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When Toddlers Won't Share with Siblings

Mom and toddler play with baby

Q. My 3-year-old was recently playing with her favorite teddy bear when my 8-month-old tried to pull it from her hands. My older child threw a fit, then my baby starting crying. What should I do when my daughter won't share her toys with her baby brother? Is it reasonable for her to have some things that she doesn't have to share?

A. Sibling rivalry usually heats up once the younger child is crawling and getting into the older one's stuff. I think about my own son's shocked (and furious) face the first time his 6-month-old sister reached out and swatted his carefully constructed skyscraper made out of blocks.

As hard as it may be for young children to negotiate these kinds of challenges, having siblings teaches them some of life's most important lessons: how to share parents, space (particularly if they're sleeping in the same bedroom), and treasured objects. Rather than dreading these moments of conflict between your children, consider them rich opportunities to help the kids learn critical skills -- in this case, conflict resolution.

Preventing Problems, Fostering Sharing

The first step is prevention. While it is important for your daughter to learn to share, it is reasonable for her to have some toys she doesn't let her brother use. You can help her choose which toys she can keep for herself and play with on her own, in her room, or when her brother is sleeping. (You may even decide to keep some of your daughter's toys separate, especially those that have small pieces and might pose a choking hazard.) Another option is to suggest strategies your daughter could use to try to avert conflict, such as playing with toys in places her brother can't get to, like on a table he can't reach or on her bed.

Once a conflict arises, tell her you understand why she's upset: "You get so mad when your brother wants to play with your toys. It's hard to share." Next, help her empathize with her brother: "He just wants to explore and play with you. He's interested in what you're doing and doesn't mean to make you mad." Feeling understood and being able to put themselves in others' shoes help children move on to the third step -- finding solutions.

Brainstorm with your daughter ways to work it out, and ask her how she thinks middle ground can be reached. The more involved she is in solving the problem, the more likely she will want to carry it out. For example, when your son reaches out and grabs the ball she's bouncing, help your daughter find another ball for him to play with. Help her think about words she can use to express her feelings, such as: "Please don't take my doll." This teachable moment lets your child know that you believe she can solve her own challenges.

The Importance of NOT Sharing

In addition, while it is important for children to learn to play together and build a strong relationship, it's okay to allow your daughter to not always play with her little brother. They both need to have the opportunity to play by themselves without worrying that the other sibling will take over and "mess things up." Also, help your daughter think of things her brother can do by her side while she's playing. For example, you can read stories to your son while she builds her block tower. This way they're enjoying one another's company without getting in each other's way. Then you might ask for your daughter's permission to allow your son to let loose and knock down all the blocks.

Finally, look for ways your children can actively have fun together. You can give the baby maracas to shake while your daughter plays the xylophone. In the car, the two of them can play peekaboo or make funny faces at each other. Later they can zoom cars back and forth or hide in blanket "tents" draped over furniture. Soon, your daughter will begin to view her brother as a special buddy instead of a nuisance intent on spoiling her amusement, and eventually the loving daily moments they share will add up to a lifelong friendship.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit organization that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.