Don’t Bite Your Sisters! How to Cope When Siblings Attack

Picture if you will, this scene: you’re home and content with your brood on the living room couch. The coffee is (semi) hot, Sesame Street is on, and all seems to be going absolutely swell. And lo, your middle-born cherub toddles over to the newborn and kisses her. Your heart feels like it must have quadrupled in that very moment!

Then suddenly, thwap! She inexplicably smacks the baby, and you stare in shock.

“Did that just happen?!”

It did, and now your protective instincts kick in, but what do you do when you love both the victim and the aggressor unconditionally?

This, unfortunately, has been my experience over the past few weeks. My 20 month old, Emerson, has been acting the fool lately with her sisters, Kendall who is 6 and Natalie, who is a mere 6 weeks old. I’ve searched my heart, asked a pediatrician and her peers, then most importantly, my mom friends via Facebook for advice. I am by no means an expert or claiming to have all the answers. Far from it, ladies! I’m just a mom going through this journey and trying not to mess it all up.

This is their collective wisdom in 7 useful steps:

1. Consistency and personal responsibility.
Now I know these are some awfully lofty goals here. As a 31-year-old, mostly mature adult I don’t always do these things. But the takeaway here is when using a time out or similar approach to teach a child not to hit, a parent needs to always be consistent. Following through with discipline every time teaches your child that their behavior has consequences. Require an apology to show the value of personal responsibility. These are the ideals we want to stay with our children through childhood and rigors of adulthood later.

2. Praise good behavior and gentle touch.
Our children ultimately want our approval. Therefore, applauding their kindness towards siblings makes them feel validated and loved. I try to make sure to show Emerson gentle ways to touch the baby by showing her how to rub Natalie’s back, hold her hand, and give her a sweet peck on the cheek (under close supervision). Regarding her older sister, Kendall, I encourage Emerson to hug her, sit on her lap, and share toys. Although she isn’t completely vocal yet, I can tell by Emerson’s wide smile that she enjoys receiving the praise and she doesn’t really mean to be violent, she’s just learning in her own way.

3. Spend one on one time. This one is meant to be twofold.
First, separate children for a short time after they hit. I have been using the rule of one minute per year of age. So with Emerson, I put her in a separate space for two minutes. It’s just enough to get her attention and also prevents any escalation of hitting.

Secondly, when you have the opportunity, spend time with children alone. This could be when other siblings are at school, resting in a swing, or napping. Encourage him or her to express feelings. This could help to find the root of the jealousy and in turn, might eliminate the desire to act out physically. A counselor once told me, “hurt people hurt people.” This resonates with me personally, and translates to many aspects of parenting.

4. Lead with love. Use a firm voice, but don’t yell.
This can be a hard one, y’all. We’ve all been there, especially when we see our children mistreat siblings. When emotions are high and the momma bear instinct is in full gear it’s easy to become frustrated and raise your voice. But truthfully, losing your cool will just make the situation worse. But don’t be a doormat. Use a firm voice to show you’re not playing around but don’t become a screaming lunatic either. This isn’t a great model for children to emulate. Breathe and address calmly.

5. Consult a book on the topic.
As with anything take what works and leave the rest, without shame or remorse. Every parent is different, every child is distinctly unique too.

6. Reach out and vent to friends.
Glean advice and tips from those who have experienced this problem firsthand. I have done this both for the purpose of this entry and for my life! Other Moms (and dads, teachers, and grandparents, etc.) have a wealth to offer. Venting has a cathartic effect when you feel like momming is overwhelming, because it certainly can be. We’ve all been there.

7. Take a deep breath and know it will pass.
Rest assured that you are doing a great job raising a beautiful child in a challenging world. After all, that’s what matters when we lay or heads down at night-knowing that we are doing our very best.

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