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Helping siblings to get on

Exploring the relationship between siblings and helping them to get on.

Sibling bond. One minute they love each other, the next they argue over everything! Does your older child want to show affection to their new baby but ends up being too boisterous or rough? Do you find your youngest is constantly frustrating their sibling by trying to be involved but not being able? Have you got a baby and a jealous toddler on your hands? I’ll be discussing each of these issues and suggesting strategies that may help you manage. My toddler is jealous of the baby.

Jealousy is the problem that many parents worry about when they are expecting their second child. Research has found that even young children work to establish their status in the family and so the introduction of another family member can, temporarily, make it difficult for them to find their niche. The key to solving this problem is to help them realise how important they are.

Focus on their role as a big brother or sister. Explain that the baby is crying because they are trying to tell us something. Give them a couple of options for what it could be, “The baby might be hungry, or they might need their nappy changing.” Ask your toddler to say what they think is wrong, or if they cannot talk yet, involve them in the decision making by asking a direct question, “Shall we see if they need a new nappy?”. They’ll feel empowered if what they suggest helps the baby. Praise them and tell them how useful they are to you.

Involve them in the day to day tasks such as fetching nappies, helping with bathing, burping and playing. Supervise them as they sit and cuddle them, sing songs or read books together as a family. Buying your eldest child their own doll can also help, as they can copy what you are doing with their baby.

Although it can be tough when you’re exhausted, try to find time each day when you focus solely on your eldest child, even if it is only for a few minutes. An ideal time for this is when your baby is sleeping. Having to share your attention is a shock for your firstborn, so offering them these one-on-one times is important in helping them to adjust. Depending on the age of your child, they may benefit from hearing you use the language “now” and “next”. For example, “Now I’m feeding the baby, but next, I am going to play with you.”

Don’t be surprised if your toddler suddenly starts acting up in ways they never used to. They are seeking attention, and any attention is good attention in their eyes, so try not to overreact if they misbehave. Avoid phrases like “you’re a big boy now” or “you’re meant to be the grown-up one”. They are seeking love, so giving them more positivity and loving attention will stop the poor behaviours quicker than reprimanding. Easier said than done I know, especially when you’re sleep-deprived, but an important one to bear it in mind.

I can’t take my eyes off my older child because they are too boisterous with the baby

Please don’t panic! There is nothing wrong with your firstborn. Many times, older children don’t even realise that they are too rough with their siblings.

Nevertheless, it can be tricky as a parent; you don’t want to discourage all contact between your children but, at the same time, you don’t want your baby to get hurt. It can sometimes feel like you’re always telling your eldest child off, which, let’s face it, isn’t going to help with the feelings of jealousy that they might be experiencing. So, what can you do?

To teach them about the lightness of touch, play a game using a feather. Have your child close their eyes and stroke them with the feather. Can they say where they were tickled? Did it hurt? Talk about it being a gentle feeling. Repeat with your fingertip – again, talk to them about how it felt. Was it the same feeling as a feather? Repeat and see if they can identify if it was a feather or a fingertip. Next, touch their eyelid gently. When you talk about this, say, “It could be easy to hurt someone by accident there, so we don’t touch eyes. Where else might it hurt lots by accident?” Helping them to learn without it being linked to any incident will mean they don’t associate it with being told off.

Extend this to talking about harder touches. Hold hands and ask them to squeeze your hands. As they press you, say, “ouch! Stop!” They might find this amusing, which is okay, but make sure they realise that their baby brother or sister can’t say stop yet so they must not squeeze, squash or push them. Another simple game is to play with a towel. Drape it over your toddler’s head and say “where have you gone?” They’ll likely pull it off their head. Next time, put the towel over their head but say they aren’t allowed to use your hands to take it off. They might start jiggling around to make it fall off. Next, say, “I’m going to put the towel on your head, but you can’t move your hands or your body to get it off.” After a few moments, use it as a way to help them understand that this is how their baby brother or sister feels when their face is covered as they can’t yet use their hands or do this funky dance to get it off them. Helping toddlers to understand why you say no is important, remember they aren’t naughty or deliberately unkind.

My younger child is always ruining my eldest child’s game

So your youngest is now sitting up, crawling and reaching for everything. Their newfound independence means they are now annoying their big brother or sister because they keep interfering! Your eldest will likely put up with so much of this behaviour but, sooner or later, they are bound to get frustrated and lash out at their sibling. It’s a tough situation, you can’t have your firstborn hitting the baby, but at the same time, you can see exactly why they did it!

Anticipation is crucial here. Try to predict what might happen and find a way to stop it. For example, if they are busy building a tower, suggest they do it on a tabletop or somewhere that the baby can’t reach. Alternatively, distract the baby with another tower that you build, leaving your other child to play independently.

Sometimes, however, these things can’t be avoided. Rather than immediately chastise your eldest for hitting, it’s important to give them the time and space to tell you what happened from their point of view. What you’ve observed might not be how they have perceived it. Try not to interject them as they explain, even if what they are saying isn’t what you saw. Interrupting often leads to children getting more frustrated by the situation, which then stops them from being able to listen to what you are saying in response. Once you’ve modelled listening, always show understanding of their feelings but be clear that hitting out isn’t acceptable. Instead, help them to come up with a solution that they could do next time. “You got cross because the baby knocked down your tower. He didn’t mean to be unkind; he is just exploring. I know that it is frustrating for you, but you must never hit anyone. Next time, if your brother is doing that, where could you play instead?” “That’s right, you could play up here on the table, and then they won’t be able to reach it.” If you’re consistent with this approach, it’ll take time, but eventually, as they get older, you’ll hear them fixing the problem themselves rather than lashing out or even having to tell you each time.

These situations are crucial in helping children learn social skills. In fact, research has shown that having siblings provide natural opportunities to learn to develop relationships with peers, pay attention to other people’s perspectives and feelings and develop vital skills like anger management, problem-solving and conflict resolution. It’s easy to assume children learn these things on their own as they grow, but specific, explicit teaching and support from parents will help them much more than simply being told not to do something.

My children won’t stop arguing!

When you decided to have a second child, were you imagining a heavenly scene of two little angels playing happily together, entertaining themselves? At the same time, you were sat reading a magazine, drinking that long-sought-after HOT cup of coffee in peace? I have to admit when we knew I was pregnant for the second time, I couldn’t wait to see my daughter’s face. There was going to be just over two years between my children, so I naturally assumed they’d be best friends and she’d look after her little brother or sister!

They are now three and five, so we’re past the baby stage where I worried my daughter might accidentally smother my son or forget he was a real baby and treat him like one of her dolls! We’re now very much in the preschool phase of squabbles and ‘she-said, he-said’. Both children are talking and expressing their opinions – and there are days when it definitely feels like I’m a referee rather than a mummy. I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’ve learned along the way, both from my role as Deputy Headteacher and my experiences as a mum.

Firstly, try to avoid jumping in every time you hear a cross-word. By arguing, siblings are developing skills in negotiation, compromise, persuasion, problem-solving, emotional understanding and empathy. By always solving their problems for them, they are not being allowed the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.

Instead, observe, wait and listen (OWL). This is an excellent strategy for communicating with children in general. Be present, watch what is happening without interfering (sometimes what you think is happening at first glance isn’t the full picture) and gauge the situation. Wait to see if your children can solve the problem for themselves and, if they can’t listen to, and validate their feelings before offering a solution.

When children are arguing or have fallen out with each other, their emotions are likely high. They’re feeling worked up and need time to take a breath before they can hear anything that anyone else is saying. You need to slow the whole scenario down. Have them both take two or three calming breaths before you give each the time and space to tell you what’s wrong from their point of view. Before they start, remind them that they will each have the chance to talk without anyone interrupting them. When they listen to the other person, they often realise for the first time, how the other child was feeling, which makes sorting out the problem a lot easier.

We talk about ‘happiness buckets’ a lot in our house. It’s an idea taken from a book called, ‘Have you filled a bucket today?’ by Carol McCloud. It talks about everyone having an invisible bucket that they carry around with them everywhere. Other people can add to their happiness bucket by being kind, or empty it by making them sad. It’s a simple, effective way of helping children to see their role in other people’s happiness, and I find it works well with my two children. “What could you do to refill each other’s happiness buckets?”

Don’t get me wrong there are still moments of ‘what have I done?’ when I wonder how these two children who are individually the most adorable, gorgeous, wonderful little people, could actually be my children. There are times when I hope my husband will arrive home soon so we can divide and conquer the wild beasts. Then again, there are occasions when I look at them, and my heart swells with pride, and I realise, that they’re doing alright at this sibling thing after all. When you’re in the thick of it, and you’re having a bad day, it can be hard to think what to do, so I wanted to record some strategies to try for those occasions. Some are more appropriate for the baby/toddler dynamic, while others are more geared towards older children. As with most things, I find consistency is the key.

I’d love to know if you use any of these strategies or if you have any others to add to them. Also, feel free to comment below or email me if you have any other sibling problems right now, and I’ll do my best to help.

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