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Growing Families: Avoiding Sibling Rivalry

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Working toward avoiding sibling rivalry is really teaching a life skill. As your family grows, there are ways to prepare older children for the arrival of the newest addition and to get them through the toddler years when baby becomes a little explorer.

It is important to be truthful when preparing the older sibling for the arrival of a younger sibling. Try to avoid saying something that would be confusing like, "the baby will be so much fun to play with!" The baby won't be playing with anyone for a while. More helpful things to say might be, "We will need to be gentle with the baby's tiny little hands. I could use your help at bathtime. Would you like to wash her feet?" When baby comes, teach the older child how to hold the baby explaining how to support the head. Sit with them and read a story together. 

The older child could even help dress or bottle feed the baby depending on their age and ability. Don't choose busywork for them; children can tell when it doesn't matter. Children who help with jobs that really matter have a boost in self-esteem. In other cultures, a three year old might help herd goats with a sense of self-worth and contribution to the family. Helpful jobs in our culture might be sorting laundry, folding washclothes, etc. Just be sure not to redo their work in from of them as much as possible.

Giving the older child a plastic baby doll is an opportunity for them to interact with the new routines they are seeing. (This doll could even be a gift from the new brother/sister to their big sib given at the time of introduction after birth.) They could feed their doll while the baby is feeding. This goes for changing diapers, bathing, dressing, etc. Be sure to invite them into this process so they can mirror what you're doing and feel included in this new way of life. When feeding the baby, you could cuddle and read to the older sibling. The baby is hearing your voice and the older child gets special reading time together.

As the children get older and the little sibling becomes a toddler, be sure to make a space for the older child's things to go untouched. Make a special box or tray for their artwork which can be easily placed out of reach. Sibling rivalry may start when the little one destroys the older sibling's work and it seems that the parents don't care about it being messed up. Use a lid to build lego towers so that it can be picked up and moved elsewhere if needed. Toddlers don't understand ownership. The idea is to balance letting both children explore with healthy boundaries, learning to value everyone's work.

There are certain settings that are prime for playing together like in the sandbox or at bath time. If destruction starts to creep in with little wandering hands, make separate spaces or change activities. Don't always have the older child give something to the younger. Help the baby/toddler to give and share with their older sibling. If the older child then needs some alone time: 1. give them time to themselves safely without the baby around, 2. give them play time with a friend of their own age. It's tempting to put one or the other child in front of a screen to stop getting in the way. However, children need to learn by doing. A flat screen prevents their brains from develping as it would in a three dimensional world.

People will say that siblings always fight. No, it's a choice. It doesn't have to happen that way. Inevitably, there will be squabbles but a parent can intervene early stating: "In our family, we use our words to build up and not hurt. Can you take a few deep breaths and try to say what is happening calmly?" The hope is that the child will use these skills the rest of their life. This isn't a guarantee but it's a helpful start.