strategies for working it out. For instance at 2&4 years of age, I taught them to take turns on a single swing. The kid not on the swing would clap 10 times and that would indicate the length of the turn on the swing, and that it was time to change. I would supervise the first few times and then be able to leave them to it and I to my delight I late pr found them applying this strategy to other situations. At this age the clapping became part of the game, and neither of them cottoned on to clapping quickly to get to their time on the swing.
My kids do get on well, now 8 & 10, how much of this is due to my parenting and how much is their own innate character we will never know. But I feel sure that modelling and teaching strategies early in life has given them a good basis for positive social interactions and the mind set to seek strategies rather than resorting to knee jerk reactions, hitting or yelling.
Such great points!!! thank you for sharing your experience! Great food for thought! pinned!
It’s hard to stay out sometimes, but space is good too isn’t it? Thanks so much for sharing. Pinned. xo P
I’m also trying to let my children have the space to work things out themselves. Stepping in when needed though. I find reading your perspective helps me be mindful about mine!
I agree staying out of kids’ squabbles is definitely the best policy, but sometimes hard to do too! My kids have a similar age gap to yours but are a couple of years older and for the most part play together beautifully now, thank goodness.
Sibling relationships are so complicated and so hard sometimes, especially when they’re little. I love seeing my two develop into good mates, now that my youngest is old enough to play. But I try and make sure they each have time to be themselves and respect their choice do their own thing too.
I love reading your perspective on these relationships! Really enjoy exploring your methods. People say the same thing to me about the twins…will be great mates blah blah…they are but gosh they have their share of sibling rivalry too that I have had to cope with.
I am so glad to have found your website! We have much in common- my eldest two are 3 and 22 months (15 m apart) and I also have a 5 month old. I am new to RIE and have so many questions and so much to learn. My eldest daughter is very rough with her brother. Today she was pushing, hitting, biting and kicking him. As well as bossing him and grabbing all of his toys. She always does it when I am out of reach, so I can’t really block her. I tell her she may not hit, but it seems pretty pointless if I can’t enforce a consequence (such as time out, spank etc.) After an entire morning of two screaming children I was about to lose it so I finally made her play in her room by herself, which she was NOT happy about. Do you have any suggestions???
Hi Dove, Wow, you certainly have your hands full! Firstly, well done on taking that first step towards peaceful parenting. I know it is hard to break old habits but keep at it and soon it will start to come naturally to you!
So to address the issue of the kicking/ biting etc. We have been there!! This was a daily occurrence between my two for quite sometime until, one day my husband and I decided enough was enough. We couldn’t stand by and let our youngest get beat up by our eldest but we weren’t prepared to use punitive consequences either. So we shadowed.
We never let our children get within several feet of each other without one of us being there. In fact, if they were in the same room together, we were right there with them AT ALL TIMES! It was really hard, draining and time consuming but what it did was to help our eldest realise that we were not going to let her hit/hurt her sister. Every time she lashed out we were there to gently block her and state calmly that we would not let her hit. Thats all we needed to do and say in those moments. Sometimes she would repeat and keep trying but we just kept calmly blocking and acknowledging “Boy, you’re REALLY angry with Penny. I won’t let you hit her. Is there something else you can hit instead?”
This was honestly the only thing that worked for us. It took about 2 weeks of extreme, vigilant shadowing and then we were gradually over another several weeks able to give them more and more space to be together. We became really good in that time at reading Lucy’s cues and knowing when we needed to move in and stay close.
The other thing I will suggest is offering them space apart. I wrote a post on this that you may find helpful.
Thanks so much for the info! I started shadowing this morning and it’s hard but I’m hoping will be worth it. I can’t let my daughter keep using her brother as a punching bag. May I ask what you did when you couldn’t watch them (cooking, nursing the baby in my case). I think I’ll have to put them in their separate bedrooms.
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