Parents understandably want their children to love each other. They want them care about each other and hopefully learn healthy ways of working through differences. Witnessing acts of kindness between siblings is incredibly heart-melting for parents. Sibling struggles, on the other hand, are difficult to deal with.
When an older child directs their frustration at their younger, more vulnerable, sibling this is particularly stressful. Not only can it test a parent’s patience, but also their feelings of warmth and affection for their child. Many parents have felt shocked at the things they’ve thought at these times. The words they’ve spoken and the harshness of their reactions to the child doing the hurting.
Although it’s easy to see the irony of reacting angrily towards a child whose unable to manage their urge to be aggressive towards their brother or sister, it’s also incredibly understandable to act from that reactive fight/flight response when one’s protective instinct is activated. The agony that parents can go through at these times can’t be underestimated. Such disharmony can evoke feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, resentment and overwhelm! Then throw into the mix, sleep deprivation, and tensions with one’s partner or relatives and it can all feel way too hard to deal with.
Look how you’ve upset your sister!
When a parent doesn’t manage to protect their younger child, they can find themselves using threats and punishments. Things that they might never have imagined they would resort to. It’s all too easy to lose empathy for the older child and to resent them for acting out.
If this is your current struggle, it’s hard. You might have already realised that appealing to your older child to care about how upsetting it is for their sibling or for you doesn’t usually work. Also that all forms of threats and punishments can only work temporarily and tend to increase resentment and sibling struggles in the long run.
What to do?
Often one of the missing pieces is that the child instigating the hurting is acting from feelings of stress and inner turmoil. This can’t be underestimated. They need a lot of help to become free of these very difficult emotions. The child needs to start seeing that you’re just as concerned about them as for the younger sibling. That you know how hard these situations are for them. Yes, even though they are clearly the instigator!
Counter-intuitive I know, yet without this element of maintaining connection while holding limits, all our talks, appeals and other strategies will likely just be experienced as a further rejection to a child whose already feeling a bit on the outside.
Parents can start to put this theory into practice by simply intervening with empathetic words. “Oh girls, I know this is so hard for you both.” Sometimes it won’t be this simple! But this is often the very first time that the instigator expresses genuine remorse for their actions. This is the feedback I receive a lot.
When a child feels repeatedly blamed for causing trouble, intense emotions of jealousy, anger, and resentment can make them defensive. It can make it impossible for them to open their heart towards their sibling.
The more a child feels blamed and pressurised to change, the more locked into defensiveness they become. And the more resentment towards their sibling. Especially without genuine emotional support and guidance about how to change.
The changes that a new sibling brings don’t just start at birth of course
We go through a lot of changes during pregnancy, and a lot of these changes are felt by our children. These changes can be extremely unsettling and cause a lot of insecurity. Parents often tell their child how great it’s going to be to have a little brother or sister. Yet that excitement can fall very flat as the day-to-day reality kicks in. Life then seems to revolve so much around the baby.
An older child can hear a lot of appeals to care about the baby’s needs. “Be quiet you’ll wake the baby”. “We can’t go to the park because I need to feed your brother and then put him to sleep”. “Be more patient, your little sister just wants to play with you”.
There are then more reasons for parents to get annoyed at the older child. The needs have gone through the roof! But the child can’t help noticing that the baby sibling never gets in trouble. They have become the focus of so much attention from parents, relatives, and even strangers! In our family it was definitely when our second child was born that was the biggest struggle for us all!
If a parent shows more sympathy towards their younger child, it can increase the older child’s resentment
Children need guidance about what they can do instead of taking their frustrations out on their sibling. Parent and child may need to problem solve about what might work better in these repeating difficult situations. An example might be: “This is tricky. You enjoy playing with your blocks but your little sister keeps knocking them over, which is very frustrating for you. Hmm… what can we do? Any ideas?”. Inviting a child’s contribution can give them a sense of power in a situation where they often feel powerless.
Suggestions by a parent (offered rather than enforced) can help an older child start to trust that solutions can be found. “Hmm… what do you think about playing with your blocks at the kitchen table where your sister can’t reach? That way you’d be closer to me as I cook. Do you think that might work?”. This tends to invite much more cooperation compared to being told to move their blocks with a tone of exasperation.
I remember very well how hard it was for my son when my second child was a baby. For all of us. In this post I write about that time. It was only when I managed to get back to a truly soft and compassionate heart towards HIS struggles, that his frustrations and anger could release.
Our point of power as parents lies in that moment between noticing that rising emotional charge and then responding to our child. To remain kind and effective, we need to keep developing our awareness of our reactions. Learning to witness and recognise them and as this awareness grows, we can eventually learn to manage that aggressive impulse. Instead taking a deep breath and choosing to speak with kindness. Thereby modelling that which we want our children to develop.
Other useful links on aggression in children and parents
The Peaceful Parent Suite member’s resource kit with videos, audio and articles
An audio download of the teleseminar by Genevieve and Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting gives parents lots of tips (and empathy!) for dealing with the anger that rises at such times. Members can go to the past teleseminar section to listen now.
An article on the same subject which discusses why parents are inclined to lose their cool and ways to prevent yelling at their child.
Also available on MP3 and free to members, this is a great resource for parents aiming to reduce stress levels for themselves and their children. It offers a simple guided relaxation, guaranteed to relieve some tension and is great for children trying to settle at bedtime. As well as lots of useful information about the parent’s journey of self-healing and equips you with self-regulation skills to help you manage your own frustration and stress.
Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parenting Instructor and coach, public speaker, human rights advocate, writer and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute. Check out her articles, Peaceful Parenting eCourses, forums and one-year Peaceful Parenting Instructor Training through this website or join over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent.