How to Soothe Sibling Rivalry in 3 Seconds

Sibling rivalry is not something I had envisioned when I gave birth to my second child. All I could think of was that my children will deeply and profoundly love each other and we will all live happily ever after. What I did not consider at all was that my oldest, who was not even 4 at the time, would have an incredibly strong reaction that very much resembled deep grief – and acted out accordingly; also, my baby girl became quite jealous herself as she became more aware of what was happening around her. We are now one year away from all those troubles and I can safely say that they are behind us. My kids still get competitive with each other occasionally, but now I know what to do. I sort of stumbled into it in my darkest hours, when I was severely sleep deprived and at my wits’ end.

A Boy Not Yet 4 Gets a Baby Sister

My first born was the light of my life before his sister came. I had him late in life, when I was 38 (I wrote about 40 reasons why being a mom over 40 is amazing). Which is to say that I waited a very long time for him. And wanted him. And longed for him. Being a mother was one of my most cherished dreams. So when I finally had him in my arms I poured myself over him with all of my heart and soul.

My boy relished the attention. We always had a wonderful relationship and got along famously well. He acted out sometimes, sure, but I knew when to be firm and when to hug, when to scold and set limits and when to let lose and play freely whatever game he wanted to play.

For his father and I, my son was the center of the universe. He knew it, too! He had no desire for mixing it with other kids and was known in all of our circles as “the shy kid”. I suspected he was not so much shy, as not very much in need of other people. He was super happy with his home life and his world.

And then SHE came: a screaming, crying, arms-flapping little thing, all red and squishy and fragile.

The first shock came when I had to go in the hospital to give birth to her. We explained the best we could that he had to go to his aunt’s house overnight (his first sleepover) and that we did not know how long it was going to take but that we would talk on the phone.

I saw him almost 24 hours after, at the hospital. I could not get out of bed because the anesthesiologist had messed up my epidural and pierced the membrane around my spine. That caused severe headaches and vomiting as soon as I stood up. I was forced to stay in bed – I could not take care of my daughter very much and the nurses had to change her and bring her to my bed so I could nurse her.

It was a horrible time. My son had never seen me like that and he had never been inside a hospital before. He went home with his dad only and came back the next day thinking first of us and coming back.

In the seven days I was in the hospital I caught a glimpse of his small face, as his dad was carrying him away and out of the room, to make way for the nurses and the army of doctors who came to consult me after giving birth and the botched epidural. I saw him five years older and with a kind of worry painted on his face that pained my heart.

In the turmoil of those first few days and between the pain, trying to take care of my girl, the raging hormones and the sheer exhaustion, I had little time to stop and think about anything. I was in full emergency mode. In fact, it lasted a while.

Three days after I gave birth, they gave me another epidural to fix the first one. Long story short, they inject some blood from your arm, the blood coagulates and plugs the leak. It worked. Ten minutes after I was a different person.

At last, I could pick up my son – and my daughter. I could hug them and kiss them and rock them. The expression of worry on my son’s face diminished. Somewhat. It did not go away completely. Not by a long shot.

So we all came home at last and started our new life. I slept in the baby’s room for the first three months because she was underweight and she needed to eat / breastfeed every three hours.

My son, who had been sleeping peacefully through the night since a while, started to wake up. Two, three, five, six times a night. He heard the baby crying. All the time. I would try to tuck him back into bed and he refused. He kept crawling back into mine, in his sister’s bedroom and I was too tired to fight it.

During the day he started acting out. He, my sweet boy, my reasonable, well-behaved and well-adjusted son, began doing things that were “out of character”. He pushed things to the floor. He dirtied others. He wiped his nose on the furniture. He gave me a really hard time – especially when he could drag things and get more time. For him. It didn’t matter that what he got was scolding and the exhausted rants of his wiped out mother… as long as the attention was, for a little while, back on him.

Now I can talk about it with calm and understanding and it is obvious why he was doing all that. But at the time, at my wits’ end, I just wanted him to stop. I demanded of him, even if only in my head, that he grew up immediately and understood that I was tired. That there was now a baby, who was his sister and who needed him to “be good”. I know… it sounds crazy. But I was… did I say it? Wiped out.

What I remember from those days was that I could not remember in the afternoon what I had done in the morning. I became frightened to drive the car because I thought I might fall asleep behind the wheel.

I also became frightened by my own thoughts. I was irritable and impatient. I had no more to give. Or so I thought.

I am not proud of it now but I will say it… I snapped at my son more than a few times. I explained, I pleaded, I reasoned and I begged. Please, go to sleep so I can get a little bit of sleep. Please, be reasonable because you are a big brother now. Please, mama needs to take care of the baby now…

He did not fall completely through the cracks. I was spending whatever free time I had available with him. When his sister was taking a nap, I would try to do something with him, even if it was something very small like eating a sandwich together or a little bigger like watching a movie. All that helped. But it wasn’t enough.

sibling rivalry how to end sibling rivalry in 3 secondsThe Sibling Rivalry Straw that Made the Sibling Camels Stronger

Three months into our new life together we still had not found a rhythm. My baby girl was doing better though and she started sleeping a little longer. I am a very lucky mother: both of my kids slept through the night very early in their life.

With that, I got a little bit more energy back. The feeding times spread out a little bit too. That helped. It just became a little easier.

The mental haze started to lift. The pain, the fatigue, the impatience, irritability and background anger that I had seemed to dissipate.

It did not happen all of a sudden… it was more of a process of hearing myself shout at my boy and seeing his face change, because his mama had never done it like that before. It was the fights I had with him and the wide eyes of my baby who watched all that with eyes that were more and more aware.

They both pulled at me though with all their strength and the other side of sibling rivalry that is less talked about is the mother guilt for not being able to tend to all children at the same time.

It’s really hard when siblings fight for attention. Which one do you go to first? Babies have a little bit of an advantage though: they really do need to be taken care of. They can’t take care of themselves at all. So the older ones feel cheated.

Of course, it was not all jealousy and fighting for attention. There were plenty of wonderful moments when my children started discovering each other and our new life together. My boy played with his sister with great joy and started to ask to have her close to him. He would rejoice for her small victories. And she turned her head around like a baby owl, looking for him and clearly seeing him, even when she was a few weeks old.

My boy had changed him. Or so I thought. I watched, horrified, as he kept doing things he had never done before. My sweet boy was gone and, in his place, I had a bundle of fears and anxieties that acted out at the first opportunity.

But then there were the wonderful moments of tenderness… perhaps it was this contrast that reminded me of something that I had always known but that I had lost sight of in the sweeping change of having a second child:

kids need, first and foremost, to KNOW that they are loved.

They need to be told. They need to be shown. Every single day. They have to feel it in their bodies, unequivocally expressed and freely given. No, it’s not enough to feel it. You have to say it. You have to scoop them up and tickle them. You have to tell them how wonderful they are and that they are the miracle of your life.

I knew all that. I knew it from being a mother, a daughter and from working with kids as a teacher. You could see the ones who had that KNOWLEDGE OF BEING LOVE from the ones who did not. It shows on their faces, on the way they walk and talk and everything they do. It shows in their tantrums.

The ones who act out are NEVER SURE that they are being loved.

I knew all that. So why did I stop showing it to my son?!

In my hormonal haze, exhaustion and shock of an enormous life change, I somehow got lost. I don’t really know. I have no clear explanation for it. I just… didn’t realize it. Didn’t stop to think about it.

But when the thought came… I recognized it as good medicine. As something guardian angels send.

Ending Sibling Rivalry in 3 Seconds

I asked myself: How can I show my son that I love him in such a way that he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, with all his body, that he is loved – and safe from ever losing that love?

The most obvious way was just telling him. So I told him. In the beginning I said it all the time. I mean… all the time. Every ten minutes. I would jump behind him and whisper “I love you!” in his ear. If he was reading something, I’d put my head on the pages and goof off and say “Hey, mama loves you!”. When he was eating, I’d rub his back and say “Monkey, you are mama’s best gift!”. Whatever came to me in the moment. I did not hold anything back.

How long do you think it took me to say one of those things? Well, yes, about 3 seconds.

Did that end sibling rivalry?

Well, let me tell you this: from the very first time I actually told my son CONSCIOUSLY that I love him (as opposed to mumbling it just to pacify him), he stopped throwing tantrums. He calmed down. The worried look on his face began to soften around the edges.

After three days of this “regimen”, he decided on his own to give up the night diaper (he was clean during the day but still had diapers at night).

After a week, he went back to normal. Well, a new normal. But this time he seemed eager to incorporate the new addition to the family. He was curious about her and not so shaken when he saw her.

And now? A year later?

This is still the best method I have for calming down any sibling rivalry flares that appear occasionally: I just put my arms around my kid(s) and say “I love you”. I get goofy and say “I love you”. I surprise them with my signs of affection and lavish it on them. And they soak it up. They love it. And it calms them down. Instantly.

They get along extremely well. Sure, they have their little fights. They still get jealous. Now I have to mediate battles for toys and territory in the house. But it is very different now from those early days when I was exasperated and forgot my deep knowing: now there is a naturalness to it all that doesn’t sting. Nobody gets hurt. There are rarely any tantrums – although there are occasional screams about who took whose stuff. It’s all good and a natural part of growing up.

So tell your kids that you love them. Together and separately. And if you’re ever in a jam with them, try this method for a week: lavish them with love, show it to them in every possible way. No, not by buying them stuff or letting them do whatever they want. That’s not love. I mean telling them, caressing them, playing with them… giving them your time and your loving attention.

The quickest version of that takes only about three seconds: look them in the eye and say “I love you”. They will blossom and thrive and absolutely stop fighting. You will see.


Maria Ellis

Maria Ellis writes and illustrates books for children of all ages. She has a boy and a girl who keep her busy, inspired and incredibly happy. A former English teacher, she now writes, illustrates and runs Choupicos Press, whenever her kids are a) asleep, b) at school, c) otherwise occupied. She blogs about parenting, education and being a mom over 40.

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