“I'm going to take a quick shower," I explained to my four-year-old.
I rarely shower during the day when both our boys are awake to spare myself the anxiety of wondering what sort of mischief is going on in my absence. But there was no way around it this time. I was covered in the germy ick of the stomach bug that was making its way through the family. I couldn't put it off any longer.
“But I don't think I know how to keep little brother safe on my own," he replied.
I was thankful for his honesty and his exceptional verbal skills. He could have whined, argued and negotiated. Instead he told me how he felt. If only all our interactions could be so simple.
“I can see how that would make you feel nervous," I reassured him. “Stay right here in this part of the house with the gate closed, I'm sure he'll be okay. I'll turn on a show for you to watch and I'll only be a few minutes." He nodded in agreement and I seized the precious few moments to prioritize my own needs.
The cleansing waters also brought a moment of clarity, a refreshing perspective about siblings and parenting.
I thought back to the times when I've needed to resolve conflict between big and little brothers. As I navigated my way through our first year with two boys, I thought giving them time to spend together without direct supervision for just a few minutes at a time would strengthen their bond.
However, every time I was out of sight, I found myself scrambling back a moment later to attend to little brother's crying and an expression of guilt from big brother. I became frustrated and irritated, expressing my disappointment in big brother's actions and reminding him (again!) to be gentle.
From my perspective, the misbehavior seemed like a cry for attention, acting out in aggression and jealousy. I knew my four-year-old wanted to be gentle and enjoyed having a little brother. I couldn't understand why this kept happening.
Then I discovered the work of Janet Lansbury, author of Elevating Childcare and No Bad Kids, and host of podcast, Unruffled. Her practical parenting advice, based on the theories of Magda Gerber, involves respectfully acknowledging the feelings behind a child's behavior, and understanding acting out as a cry for help.
I thought I was doing this in addressing my older son's need for my love and attention and his feelings of jealousy toward his little brother. What I didn't realize was that I'd been misinterpreting nervousness and anxiety as jealousy. Because he told me, “I don't think I can keep brother safe by myself," I realized his actions to call me back into the room when left alone with his brother were an attempt to ask for assistance, not to demand my attention.
He knows babies are not self-sufficient, can get into dangerous household items, and can get hurt. It dawned on me that he wants very badly to keep his brother safe from harm but he is just little himself and can't bear the weight of that responsibility.
I'll add a disclaimer that I would never leave them unattended for more than a minute or two while I switched a load of laundry or refilled my coffee. My adult mind thought this was a reasonable amount of time. In his mind, I realized, it felt far too long. The only solution he could see was to do something to get his brother to cry, which would then bring me running back to join them.
He felt the same way being left alone with his little brother as I usually did when I attempted to shower at home alone with them during the day. He was anxious. When I addressed his anxiousness with empathy and reassured him I felt little brother would be safe, he was able to rest in knowing they would be okay and I would only be out of sight for a short time.
While any sibling relationship will experience resentment, disappointment and envy, and I'm sure some of those emotions also contributed to my son's aggression.
However, taking tips from parenting experts like Janet Lansbury and books like Siblings Without Rivalry, we can address emotions empathetically and help our children build their own relationships.
1. Respect boundaries
Having a sibling can mean having a companion, confidant and advocate. It can also mean having someone who is always around when you'd rather have them somewhere else. When we respect our children's feelings, keeping them separated from their siblings when their actions tell us they can't handle the relationship at the time, we model how to set respectful boundaries for themselves as they grow up.
2. Don't force sharing
Experts point out that when young siblings are adjusting to their new relationship, the baby doesn't actually care that much when the older one takes away her toys. If the older sibling is given the opportunity to “claim his territory," so to speak, initially, he will feel less threatened as the relationship develops.
3. Focus on feelings
Writer, speaker, and childhood development professional, Amanda, at Not Just Cute recommends using the acronym CARE: Cause, Action, Reaction, Expectation, to guide parents through helping children manage challenging behavior. By understanding the root cause of sibling squabbles, we can avoid placing blame and inflicting guilt and judgement on one child or the other.
4. Comparison is the thief of joy
Adults and children alike feel worse about themselves when compared to others. Especially put in a situation where a child feels they are vying for parental attention or affection, comparing siblings can be especially damaging. The author of Siblings Without Rivalry encourages parents to observe and describe a situation from a position of neutrality, being careful not to compare the behavior of one sibling to another.
5. Fair does not mean equal
That “fair" actually means that everyone gets what they need, not that they get the same thing or what they want, can be a difficult concept for children. But the earlier it's introduced, the easier it will become engrained in their expectations of family relationships. Babies need different forms of love and attention than toddlers and preschoolers. Reminding older siblings that you're there to help meet everyone's needs and pointing out their differences with those needs can keep jealous feelings at bay.
Sibling relationships can be difficult at any stage. Every phase of childhood and development can pose new challenges, but when we let go of our desire to control our children's actions and interactions, we give them the freedom to learn constructive problem-solving and conflict resolution. If you're still in the trenches of siblings adjusting to their new relationship, take heart, I'm right there with you. Emotions still run high, and since our little brother isn't even verbal yet, our boys lack the communication component for building a relationship.
Then I hear the baby giggle at his brother's silly faces and am assured that we're on the right track. Using these expert tips and handling situations with empathy has cut way back on aggressive behavior and jealousy. So, with a little time and a lot of effort, I'd say this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.