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Toddler Development: Sibling Rivalry

Looks like I might have been a tad premature when I said Gavin took very well to the arrival of his baby brother Gareth.  While Gareth and I were in the hospital, Gavin’s behaviour was almost exemplary.  It was after we arrived home that everything started to fall apart.   Although Gavin still adores his baby brother, lavishing him with loving strokes of his cheek, eager to be around him and close to him at all times, and expressing his abundant love for his brother with words, there has been a decline in his behaviour that suggests all is not well beneath that confident demeanour.

I have heard from others about older siblings attempting to hurt the new baby, expressing desires to “throw the baby away”, etc. and that has always been my fear of how Gavin might react to Gareth.  I had also heard of older sibling regressions where formerly toilet-trained siblings would revert to peeing and pooping in their diapers.  I was prepared for all of these and fully expected to have to deal with such behaviours.  What I was unprepared for were the subtle expressions of insecurity that Gavin has begun to display.  Much of his negative behaviours revolve around the desire to be treated equally with his brother.

1. Increased desire to nurse

Part of the reason why I decided to embark on the road of tandem nursing was to help minimise Gavin’s feelings of loss (as in the loss of my complete and undivided attention) by maintaining something special that he can still share with me.  Although tandem nursing can help ease much of the jealousy felt by the older child, it is not the complete solution.

For instance, whenever Gavin observes me nursing Gareth, he’ll express his urgent need to nurse and will melt down if he is denied the breast.  This is probably one of the most easily resolved issues as I can simply nurse both Gavin and Gareth simultaneously and Gavin is appeased.

Initially, he would desire to have what his brother had.  For instance, if Gareth was nursing on the left breast, I would give Gavin the right breast.  Being the older and more experienced nursling, Gavin would get through the rapid flow of milk quickly and then express his desire to have the left breast as well.  Thankfully, when I remind him that he promised to share his milk with his brother, he willingly agrees to allow his brother to continue nursing in peace.  I also explain to him that the reason Gareth is on the breast longer is because he is younger and isn’t able to drink as quickly – not because he has more milk to drink.

2. Increased desire to be carried

The benefit of staying with the extended family is that any number of other individuals can offer to carry Gavin while I am in recovery.  Issues only arise when Gavin expresses a distinct desire to be carried by me and me alone.  This only occurs during moments of vulnerability, such as upon waking up from a nap.  At most other times, I am able to reason with him and explain why I cannot carry him at this point in time.  However, after a nap, when Gavin is still somewhat disoriented from waking, his ability to reason is also greatly diminished.  These are the times when I have had the greatest difficulty getting him to accept that I cannot carry him until I have fully healed.  I have tried offering him my lap to sit on but it doesn’t appear to be enough.  So far the only thing that puts an end to the tantrum is my MIL’s promise of forbidden foods, such as ice cream or chocolate.

3. Hurtful behaviours

Although Gavin has been very positive towards Gareth, I’m afraid that the same cannot be said of his behaviour towards other members of the family.  He has said things such as, “I don’t love Daddy,” and I have been trying to determine his motivation for making such statements.  The only one I have been able to come up with is that by doing so he hopes that Daddy will push him towards me – giving him more time with the person he feels most removed from ever since Gareth came into our lives – me.  The night when he said he didn’t love Daddy was when he woke up and found himself sleeping beside Daddy instead of Mummy.

How does one deal with such behaviours?  We know he doesn’t mean it and that it is aggravated by the current situation at home, however, that doesn’t make it okay.  I did address it immediately and talked to him about what he said but I did not punish him for it by denying him what I knew he wanted – to sleep next to me.

4. Throwing tantrums

Gavin has also been throwing a lot more tantrums lately.  They can be over the slightest thing.  For instance, when I went to have dinner one evening.  Since I’m on the confinement diet, I eat dinner before the rest of the family.  I was playing trains with Gavin when my MIL told me the confinement lady was preparing my dinner.  I told Gavin I would have to go eat dinner soon and he insisted I bring my food over to his train table.  While I was trying to explain why I had to eat at the table, my MIL urged me to eat my fish before it got cold.  Without thinking, I got up and headed towards the dinner table.  Gavin ran after me and threw himself on the floor in tears.

5. Open defiance

Gavin has also begun to be more defiant.  It isn’t so much that he refuses to do what we ask but the manner in which he does so.  There is a certain tone in his voice that conveys rudeness.  Even when asked to apologise, he does so with an attitude that clearly expresses a lack of remorse.

These are just a few of the ways I can observe that Gavin has been affected by the arrival of his brother into the family.  Though we understand that it is a very trying period in his toddler life, it has been difficult to endure his behaviour without getting irritated by it.  I still wonder if I am handling him appropriately but the path I have chosen to take is to correct misdemeanours I feel are unacceptable.

It isn’t just my attention that Gavin appears to be vying for.  It seems he desires the attention of anyone who is attending to Gareth.  For instance, one afternoon, hubby wanted to take Gavin out to buy a new mattress for them to sleep on.  A favourite grand “aunt” of Gavin’s had come to visit and hubby suggested the three of them go together.  Gavin wasn’t interested.  He just wanted to stay home where his brother was.  A little later, when his favourite grand “aunt” was carrying Gareth, Gavin suddenly wanted her to go along with them to the shop.  I have also seen the way he follows my MIL and tries to catch her attention whenever she is carrying Gareth and playing “baby talk” with him.  As my SIL puts it, it is almost as if he is saying, “Look at me, I’m cute, too!”

I have tried to incorporate more special Gavin and Mummy time into the day and to make Gavin feel as welcomed as possible whenever I am with Gareth.  In addition, I make it a point to express my love for him at every opportunity so he knows that the arrival of his little brother has in no way diminished my feelings for him.  Beyond that, I really don’t know what else to do.

Here’s a question for the parents out there – how did you manage the older child when you had a new addition to the family?

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

3 thoughts on “Toddler Development: Sibling Rivalry

  1. i can’t claim to know how to deal with sibling rivalry for i only have one child but having come from a family of 4 & being the youngest, i guess the only sanest way my mother had coped with sibling rivalry amongst her children was being extra patient & understanding of the older siblings because reprimands/punishments would only backfire no matter how much reasons were given.

    When children are jealous of their siblings, especially very young children, regardless of how much explanations are given, the fact is the mother’s attention is no longer focused on the older but being shared with the younger. if i were to be faced with this situation, i would either let go of those behaviour which cause no physical harm to anyone or reprimand but no punishment & end the lesson with a hug & kiss. if the child does not seem to cope well with the reprimand/lesson, i guess i’d have to leave the teaching to another time when the child is more calm.

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  2. Before Jade was born I asked Jack to choose which breast he wanted. He chose and stuck with it. In that sense he has something permanent that is his. He doesn’t fight his sister for a breast but only when he is tired and grumpy does he ask to nurse (from his own breast).

    I think it is a 3 year old thing too. The littlest thing can be most upsetting to them. So all we can do is comfort them really.

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  3. Vivian – I have to admit, we have been pretty tough with Gavin despite my intention to “go easy” on him. One thing I am really proud of him for is how well he has handled everything – all things considered. I’ve also tried to make sure he knows how proud of him I am. Until now, he’s still so affectionate towards his little brother. We still have meltdowns and frustrating periods, but I guess that’s all part and parcel of the changing dynamics within the family. Still easy to get caught up in the moment and allow my human failings to react whenever Gavin goes through a difficult period.

    Mephala – should have thought of that one… Choosing a breast for each. I do often tell Gavin stuff like, “Why don’t you have the right side today – it has more milk.” Works out well for me because he helps me empty the fullness of the breast when Gareth can’t cope with the volume. Also haven’t had any episodes of engorgement or blocked ducts, mastitis, etc. So there’s another benefit of tandem nursing… 🙂

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