Big Issues

Coping With Sibling Rivalry

When we found out we were having a second baby boy we hoped he’d be a great playmate, perhaps lifelong friend, for his brother. So it was a shock when our older boy decided to make life hell for the newcomer.

I have previously written about how we went about introducing Little B to his baby brother and for a while all seemed to be going well. Then over the summer of 2016 the jealousy really kicked in.

It got so bad that we couldn’t leave them together and turn our backs without our two year old launching an attack on the helpless baby. The word ‘attack’ sounds over the top but I’m talking about hitting, biting, pinching, and if not that then dancing around him screaming, all of which were sure to produce tears – often from us as well as Baby F.

As time went by we hoped matters would improve. Toddlers start to control their emotions a bit better and babies get bigger and less fragile. But as we embark on a new year with two boys the sibling rivalry is still making life stressful for everyone.

Sibling rivalry

What Causes Sibling Rivalry?

Jealousy toward a new baby is a perfectly natural response for an older sibling and could be a result of feeling insecure, frustrated, or confused. So I think it’s important not to punish your older child for how they are behaving. That doesn’t mean you don’t tell them it’s not ok and obviously you have to intervene to stop the younger one being harmed. And it depends on their age: I’m talking here about toddlers and pre-schoolers. I’d hope older children would be less vindictive but maybe I’m wrong?!

At the root of the problem is of course the fact that your first-born had all your attention and now it’s being shared with someone else. There may be a deeper fear in your older child that you may stop loving them and only want to care for the new baby.

I know I’ve been guilty of being extra loving toward Baby F (he is very cute) and sometimes forgetting that Little B was that baby not so long ago.

There is also a weird battle going on in my own emotions; my protective instinct for our new baby is ignited by seeing him being upset, but the person doing the baiting is his brother who I also have an all-consuming love for.

This is a very conflicted emotional state to be in and I am frequently left feeling a mixture of anger at my eldest, worry for the youngest, sadness about the whole situation and guilt that I’m failing to keep the peace.

We’ve noticed there are times when Little B’s jealousy toward Baby F is worse (although it is always hovering in the background):

  • Whenever we are needing to feed, change or bath Baby F,
  • In the car on any length of journey – Baby F is in his seat and can’t escape a good whack on the head from his brother,
  • Anytime from 5-7pm – all parents know this is the crazy time when everyone is over-tired and it’s when the worst attacks happen,
  • If Little B is hungry or tired,
  • If Baby F plays with one of his brother’s toys (actually, even his own toys),
  • If we try to have a conversation with each other.

So it’s clear to me that this is about attention, but what’s infuriating is that Little B gets loads of attention from us anyway. He just doesn’t want to give even a morsel of it to his brother! And weirdly they get on better when we are not there. Hand them over to a grandparent or childminder and they are (almost) best pals.

Are Boys Worse Than Girls?

Being an only child I had no experience of sibling rivalry apart from listening to my friends complain about their brothers and sisters. I remember thinking that the ones who had sisters seemed to get along better or if they didn’t, they simply avoided each other.

Boys who had brothers were always fighting with each other, or playing tricks like hiding items of clothing, homework, toys, or ‘forgetting’ to pass on messages or reveal embarrassing information; this particularly applied to younger brothers who made it hell for their older sibling when they started dating.

From what I’ve seen of friends today who have girls, they do seem to get along better. I’m not saying there isn’t an occasional argument but there is less hitting and generally girls who are close in age do seem to be like peas in a pod.

As for mixed siblings, all I can say is that Mrs B has told me she was very cross when her brother was born: apparently she drew on the walls in felt tip pen and trapped his fingers in a door (hopefully not on the same day). So perhaps she has passed on this particular gene to Little B.

Managing Sibling Rivalry

Like I said, this is ‘normal’ behaviour so I think the key is to manage it and also know when to let the boys work out their disagreements themselves as they get older, as long as no one is being seriously hurt.

  1. I think with a pre-school child like Little B there needs to be lots of reassurance that he is still loved and that we aren’t pushing him away. We look at old baby photos of him and talk about how much he has grown and that Baby F is like he was. This seems to help with his understanding of being the ‘big boy’ and that one day his baby brother will be able to run and play with him too. And we point out the perks of being the big brother; he gets to stay up a little bit later, he gets different food to eat, he can look at different books and so on.
  2. Making time to be together without his brother is good for reinforcing the fact that Little B is special to us and also it’s nice to have some calm time with him and praise his good behaviour. A trip to a favourite park or to the cinema can really defuse the tension and it is also a chance to talk about any worries he has.
  3. Getting the balance between stepping in or holding back is tricky. At the moment we step in to separate them a lot as Baby F is still so vulnerable, but as he turns into a toddler I think we will start to watch and let them learn how to negotiate their disagreements.
  4. As a parent I often feel like a coach and I think it’s important to explain why it is wrong to hit his brother or take his toys, rather than simply telling Little B off. For a three year old this all needs to be kept brief and using simple language of course, but I think helping him to talk about his feelings and the consequences of his actions is the first step to developing his empathy and self-control.
  5. Getting Little B involved in caring for his baby brother as much as possible can help build bonds and defuse frustration; by letting him help with changing a nappy (wee only), bathing (closely supervised), or reading to him (“Say the words Daddy!”)
  6. Finally, we always aim to set a good example by facing up to the daily squabbles calmly and constructively and praising either brother (mainly Little B for now) when we see them being kind, like sharing a toy or telling us something has happened.

Overall, as the boys get older, I want us to avoid courtroom style situations where we try to pinpoint who started the fight. House rules can help as long as they are few and easy to remember, for example no hitting, no taking toys, no nasty name-calling. Little B knows that any hitting Baby F means he loses a favourite toy for the rest of the day!

Will Siblings Ever Stop Fighting?

I doubt a day will come when permanent peace breaks out in our house, but I do hope that as our boys grow they do find a way to be friends some of the time and perhaps even play together without a parent referee constantly watching over them.

We’ve seen flashes of love for his baby brother. It’s heart-melting when he asks to cuddle him or ‘stroke his head’. And when they are apart Little B is constantly talking about his little brother to anyone who will listen.

I know the worst cases of sibling rivalry can result in brothers and sisters not speaking to each other for years, and that must be terribly painful for the whole family. I’m thankful that in our family there have been no major falling out and if our boys’ relationship turns out like Mrs B’s close bond with her siblings I will be very happy indeed.

And look, there are sometimes moments like this to give us hope!


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4 replies »

  1. This is such a great post. So honest and with such great advice from your experiences. So far we have been pretty lucky with the boys, they both adore each other. But there are the other moments when it’s the big one moaning about the baby. Or as we have brought his old toys out for Oscar to play with he’s like, they are my toys! So, very minimal compared to your boys but equally it’s good to read a post like this and be in the know with what could happen in the future and how to deal with it. Thanks for linking up with #TwinklyTuesday

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  2. Aww that pic is adorable!! Sounds tough, I have no experience of it but it’s something I worry about if we have another. A lot of my friends have older girls and it’s been ok, so I’m hoping my daughter will be ok!! #TwinklyTuesday

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    • Thanks Susie. It does seem to be a brothers thing. A friend came over with her three year old son and four month old baby girl and he barely acknowledged she existed. At that age our eldest was caught trying to sit on the baby. Eyes. Head. Back. Of.

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