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Early Childhood Sibling Rivalry

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

Practical advice to a mother with two young children.

Dear Rebbetzin,

I have two children -- my first is 22 months and my second is 7 months. At first my older daughter hardly noticed my younger daughter, but now she sometimes displays acts of jealousy. For example, sometimes while she is playing with the baby and making her laugh, she will suddenly hit the baby. I'm not sure how to react to this, and I would appreciate some advice.
Thank you.

Rebbetzin Feige responds:

My dear reader,

Your concern is quite understandable. Fortunately, there is no need to agonize over the scenario you described. Early childhood sibling rivalry is very common and developmentally appropriate for the ages of your children. Your eldest daughter being your first child enjoyed an almost idolized place in your mind. And to see her respond to her sister in a less than desirable way is disconcerting.

Now along comes this interloper who doesn't go away, and what's more, gets cuter and invites more attention away from her everyday.

To best appreciate where she is coming from you need to understand her perception of reality. Until the arrival of her sister, her status was one of exclusivity. She was the one and only, with all the attention of her parents lavished on her alone. Now along comes this interloper who doesn't go away, and what's more, gets cuter and invites more attention away from her everyday.

The Talmud comments that no two people can wear one crown. Your eldest is feeling that her crown is being threatened. She is at risk of not reigning supreme. Understandably, this is not a good feeling and her attempt to defend her territory is inevitable and completely normal. Rest assured that this situation does not imply in any which way that you are deficient in your mothering skills or that your love when extended to both children is lacking. It is merely a necessary passage.

A compelling interpretation of your child's perception of reality with the new arrival on the scene is what to women would be comparable to a husband bringing home a new wife with the expectation that this new darling creature would be enthusiastically welcomed and embraced as the new beneficiary of shared love and attention. Needless to say, even a seasoned adult would be less than thrilled at the prospect.

The transition for your child, while painful, is one of those 'necessary losses'. My brother-in-law, a psychiatrist, once noted that the valuable but painful lessons in life are most effectively and best learned in the loving and supportive context of the family. It is inevitable that when your child comes out into the world, she will have to share center stage in life with many others. Much as we might like, life does not allow us, nor would it be in our ultimate best interest, to exclusively occupy the center of the universe. There is no better place to adjust to what might appear as this harsh, existential reality than within the home, where the care and affection of parents in a sense, eases the blow by lovingly teaching the values that make it all the more palatable.

Some practical suggestions offered by expert mothers I consulted are:

  • A child under the age of two must always be watched and not allowed to be in the company of the baby alone and unsupervised. A child of two cannot be expected to exercise self-control. Since the response to the new baby will invariably be, as you described it, a love tinged by resentment, it may well be the resentment will be expressed in injurious ways, such as biting and hitting etc.

  • A playpen, from where the older child can get out if she chooses, laden with the older child's favorite toys, i.e. puzzles, building blocks etc. and perhaps even covered with her favorite sheet, might work as her 'kingdom' -- as her special place to play while Mommy is attending to the baby. This might even provide Mommy with a safe moment to leave the baby to get something if necessary.

  • Supply the older child with a doll or stuffed animal, with attending crib, changing pad and stroller to care for simultaneously as Mom nurses and feeds the baby. Get as much mileage out of it, by making it a venue for instruction. If the child handles the doll or stuffed animal too roughly, shaking or throwing it vigorously etc, very calmly point out that this is not the way we do it. We care for a baby by holding it gently, patting it on the back, making nice and kissing it.

  • When feeding and attending to the baby, sing a song with the older child, read or tell her a story, play a game, or whatever is age appropriate. Take every opportunity of point out that she is 'the one', the one who is old enough to do all these wonderful things, and when baby grows up perhaps she will also be able to do them.

  • You might allow your child to sit down and with your assistance briefly hold the baby and make nice etc., but when you see her beginning to get a bit rough, take the baby and assure her that tomorrow we will do it again.

  • Give your older child as much personal attention as you can and be sure to express your love for her. Remind her that the baby loves her so much and is lucky to have such a wonderful big sister.

A calm, watchful response is the desirable approach. Try not to let your disappointments evoke anger. In anger you are almost certain to overreact and your daughter will learn to engage in negative behavior to provoke you in order to get your attention, which in turn will make you angrier, and you will have started the cycle spinning.

Stay calm. Remember that this is all part of the agony and ecstasy of raising children. One of my daughters claims that commensurate with the sibling rivalry of their youth is the great love and admiration they have for each other as adults. In her opinion it is still a combination of love and resentment -- love for the remarkable people their siblings are, and resentment of herself for coming up short. She insists that among the families she has observed, those who had little discernable rivalry as youngsters, ultimately, had an apathetic attitude towards each other as adults (This has not been, to the best of my knowledge, confirmed by official studies).

As conscientious and devoted mothers, all we can do is try our best. Our children are our most sacred trust -- diamonds in the rough -- to be polished in order to uncover their own personal and individual brilliance, each one and special in his own right. May God bless you with the requisite patience, strength and insight. And may your children give you great joy.


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