Guest Post from Heather: Sibling Rivalry

10/08/2010 By Shawn Burns

Heather is the Babyshrink. I’ve been asking her for parenting advice for as long as I’ve had a dad blog. I begged her to write a guest post for me and she agreed, which is kind of like getting a lawyer to give you legal advice for free, or a contractor to build an addition for free, or a philosopher to drive a taxi for free. I’m very pleased to let the rest of you share in her wisdom. Definitely read her blog for answers to more questions, and don’t be afraid to enlist her professional help if you find yourself out of your depth.

I asked her the following question: "So, part of my daily routine is trying to teach Erin that when Adrian whines or cries at her constantly being up in his face or grabbing his head or taking his toys or pushing him as she runs by, he doesn’t really like it. It’s not fun for him. However, I find that I’m spending a noticeable amount of time saying "Erin, leave him alone!" or responding to his demands for comfort by picking him up or hugging him or something. It often feels like what I’m reinforcing to her is that I think she hurts her brother and what I’m reinforcing to him is that daddy will pull his bacon out of the fire. Adults who end up with attitudes like that are generally bullies or wusses, and we don’t respect them. Is there a link between what I’m doing, which I think is appropriate, and that outcome, which I think is inappropriate?"

To which she replied:

Shawn is a philosopher, so he’s assigned me a heavy-duty philosophical issue to solve – ONLY an issue that’s plagued humanity for all history. The issue of sibling rivalry — in 500 words or less. Shawn, YOU’RE the one who needs to finish his dissertation – I’ve already done mine! So what’s up with your complicated question?! I’ll try to be brief – but it’s a huge issue.

I love it when parents say, “Our toddler is SO happy that she has a little baby brother, now. She seems to have accepted him totally!” Just wait. Sibling rivalry usually doesn’t become a problem until your toddler has to contend with a mobile baby – one who gets into her stuff, pulls her hair, and otherwise competes with her in the Zone of Stardom she previously owned in the family. When that happens, all the harmony that existed in the home evaporates, replaced by screams of “MINE!”, “HE HIT ME!”, “STOP TOUCHING ME!”, and “AAAAAGGHHHHH!”

It’s pretty upsetting, to see it in action. Our fierce protectiveness of the baby kicks in, and it’s made worse by the fact that the offender ALSO belongs to you. “How COULD she? Am I raising a sociopath? What have I done wrong?” We worry.

First of all, it’s important to understand how painful it is for your toddler to have to share you with a sibling. Here’s an analogy: Your partner comes to you and says, "Honey, I love you SOOOO much that I’ve decide to get another partner JUST LIKE YOU — to live with us, be taken care of by me, and to mess up all your stuff. Isn’t that GREAT?!" Not really. In fact, pretty sucky. That’s how your toddler feels (at least some of the time).

And yet: The sibling relationship has the potential to be profoundly important. Think about it: We have the longest relationship of our lives with our siblings. Siblings can understand each other like no one else, because of the shared, early experiences of our families of origin. For these reasons, we WANT our kids to get along.

First of all, know this: Parenting a toddler AND a baby who are fairly close in age (anything less than 3 or 3 1/2 years apart) is really, really hard. In fact, IT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING I HAVE EVER DONE. Shawn, getting your Ph.D. is going to be easier than getting Erin to stop hammering away on Adrian.

I’m here to give you two messages: 1) Don’t worry – it’s common and typical for toddlers, little kids, and even big kids to fight like cats and dogs. It’s a drag for parents, and not usually anything to worry about, BUT, 2) we have our work cut out for us, if we want to maximize the potential good relationship between our kids. There are lots of things we can do to make it smoother – maybe not so much now, but for the future.

That said, keep these things in mind:

  • Safety, of course, is Job One. Never, EVER, leave a baby alone with your toddler (at least up to age 4), even for a second. The toddler can’t help herself — and you’re not allowed to get mad at her if she starts hitting while you’re not looking. She’s just too young for you to expect more.

  • Adopt a "matter-of-fact" attitude. In normal circumstances, your toddler isn’t a sociopathic maniac, and your baby isn’t a traumatized victim. Baby is tougher than you think, and Toddler is less evil than you fear.

  • Expect your toddler to try to hammer away at the baby — it’s simply human nature – but let everyone know you won’t allow her to hurt the baby. Your mission is to convey this: “I can’t let you hurt the baby. Tell me you’re mad, but hitting isn’t allowed. It looks like you’re mad because Adrian got to sit next to me. Am I right?” Guide the interaction towards talking. This is the perfect crucible to grind out the issue of talking about feelings – instead of acting them out. Political correctness, manners and grace come much, much later (6, 7 and beyond). In the meantime, expect to be there as protector — and try not to get disappointed, worried, or critical of your toddler. She’s just really bummed about having to share you.

  • Resign yourself to breaking up fights — sometimes constantly. I know it feels like you’re a referee all day sometimes, and it’s easy to worry about the future implications of the sibling relationship. "Will they always attack each other like this?!" They might for a really long time — and that might actually be a good thing. Family is the pressure cooker of life, and siblings have the opportunity to work out lots of life’s big issues together: Sharing, patience, and cooperation.

  • But you’ve got to emphasize the positive. When they DO get along — notice, praise, and reward. "What nice sharing, you two! Wow, what a lovely time you’re having together. That looks really fun." Even if it’s only a brief interlude in the action, make a point of praising.

  • Finally, make it a point to regularly schedule “special time” with each of your kids – ideally, with each parent, separately and together – to get some time where that one kid can be the focus. Nothing fancy — even if it’s just a trip to the market while the baby is home with grandma, it will help.

But these are complex dynamics, and it can get really tricky. Lots of my clients need help strategizing with the task of juggling Baby and Toddler, so let me know if I can help you with your family. Having 4 young kids of my own – plus my practice specializing in young children — has helped me to think through a lot of this stuff. So if you’d like some help with your own kids, check out my Parent Coaching packages – starting at $75 – at I’d love to talk with you personally!

Thanks for the guest spot, Shawn. Now what about that dissertation?!


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink