Dealing With Sibling Jealousy

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

We have a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter who can be very sweet with each other. Other times our son acts very aggressively towards her, squeezing or pushing her and yelling.

When questioned, he’ll say, ‘I feel like you love her more than you love me.’ Having been extremely jealous of my own sister, I can relate to what he is going through. How can I help him treat her with more kindness, feel loved, and not create the long-lasting jealousy that I felt?

Also, should we consult a counselor (or when do we know if we’re at a point when we need one?), and are there other books or resources you would recommend for families going through similar sibling rivalry situations?

Dear Concerned Parent,

On the one hand, there are several benefits to having a three-year spread between siblings — while your son is at preschool you can bond with your daughter, having a strong career alongside raising children can be more manageable with maternity leaves being spread apart, for the first three years of his life your son has had ample exclusive time in developing his sense of self in the world. Your 2-year-old daughter has a model and mentor to learn from in her older brother.

On the other hand, your 5-year-old son has been used to having you to himself, and he may now feel that he is being forced to share your time, care, love, and attention with his sister, and in doing so, it appears that he is feeling less important to you. While he is sweet sometimes with his sister, his emotional conflict likely occurs when he perceives that you do not have time for him in relation to his sister. In turn, frustration turns to anger, and anger to aggression as a solution (albeit a maladaptive one).

So what is your best course of action to correct your son’s behaviors?

Step 1
First, you will want to correct your son’s behavior when he acts out with anger and aggression, but you will also want to do it in a way that will increase his involvement and appreciation for his sister. Saying “no” or “go to time out” or reacting negatively alone to his behavior will likely validate his distorted feelings that you love his sister more than you love him, and that may perpetuate or worsen things.

Instead, the next time he crosses the line with his sister, I recommend that you separate him quietly from everyone and sit with him for 5-10 minutes. The timeout is a consequence, but it is also an opportunity for the two of you to dialogue; to discuss what happened on a feeling level for your son, and to come up with ideas for how to manage those feelings better the next time he struggles with his sister.

Step 2
Second, I also recommend that you speak about your son and your daughter positively in their shared presence. Your 2-year-old daughter’s vocabulary is limited, so you can be her voice with affirmative statements for your son to hear.

For example, when your son is encouraged to share something with your daughter or when he does something nice for her on his own, you can voice, “thank you so much for thinking about me…that feels good…you are such an awesome big brother.” You will want to repeat this often so that the two of them experience each other and their relationship in a positive way on a regular basis.

Step 3
Third, I also recommend actively enlisting your son as the “big boy” who helps his mommy with his little sister — singing songs to soothe his sister when she is upset, handing a towel to mommy after his sister’s bath, or fetching a diaper quickly for mommy when there is an urgent need, etc. Praise, praise, praise your son for being such a great big brother and babysitter to his sister — even for very small things to start.

You will find a nice listing of children’s picture books on the topic of sibling rivalry here. You might also find Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Faber and Mazlish, and Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring And Compassionate, by Goldenthal, to be good reads on the topic.

With structure and attention to your children’s needs and time, most sibling rivalry matters improve. However, should your son’s problem with his sister persist or worsen over time and with your efforts (say a few months), I would recommend seeing a pediatric/child psychologist for guidance and support.