My older son is six years old and always wants to be first and grab all the attention away from his little brother. What should I do?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): Whenever there are questions or concerns when it comes to raising kids, you always want to look first for some of the core issues that might be going on. You can, of course, deal with the superficial issues and that might work for that moment, but it probably won’t hold.
One of the concepts you’ll want to talk about with the older child is that there is plenty for everybody. There’s plenty of love and attention for him and there’s still plenty of love and attention for his brother. The concept is: there’s room for all of my children on my lap.
You could say to the 6-year old, “How do you think we could make this situation go better?” He might have some ideas to share, but the parent should have some ideas, too. Maybe the idea is about substituting one toy for another: if he wants a toy the younger child has, he could offer him a different toy in exchange. The idea is to make sure not to leave the younger child empty-handed, and to not allow the older child to bully or hit the younger child or threaten him in any way, because once the kid starts that kind of behavior it becomes a pattern, leaving the younger child to feel unprotected.
A lot of parents rationalize this whole thing by saying, “Well that younger child needs to be able to defend himself,” but it’s really an unfair attitude.
It’s not uncommon for the older kid to think the younger child took the toy on purpose and just wants to hurt them. You have to be calm about it and try to gauge the reality with the older child.
The problem if you don’t deal with this when the kids are young is that the younger child grows up feeling picked upon and victimized. And often what you see in these people as adults in their relationships is that they have a really hard time owning their own behavior. It’s because there has been such a pattern for them when they were growing up where they were victimized by the older child.
MOLLY: So that when they’re in a relationship or marriage and they do something wrong, they won’t admit it?
MOM: That’s right, they can’t own their own behavior. They’re stuck in the pattern of someone else is doing it to me.
MOLLY: What else can you do beside substitute a toy? How do you get the older child to stop hogging the toys and the attention?
MOM: Well, you want to start young, before the older child develops a pattern and gets a lot of satisfaction from hurting the younger child in some way. For instance, you don’t want to allow the older child to hit him over the head because he is so angry that the younger child takes their mommy away.
It’s very important that the mom doesn’t completely direct all her attention to the younger child who is more needy just by definition because the younger age. There are a couple of things you can do as a parent. If you can afford it you might want to get a babysitter for the younger child and spend a regular time period once a week – every Tuesday afternoon let’s say – and you can do something special with the older child.
MOLLY: Or you could even do it on the weekend and have the other parent stay with the younger child if getting the help is difficult?
MOM: Yes, you can do that too. But you need to show that older child that he is important, too, because all of this is about the attention coming from the parent (whichever parent is the primary caretaker of the children). Sibling rivalry really comes from the feeling of not getting enough from the primary parent. And it’s really hard when a new baby is born because a baby is, of course, so demanding. But it’s something that, as a parent, you have to be conscious of or else you set a stage for something bad for both children. The older one becomes something of a bully and the younger one develops the feeling that whatever happens to them isn’t their fault and somebody is doing it to them so they don’t own or take responsibility for their own behavior. They end up having problems in their intimate relationships with people. It’s a mess. A lot of these things have long term consequences. Not if they happen once or twice, but if they happen over and over again.
MOLLY: So: make a special time with the older child, tell them it’s not okay to do that to the younger child and that you won’t accept that behavior, but make a time for just them to have with mom or dad.
MOM: And if the kid keeps doing it, which they most likely will to test you out, you really have to stick to the consequences. Don’t just surprise the child with the consequences; you make sure they know ahead of time. For example, “If you hit your brother, or if you take toys away from your brother, this is what’s going to happen. “
You have to think of the consequences in terms of the age of the kid. You don’t say “You can’t watch your favorite television show for a month.” That’s way too long for most children to conceptualize and there’s a feeling that there’s no possibility of redemption, that they can never make this better. One of the other things that’s very important to do is to have the older child apologize to the younger child, even if the younger child is too young to understand. It’s more for the older child.
MOLLY: Make the consequence appropriate… like you can’t watch your favorite show tonight?
MOM: Right something that’s time limited and there’s a recovery from. If you say you can’t do this for a month, the kid is going to feel like, why bother. The child has to feel like there’s a way to work it out and be redeemed in his parents’ eyes when the punishment is over, or he might stop feeling empathy for the younger child.
MOM: Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.
This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.