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4 year old hitting little brother, Sibling Rivalry

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For about the past 6 months I have been having issues with my 4 year-old son (O) and his relationship with his almost 2 year-old brother (D). It took me by surprise because everything I had read about having a second child seemed to provide advice on jealousy issues between a toddler and a baby. We didn't have any of those issues when D was a baby so I thought we were in the clear.

However, as soon as D started walking and talking (he was a late walker) the problems began. For about the past month O has started hitting and:
D is trying to hand O one of his favorite books and drops it. O thinks he threw it so he hits him on the head
O tells me, "I'm not going to stop hitting D until he is dead."
O tells me, "I'm not ever going to play with D. Not even when he's 2. I am never going to play with him."
O sees D turning off a light switch and he wants to do it so he grabs him around the shoulders and knocks him down.
O seems to be giving D a hug but continues to squeeze until D starts crying and O won't stop even when we ask him to. (this happens a lot)
O for no reason charges at D and knocks him down before anyone can stop him. O is very territorial over certain books and toys and will pull them out of D's hands, which will in turn pull D down.

I find it difficult to find the right balance of rough-and-tumble play. For example, if O grabs D around the waist and tries to pull him down, is he doing this to hurt D or is he just doing it because he is a boy who wants to wrestle?

I also find it difficult to balance expectations for a 4-year old and expectations for a 2 year-old. Meaning, if D hits O in my mind it is because D doesn't know any better because he is 2. However, if O hits D, O should know better because he is 4. And obviously O thinks the same expectations should apply to both him and D.

My husband and I spend a lot of quality alone time with O – mostly after D goes to bed – including lying and cuddling with him at night while he falls asleep. Lately we have been trying to do some special "dates" with O - one of us takes him to the movies or just out to the grocery store without D. We definitely have seen some improvements, but he is still very jealous of his brother. What should we do when he hits his brother? And will this just pass as they get older?


Thanks for your question. I hear your commitment to your children, and your descriptions of life in your household sound terrific. You are doing all the right stuff -- connecting with O, each parent spending special time alone with him, and also spending time as a family.

It is shocking to see our beloved child hit our defenseless little one. Aggressive behavior toward our children -- even from our other child -- triggers all of our protective instincts and is very upsetting. I still remember seeing my preschooler be rough with my baby, and feeling the urge to sweep in and knock him out of the way. (You'll be happy to know that, now 14 and 18, they haven't fought in years!)

This is, of course, a primal challenge. ALL humans want the love they share with a loved one to be exclusive. We are all familiar with the dramas of romantic triangles. We know that kids go through an Oedipal stage and hopefully resolve that by settling for the role of child rather than lover to their parent, and we have major taboos to reinforce that rule. And then we have Cain and Abel, and Joseph and his brothers, which epitomize the rivalry between brothers. These are, unfortunately, human truths, but in almost all cases families resolve these conflicts more or less gracefully.

The good news is that the majority of parents have more than one child, and do muddle through. Most siblings develop good relationships. In families like yours, the kids usually become close, because the parents consciously work to meet each child's needs and help the kids develop skills to get along with each other, rather than just using force to enforce temporary truces. The bad news is, it's a lot of work!

What should we do when he hits his brother?

You should, whenever possible, prevent him hitting his brother, by helping resolving whatever the conflict is as you see it brewing, and by generally working to keep your child rested so he has a longer fuse.

However, I realize that many times it will be impossible to prevent O from hitting. That's just life with two kids. When he does hit, you do need to step in and stop it, because of the size differential between the two boys. However, there are a few pitfalls you have to be wary of here. If you make O into the bad guy and D into the victim, you are setting up permanent roles for them that they will have a hard time getting out of and will even use in other relationships. So here's what you do:

1. First, calm yourself. Approach your kids with as much love and peace as possible, so you bring peace into the situation, and it will immediately shift the tone.

2. Acknowledge each kid's position with empathy
so they feel understood and start to calm down.

"O, you're mad that you think D threw your book?"
"D, you're hurting. Ouch!

If the injured party is really hurt, comfort them, without making the other kid wrong. If necessary, take them in the bathroom to tend to any wounds. Giving attention to the injured party this way tends to make the perpetrator see that hitting just gives the victim more attention. But don't go overboard. Your goal is not to make anyone wrong.

3. Model self-calming behavior while you let each child tell you their side. Don't judge who's right or who started it. Just restate what they tell you so they see what they brought to the situation.

"Let's all take a deep breath and calm down. Now, help me understand what happened."

Listen to O. Then listen to D, helping him if he needs you to.

"So O, you thought D was throwing your book and you got mad?"
"D, you didn't mean to throw the book? You were giving O the book and accidentally dropped it? And then O hit you and it hurt?

4. Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem, and model empathy for both sides.

"It's hard when you get mad to control yourself."
"It hurts when you get hit. And it hurts to be misunderstood."

5. Set limits that always apply universally to everyone in the house, even if one of the kids is a baby and clearly not responsible, so you don't make one of the kids "bad" but simply set house standards.

"We don't hit in this house, no matter how mad we are."

6. Model how to brainstorm alternative solutions that are win-win. Help them evaluate the solutions they propose by wondering aloud about the effect of each solution.

"What else could you do when you're mad, besides hit, so that everyone is happy?"
"Well, you're right, you could hit, but we don't hit in this house."
"Yes, you could yell at your brother. I wonder how that would make him feel."
"I wonder if you could check with your brother to see if he really meant to throw the book? That would help you not even get mad, when you realized that he dropped it accidentally."
"i wonder if you could call me for help."
"I wonder if you could hit the pillow instead."
"I wonder if you could count to ten when you get mad, and maybe by the time you got to ten you wouldn't be so mad and you could use your words to tell your brother how you feel.

7. As the kids get older, you will be able to step out at this point and let them resolve the conflict themselves.

"You two are such good problem solvers. I know that if you work together you can come up with a solution that makes everybody happy. I'll be right here folding the laundry if you need me."

I find it difficult to find the right balance of rough-and-tumble play. For example, if O grabs D around the waist and tries to pull him down, is he doing this to hurt D or is he just doing it because he is a boy who wants to wrestle?

Boys will wrestle, and it is indeed hard to know when to intervene. O wrestles with D both because he is a boy and likes rough and tumble play and because he wants to hurt D. The house rule has to be that "STOP" or "NO" expressed by either party must be immediately honored. Punishment never helps to reinforce such a limit; instead physically separate them by saying "I heard someone say STOP. That means now we stop. I know it's hard to calm down. If either of you wants to keep wrestling, you can wrestle the pillows on the couch." (By the way, I have seen punching bags work wonders in these situations. He can pummel it as long and hard as he wants.)

I also find it difficult to balance expectations for a 4-year old and expectations for a 2 year-old. Meaning, if D hits O in my mind it is because D doesn't know any better because he is 2. However, if O hits D, O should know better because he is 4. And obviously O thinks the same expectations should apply to both him and D.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk very convincingly about this in Siblings without Rivalry. Rules have to be universal in the house, for all kids. Otherwise one kid becomes the bully, because he has a chip on his shoulder that you are always preferring the younger kid. Avoid making O wrong. Always protect BOTH kids. Even when one is much younger and clearly in the right, talk to both kids so they both participate in the solution. You don't want D to grow up secretly starting fights to have you prove you love him more. Address both kids with solutions that don't blame anyone:

"It looks like you two kids are having a hard time getting along right now. Maybe you should play in separate rooms."

So in time, will this just pass as they get older?

Sibling rivalry never completely goes away, throughout life, but siblings can become very close and turn it into a joke. It will take a different form by adolescence so that they will tease each other. But you should always set standards for kind behavior and they will end up finding it rewarding to be kind to each other, and will do that more and more.

Parents can do an enormous amount to alleviate sibling rivalry, though.

1. Honor O's feelings.

You know that story about the man who brings home a second wife? He tells his first wife that he loves her so much he wanted another. He expects her to love the second wife as much as he does, to take care of her, and show her the ropes. We often tell that story to help parents understand how their older child might feel about the new baby.

I had heard this story, of course, and I understood that my son might feel some jealousy. But it wasn’t until that Aha! Moment when I heard the raw pain in his voice, when he saw the impossibility of sending the baby back, that I really understood how ALL oldest kids perceive the siblings who come into their lives.

Why should they share our excitement over these trespassers? Why shouldn’t they be heartbroken? Why shouldn’t they want to send them back or flush them down the toilet? It doesn't betray your love for your youngest to understand why your oldest might feel devastated and furious.

2. Go underneath the anger he expresses, to address the feelings that are motivating his anger. If he can put them into words and be heard and understood, he doesn’t have as much need to act them out. Remember that anger is a defense against the more threatening feeling that he must not be good enough or you wouldn't have wanted a new baby. When he says "I'm not going to stop hitting D until he is dead." you can acknowledge the anger, and then what's under it:

"Sometimes you are so angry at D that you just want to hit him and make him go away forever. It's hard to have a little brother. You wish sometimes that he would just be gone. You wish sometimes that you could have Mommy and Daddy all to yourself. You want to be our only boy. Is that right?”

3. Make each child feel adored for being the unique person that he or she is. Make sure he knows he still has an important role in the family. Reinforce all the wonderful things about who he is and how he contributes to the family. "I love the way you help me," or "I love the way you make me laugh," which note specific contributions, help your child develop a sense of why he's still a valuable member of the family. Talk often about the fact that each member of the family is important in their own way and makes their own special contribution. The family needs each person for it to be whole.

“You ARE our only O. There is only one O in the world, and that's you. And Daddy and I are so lucky we get to be your mom and Dad. We love you so much. You know why? Because you're O. You're so much fun. You have a huge imagination. We love the way you talk to us, and all your ideas. We love D too, because he's D -- but he isn't O. We love you because you're O, so you are very, very special to us."

4. When possible, let your older child feel how rewarding it is to nurture your younger one. For example, “D is sad because he fell. You’re the best at cheering him up because he loves you so much. Want to try?”

5. Whenever possible, make them a team. For instance, make it kids against grownups and let them win. Using an outside foe to unite a conflicted group is a time-honored tradition because it’s so effective.

6. Make sure each child has "protected" toys, things that belong to them.
You can certainly have a family toy box, but be sure they also have things that they can feel territorial about, so they don't have to assert control over everything.

7. Create a storyline that helps O understand this all positively. You can do this by making a little book for him. Just glue photos onto construction paper, print captions out of the computer, and glue them on. Laminate it, because it will get a lot of use. Start with photos of your house and the parents and grandma. Then show Owen as a baby and talk about how much everyone loves O. Show him getting older and being doted on by both parents. I think captions in the present tense work best.

Then show D being born, and both parents and O doting on D and say how everyone loves D. Then show O alone -- not necessarily unhappy, but playing alone. Alternatively, it could be a parent caring for D. Use a caption like "Sometimes O doesn't like it when Mom and Dad are busy with D. New babies can't do much for themselves."

Then use a lot of photos of the boys having fun together. O making D laugh ("No one can cheer D up like O"), D following or watching O ("D thinks his big brother is wonderful"), playing ("Brothers love to have fun together.")

Then use a photo of each one mad. ("Sometimes O gets pretty mad at D. Sometimes D gets pretty mad at O. Sometimes brothers fight. But they'll always be brothers and love each other. They know you can be mad at someone and love them at the same time.")

Then use a photos of O and D by themselves, having a nice connection with each parent. ("Mommy LOVES O"..."Mommy LOVES D."... "Daddy LOVES O."..."Daddy LOVES D.")

Then use a photo of the whole family, with the two brothers relating nicely.
"No one's more fun than a brother! We love our family."

I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes, and I wish you a more peaceful home!

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