Development FAQ: 24+ months – Sibling Rivalry

My toddler son of 2.5yrs is jealous of his baby sister.

We have a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, and a nine-month-old baby girl. From about two weeks after the baby was born, our little boy has been desperately jealous and won’t allow me to pay any attention to the baby. It’s becoming a real problem and I’m very worried about it. Do you have any advice?

Your son has to realise that his behaviour towards his sister is unacceptable. He needs to know that every time he hurts her, takes her toys away or will not allow her time with you, you will respond by removing him from the room and take him to a place for ‘time-out’. When you tell him that his behaviour is unacceptable, get down to his eye-level and hold his hands so he has to look at you. Use a firm, authoritive voice so he understands that you mean what you say. This does not need to be a shout but it must be firm.

‘Time out’ should be short – about five minutes is long enough – but accept the fact you may have to remove him many, many times to begin with until he realises that you mean what you say. As a nanny I dealt with a two-year-old girl who would push her newly sitting brother over when she thought I was not looking. I would tell her she was not to do this and put her over the stair gate which stood between the playroom and hall. As soon as she had calmed down and agreed to behave, she was allowed back in. We then continued the day without commenting about her behaviour until she realised it was not worth being excluded and stopped. It may not always be convenient to remove your son but you have to be consistent in order for him to get your message.

While you must exclude your son each time he misbehaves, it’s important to continue praising him for everything he does well, even the smallest action, to build up his self-esteem and help him realise you do love him although you do not accept his behaviour towards his sister. Is it possible to include him in small jobs to help you? Can he fetch small items for you, such as nappies and clean clothes? Most children of this age like to feel they are helping. Thank him when he brings you something, but keep the praise short and not over the top. Comment on how helpful he is. Thank him for eating his lunch nicely or playing with his cars for five minutes without demanding attention. All this positive reaction will help you both feel better.

If you feel your son is about to snatch a toy from his sister, step in and ask him to choose her something else to play with so she may give him the one he wants. Sharing is a concept quite hard for small children to comprehend. Point out how many of his toys are too old for his sister, how she cannot build with Duplo yet or make carparks for cars, so she needs toys she can cope with. I have found it easier to have a special bag for the ‘baby’ toys, with the older child’s separated out into several containers, each designated a purpose. Now that your daughter is crawling, she will be able to get into his toys and this can often be a source of frustration for the older sibling. If you have spent half an hour lining up your cars only for your sister to come crawling in and scatter them, you are bound to get cross and possibly lash out. Can you find a place that becomes his safe zone? When I encountered this problem as a nanny, I put my older charge inside a large wooden playpen with her small table and chair. Here she could happily draw, play with Play-Doh or her small play people while her sister could crawl around outside. Respect is a two-way process. You are showing your son that you respect his need for space to play without being interrupted in return for him respecting his sister’s need to crawl around.

Have a look at the social life your son has outside the home. If he doesn’t attend nursery or play group, consider finding him somewhere to go even for just two mornings or afternoons a week. He will learn how to give and take and share amongst his own peer group. Having friends around for play dates also helps.

Time alone with your son is important and I’d advise you to have a regular time each day to devote to him. Small children thrive on routine. As a nanny to two young children, I made the half hour after her baby brother had gone down for his midday nap Henrietta’s special time when we would play a game or do some cooking or craft work together. Then, when she went up for her midday nap, I would catch up on the chores. She grew to love this time and would ask me what we were going to do when I arrived in the morning. It is worth keeping special games and activities especially for this time. If bedtimes are at the same time, try giving your son another ten minutes up after his sister is down. Perhaps he can have time alone with his father at the weekends. It can make him feel that being a big brother has its good side. A lot of parents expect their children to be together all the time but splitting them up can work well. Sometimes you could take him out alone and let your husband have time with his daughter. It is important that she too has some undivided time with you.

Your son will realise that you will not accept certain aspects of his behaviour if you are consistent and firm with him. He will soon come to understand that it is better to behave well and be rewarded with your attention. Jealousy can be a problem for years but it is feeling we all need to learn how to control, and with your help, your son will.