Dear Miss Faith,
I have a 9 month old who has just started really crawling and getting all up in her older sister’s business. My 2.5 year old has started being really possessive of toys. I try to keep the baby from grabbing things from her when I can, but short of putting baby in a playpen all day I’m not really sure what to do!
Sibling interactions can be a challenge. We want to set our children up to be friends for life, but it can seem baffling how to do it in practice. Then people tell you that sibling fights are “normal,” and you wonder if you just have unrealistic expectations? As a mixed-age care provider, I had lots and lots of sibling pairs in my care, and I’m here to tell you that getting along is a skill, and one that children can absolutely learn. If you want to work more deeply on helping your children interact graciously, sign up for my Tele-Class, Joyful Days with Toddler & Preschoolers. In the meantime, here are some ideas for helping your toddler and your crawler get along:
The New Baby
When the younger child is a tiny baby, the responsibility of sibling interactions falls entirely on the older child: she must touch gently, stop if the baby fusses etc. etc. As a parent you supervise these interactions closely, and if anything looks dicey, you come in a swoops the baby away. Once the baby starts to crawl, however, things shift (often dramatically) but there are often no clear guidelines for the older child. She knows she mustn’t hit, but she’s at a loss of what she CAN do. So if she’s building a tower of blocks and the baby starts crawling toward them, perhaps she yells as loud as she can. At which point and mom usually comes in and swoops the baby away. This becomes the new “way” things work, then: the baby gets more and more mobile, and the older child gets more and more possessive and the wailing more vocal. And mom becomes more and more ragged, running interference between the two and trying to keep them apart.
Teach Your Toddler to Be a Savvy Older Brother or Sister
There is a better way than being the only solution your children have; instead, you can teach them how to interact without you (yes, even when your little one is only a crawler). This happens in two steps.
First, teach your older child to ask for your help in a way that makes you want to say yes, instead of just shrieking. You can give them a phrase to say, either a “mom, will you help Joshua move away?” a simpler, “Help Joshua, please,” or you might come up with a code phrase that works for your family. You could even teach your child to say, “Mom, break the cycle!” As long as you both know what is meant, and it makes you want to help, that’ll work.
Next, help the older child learn to distract the baby herself, instead of depending on you to do it. When she sees the baby coming, have her pick up a toy that she doesn’t want, and start playing with it in front of the baby. Have her lead the baby away from her play space with the toy, then give it to him. Wait till he’s settled, then tiptoe back to her older-kid games.
Both of these skills will take quite a bit of help and guidance on your part to establish as habits, but it’s well worth it. It’s worth it because you’re laying the groundwork for your children’s future interactions. It’s worth it because there’s a lot less shrieking, a lot less feeling put-upon, both on your part and your older child’s part.
As the baby gets older, he may start to be less easy to distract as he wants nothing more than to be part of whatever your older child is doing. You see him crawling over to your daughter, she asks for help right away. “Mom, help please!” You’ve been doing this for awhile, so you’re pleased that her initial reaction is no longer yelling, but you remind her: “Try leading him away with a fun toy to give him.” Perhaps she looks around at a loss, so you give her a suggestion: “Maybe the toy car?” She picks it up and distracts him by playing with it and leading him away, then she hands it over for him to play with, just like you guys have practiced in the past. But as soon as she goes back to her games, he starts making a bee-line for her again. She distracts him once more, but he’s not very interested in being distracted. You can see that your daughter is getting frustrated. You remind her that she can ask for help, and give her the words to use: “Wow, he can’t be distracted, huh? If you still need, you can ask: ‘Mom, will you distract the baby, please?’” She repeats after you, and you reply, “Yes, I’d be happy to help. Come on, little guy,” and you pick him up and take him into the kitchen. Eventually, your daughter will be able to do it by herself, being successful much of the time, and asking for help when she really needs it. Good luck!
Warmly, ~Miss Faith
Looking for parenting inspiration? The next Tele-Class, Joyful Days with Toddlers & Preschoolers, starts October 19th, 2014.