During a visit from a mom and her two-year-old, I gave the little boy a child’s rocking chair I had rescued from my attic. I also gave the mom who was pregnant, a tiny rocking chair which we jokingly said would be for the new baby. With that, the two-year-old pushed himself into the little chair – too small for him – saying, “No, it’s mine.”
A young boy once told me that his parents explained having a second child by telling him that he was so wonderful it made them want to have another one. He said he never believed them because if he was so wonderful why did they need another one? This seems to sum up the feelings of older siblings toward younger ones. Parents often report their children telling them after the birth of a second child to throw the baby out.
Parents may have a hard time hearing such feelings expressed by their first-born, as if they are to blame for having a second, or are at fault for any difficulty a child is having with a sibling. When pregnant with a second, mothers express concern about taking attention away from the first child, and wonder if they will be able to care for the second as they do the first.
Two children can seem more than twice as many as one. With age and developmental differences between the two, caretaking can present challenges. Next steps such as toilet training, giving up a bottle, or moving from crib to bed may be close in time to the arrival of a sibling, provoking in the older child what may seem like regression – demanding the bottle again, or toileting “accidents.”
Angry feelings toward a younger sibling may become more acute and expressed more directly as a new baby becomes more of a presence, smiling and becoming more physically mobile. That’s when parents become concerned about the older child’s aggressive behavior toward the younger one, such as taking toys away, pushing and acting “mean”. Parents seek to protect the younger one, which can end up seeming to always take the younger one’s side, or turning the older one into the victim who always gets blamed.
At times we have to intervene physically to keep one child from hurting another. But as with other kinds of behavior we don’t like, it is helpful to think about what it means. The fact is that children compete to be the favored one, to get the most attention from Mom and Dad. That is what the rivalry is about.
Parents often want to prove how much attention they actually do give a particular child. But the feelings of children may have little to do with reality, and they express their anger or hostile feelings through their behavior. We can help them with negative behavior by accepting that there is nothing bad about the feeling. Reproaching or punishing them for the behavior without acknowledging and accepting the feeling behind it, gives them the message that the feeling, too, is bad. Yet feelings are acceptable – it’s the behavior that is not.
It is not acceptable to hit your little brother even when you hate him. But children often need help in controlling their impulses when they are angry. If one child is having particular difficulty, he needs help from you to be taken out of the situation. The younger child is not always the innocent victim. But just as he may need comforting, the older child needs your understanding and help.
Angry feelings are part of close relationships. It is the behavior children must learn to control.