Q: My sister's son is the same age as mine -- 16 months -- and I want them to be good friends. The only problem is my nephew is a bit more aggressive; he'll run over and grab my son or snatch a toy out of his hand. Now my child is scared of his cousin and runs over to me when he sees him coming! How can I help them to get along?
Ah, the politics of family relationships; so challenging, even when it comes to the smallest members! In my experience, these situations are best handled by open, respectful communication and collaboration between the adults -- in this case, you and your sister. It's usually a disaster if one parent starts disciplining the other's child, unless there is a clear agreement beforehand that this is okay.
First, tell your sister how eager you are for your kids to become good friends. Then, in a nonjudgmental way, share your observations with her. It's important not to sound like you're criticizing her or her son, or she may get defensive. You might tell her that you notice your children have very different personalities and styles of communicating; your nephew is more assertive, while your son is on the shy side and gets more easily overwhelmed. Solicit your sister's ideas for helping them get along better, given these differences.
When you're spending time together, model how you'd like your sister to respond to your nephew without disciplining him or making it seem like he's the bad one. For example, when your nephew takes something from your son, playfully chase after him, and say, "Hey, silly, Justin was playing with that! Let's get something for you." Then help your nephew find something else to play with. This kind of approach, which addresses the behavior but doesn't make the child feel bad, will elicit more positive results.
When your son runs to you for protection, it's important that you support him. But if you want your son to eventually feel comfortable with his cousin, it's also important to convey a positive attitude toward your nephew. After all, your son will look to you for cues as to how he should feel about his cousin. Try to sound excited and upbeat when you talk about your nephew.
It can also help to act as your son's coach. Say something like, "That silly Andrew! Did he take your toy? Let's go see if we can get it back." Then encourage him to use whatever communication tools he has at his age -- gestures and sounds -- to let his cousin know he wants his toy. Next you can suggest that the three of you search together for a different toy for your nephew. As the kids get older, you can also teach them about taking turns by making a game out of it: Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and have the boys trade toys when the buzzer goes off.
With your sister's cooperation, you will be able to turn this situation around and help your son learn some coping skills and assertiveness, to boot.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2004.