T H E T H E R A P I S T  D I R E C T O R Y  O F  S A N D I E G O


by Nonie Levi, M.A., MFT
Marriage and Family Therapist
Nonie Levi, San Diego Parenting Coach

I have had many clients share about their sibling relationships. Some are very close to their siblings, consider them close friends and valuable support systems. Others have conflictual or even severed relationships with their siblings. Most parents want their children to get along and have strong positive bonds but may be unsure how they can help to foster those relationships. Here are some tips on how to encourage your children to connect with each other in healthy and positive ways.

First let us explore the first time they meet. For many the second child arrives when the first is still a young child. Some of the first things you might notice after the “honeymoon period” is over is the older sibling hugging the baby too hard, pinching or hitting them. They also might say things like “Take the baby back!” or “She’s a stupid baby” or “I hate him.” These are normal feelings of anger declared by the older sibling, but they are just being expressed in inappropriate ways. Many parents are uncomfortable with their child’s strong negative feelings and tell the children not to talk that way or punish them for the negative behaviors. Parents then lose a valuable opportunity to first validate their child’s  feelings and then to teach them more appropriate ways to express their anger and frustration.

When older siblings share negative feelings through words or actions validate their frustrations and anger, i.e., “It sounds like you’re really angry” or “It looks like you’re mad.” Let them know you understand it is hard for them to now share their parent’s love, attention and time. When they have calmed down and have felt heard, then teach them appropriate phrases to say or actions they can take to express their negative emotions in a less hurtful way.

Other suggestions to help the transition of the new baby are to: 1. Find ways for the older sibling to feel helpful with the younger one. 2. Have each parent take special one-on-one time with the eldest.

The other area that is difficult for parents to handle is sibling conflict. Once the second child is old enough to crawl and explore, they love to get into their older sibling’s toys which create conflict. The parent usually responds by punishing the oldest and coddling the youngest. When  the parent responds this way, they have triangled themselves into the sibling’s relationship. The parent takes responsibility for managing the sibling’s conflict instead of teaching them the skills to work it out themselves. Even siblings as young as 15 months and three years old can be shown basic conflict resolution skills. Here is one way to handle conflict.

Buy two puppets, let the children pick them out. Use these puppets only during times of conflict. Encourage the children to express how they feel and what they want. When they have a conflict, you speak through the puppet for the youngest, using a child’s voice, i.e., “I’m mad when you hit me, I want you to be kind.” Then let the older child use their puppet to share, “I am mad when you knock down my blocks, don’t do that.” This is the very beginning of you teaching your children to work things out themselves. Continue using this technique for all their conflicts. When the younger child gains more verbal skills then let them do the talking.

Some other brief tips to promote sibling harmony:
· Avoid comparing your children, even positive comparisons. It does not create closeness between siblings but sets them up to compete with each other.
· Treat each child according to what they need vs. treating each child equally. Parents get pulled into thinking each child needs to be treated equally. At certain times you will be focused more on one child’s needs over another. Each child needs you in different ways at different times.
· Acknowledge each child for their uniqueness and tell them what you appreciate about them.
· Avoid labeling your children “good one,” “cooperative one,” “bossy one.” This will lock children into possible fixed roles and doesn’t encourage them to grow and change. Your child may try on many hats while developing a sense of whom they are and what they can be.

Remember the sibling relationship is lifelong and it will have its ups and downs. The best gift you can give them is to teach them healthy ways to solve their disagreements.

For more information about Nonie Levi, Marriage & Family Therapist and Parenting Coach,
go to: Nonie Levi, M.A., MFT

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