Coping with Toddler Sibling Rivalry

Parents should know what to look for to spot toddler sibling rivalry, because helping the older sibling deal with these feelings now helps create the foundation for a good lifelong relationship with the sibling. Toddlers have many mixed feelings during the introduction of siblings when a newborn is welcomed into the family. These feelings can be at the heart of toddler sibling rivalry. Toddlers are rarely able to express their conflicting feelings with words, so their behavior does it for them. 

Causes of Sibling Rivalry

Anxiety
There is a lot of excitement and anticipation in the family when a new baby is expected, and even more when the baby arrives. Young kids can sense the adults' excitement, and know something big is coming. There may be changes in the child's routine too, perhaps moving to a toddler bed instead of a crib, changing rooms and lots of talk about what's to come. Changes to routine and excitement can cause anxiety. Anxiety shows itself in many ways. Here are some possible signs of anxiety from changes:

  • sleeplessness
  • moodiness
  • anger
  • extra demands for attention
  • clinginess
  • regressive behavior such as bathroom accidents or baby talk

What can a parent do to ease anxiety? First, help the toddler express his feelings with words. Ask him if he has worries about the new baby that he'd like to talk about. Discuss feelings that he may be having, and give him attention. There are many good books that parents can read with their toddler that will help put these feelings into words. Being able to express the feelings and know that they are okay to have can help a toddler cope with them and move on. When the words take over, often the behaviors will stop or lessen in intensity.

Fear of Losing Love
The fear of losing parental love is especially common for first-born toddlers. These kids have had their parents' undivided attention all their lives. Now the idea of sharing it, or having to give some up, is disturbing. Attention-getting behavior is common, as is clinginess. Parents can reassure their child that there will always be enough love for her. Tell her that she'll always be important to you, and now she's going to be important to someone else as well: her new sibling. Involve her in "big helper" activities, such as folding and putting away baby clothes or diapers, or making a welcome sign. When the new baby comes, have her get you things and always praise her for being there. Both before and after the baby comes, be sure to schedule one-on-one time with your toddler to give undivided attention and make sure she knows she is special too.

Resentment
Although your toddler will love the new baby, he may also resent the baby's place in your life at the same time. The negative feeling of resentment can cause the toddler to feel guilty, making even more complex feelings to deal with. Always set boundaries and do your best to help your toddler talk it out. Let him know that it's okay to feel angry, but that it's not okay to hurt the baby and that anger should be expressed in words, no actions. Make sure that your toddler gets special attention and extra praise for positive behavior, which can help curb these feelings.

Confusion
Your toddler may not know how to be an older sibling. She may be shy or have unrealistic expectations about what the baby will be able to do. She may be expecting the baby to play with her or to be allowed to carry the baby around the house. Be sure to teach her how to be a big sister-ways to interact with the baby that are appropriate, and that will result in her getting those first smiles in a few weeks.

Suggest that she sing, read, talk to and show the baby things, rather than touching the baby or smothering the baby with kisses. Set boundaries for what is allowed and not allowed, such as holding the baby while supervised, or what is okay or not okay to give the baby. The more you can teach your toddler how to be a big sibling, the more she will grow into her role with pride.

Help with Sibling Rivalries
Managing a new baby and coping with a fussy toddler can be a serious challenge, but failing to meet the challenge can result in sibling rivalries that linger into adulthood.

During the first months that your new baby is home, she will need more attention than your toddler. Your toddler won't understand why, only that all the attention is going to the baby. Take time to explain what's happening, involve your toddler as much as possible and try to spend some quiet time together. Switching off baby care duties and toddler time with your partner will ensure that one parent isn't seen as unavailable or uninterested.

Remember that this is an ongoing process. As your children grow, sibling rivalries can spring up any time that one child feels neglected. Confront these feelings head-on, listening to your child and being responsive to her needs. Remind your children that there's no competition where your love is concerned, and you'll help to build strong relationships between everyone in the family.

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