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Sibling Relationships and Avoiding Rivalry

I am not any kind of parenting expert, but we have now welcomed number 2 into our home. It has been 10 months and there is one measly little thing that I can say that I feel like I am doing well. It was a concern of mine, and many parents who are adjusting to 2, that my first son, Jack, would feel left out or jealous. I knew that Jack would have complicated feelings about my second son, Exley. I wanted to be sure not to shame him for his feelings. I wanted him to feel as doted upon as always.

This become complicated in situations when Jack does things that lead to Exley crying. Sometimes they are on purpose, like he pokes him in the eye to see what will happen or become frustrated and push him away. Other times they are by accident; Jack sees that we like to pretend to bite Exley’s cheeks and Exley laughs. Turned out Jack thought we were really biting him and so when he tried this Exley had quite the extreme reaction!

Before I begin to tell you of the thing I think works really well I want to remind you that I do shit wrong all day. My house is a disaster. We are flying by the seat of our pants and most of the time it feels totally and utterly out of control. Like “lose my shit” out of control. I am simply coming up for air to tell you something that I have found that works.


When Jack does something that makes Exley cry I put the focus on Exley. I show Jack that Exley is crying, “Do you see that Exley is crying? That means that hurt. We don’t want to hurt people. Try to use gentle touches.” Then I show him by touching Exley gently. If I yell at Jack or tell him that what he did was mean he will feel shame and eventually internalize his role as a mean bully. He will feel that I am placing more value on Exley’s feelings than his. This can lead to them feeling like they are pitted against each other and cause unnecessary rivalry.

I want to teach rather than punish. I want to show Jack the consequences of his actions so that he can learn that he has control. Yelling and punishing can make a child feel out of control. Jack is likely excited that he has the power to make Exley cry. By pointing out that the crying is happening because Exley is hurt and that hurting sucks can help Jack develop empathy.

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When Jack pokes Exley to see what will ¬†happen and Exley starts to cry I say, “See how Exley is crying? That means the poke hurt him. We don’t want to hurt Exley. Were you curious to see what would happen? Having a new baby around makes you curious!” I want to help Jack understand his own behavior as not having malicious intent and let him know that it’s OK to be curious, but not OK to hurt people. I want to teach him this without shaming him.

When Jack bit Exley and Exley started to cry Jack was surprised. He started to cry too. My husband said, “Did you think we were really biting him when we made those jokes? It’s OK, we know you didn’t really mean to hurt him.” Jack says “sorry,” and we say “thank you for saying sorry, we know it was an accident.”

And all day all the time Jack is still adjusting to this new guy. We say over and over again, “it’s hard having a new baby around,” “it’s hard to have a new baby here who needs attention from mommy and daddy,” “I love you.”

If you have welcomed a second child into your home you have likely run into situations like these. What works for you? Please share.

Abby Theuring, MSW