Reducing Sibling Rivalry
If our two-year-old sees me hugging her
four-year-old big brother, she'll rush over -
saying loudly, "No! My mommy! Go away!" - and try
to push him away. He's getting more and more
frustrated with her and starting to push back
pretty hard. Their squabbles are already probably
the biggest single source of stress in my life --
and it's getting worse.
Our siblings are usually the people we know
longest in this life, but it's striking how many
people have distant, even hostile relations with
their brothers and sisters. Family tensions
related to sibling rivalries wear on parents
individually, and sometimes can challenge their
marriage - so it's important to tackle them in
steady, systematic ways.
Signs of Deeper Issues
Sibling squabbles are usually a marker, a symptom,
of underlying issues, such as:
Depleted, stressed-out parents
Too much child care
Over-busy, chaotic homes
Not enough time and nurturance given to children
Not enough parental authority
Unmanaged temperamental or health problems
Ask yourself if any of these could be a factor in
the sibling issues in your family. If so, make a
serious plan with your partner to address it - and
consider the practical suggestions in the rest of
In a family, just like in any other situation, if
we keep working at something - and stick with it -
it usually gets better.
Before the Second (or Third, etc.) Baby Comes
Fill up the "bank" of personal and marital
well-being before things really hit the fan: eat
well, get lots of sleep, don't start a remodel (or
new business!), be extra loving and patient with
each other, and so on.
Get the older child settled in any new,
practical arrangements that you've been planning
well before your due date, like weaning, moving
out of the family bed, adding a couple days at
preschool, etc. (But we must add that it's often
helpful to continue co-sleeping with both the
older child and the toddler in the parent's
bedroom as a way to ease the transition to Baby
Makes Four [or Five . . .]).
Build up the father's relationship with the
older child - since dad is going to need to fill
the vacuum left by mom's shift of attention and
care to the helpless infant.
Try to give the older child some experience with
infants. In age-appropriate ways, do what you can
to explain how his or her life will change when
the baby arrives.
Set up in advance lots of great support for mom,
dad, and marriage when the new child arrives: a
doula, some housecleaning, help from relatives, a
little extra in the bank, etc.
Especially During the First Year - But Also
Really keep an eye on replenishing yourself.
There's no way to avoid getting worn out, but you
don't have to hit bottom. Protein with every meal,
sacrifice housework for sleep, get out of the
house, reach out to other parents, take your
vitamins, make yourself get exercise -- all the
common-sense things you can do if you set your
mind to it.
Cut the older child as much slack as you can
(and without creating an enduring behavior
problem). Remember that she has been supplanted,
and that she sees her rival every day occupying
the throne she once held.
Make sure dad and others give the older child a
lot of time and love.
Daily if possible, arrange for some time when
the father or others takes care of the infant so
that the mother can spend good, one-to-one time
with the older child.
Minimize the occasions when the younger one
wrecks the moment of the older one - as in the
example at the top of this column.
To the older child, keep pointing out instances
when the younger one was interested in him, and
really looked up to him
Try to create routine situations in which the
two children enjoy each other's company, like
doing fun things together with a parent.
Beware "tilting" toward one child or another,
such as over-protecting the younger child and
being too demanding of the older one.
Parents have got to be willing to be the justice
system in the family -- otherwise, it's the law of
the jungle: most of the time, kids do not actually
work it out among themselves: it's that whoever
can hit the hardest or yell the loudest or work
the grown-ups most skillfully is the one who
Parents create justice in the home through
standing for certain values, having clear "house
rules," and using a skillful combination of
rewards and penalties. For example, think about
how the kids have mistreated each other over the
past few days, and turn those incidents into rules
that would stop them from happening in the future.
Of course, usually you have to back up the rules
with consequences, but that's just Parenting 101,
and already familiar to us all. The key is naming
the rule (e.g., No Hitting. No Grabbing Stuff. No
Interrupting. No Put-Downs.) and then getting
serious about enforcing it just about every single
Have an attitude of "I AM THE BOSS. I AM IN
CHARGE. I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED. I WILL PREVAIL!"
That confidence will help sustain your efforts,
plus your kids will sense it and be more willing
(Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a
clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., is
an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are
raising a daughter and son, ages 14 and 17. With
Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the first and
second authors of Mother Nurture: A Mothers Guide
to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate
Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see
their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them
with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org;
unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be