Little Sibling Blues
My son Ethan is convinced he's never going to read. He's also sure he'll never figure out how to jump rope or ride a two-wheeler. If he were 7 or 8, I might be concerned. But Ethan is 4, and if there's one concept he's mastered, it's math: Ethan knows that 4 is less than 7, which is how old his brother, Henry, is. He knows that no matter how old he gets, he'll always be younger than Henry. In his mind, that means he'll never quite measure up. And, boy, does that make him mad.
It's inevitable that younger ones will compare themselves with older sibs, and these assessments can lead to frustration ("Why can't I do a cartwheel too?") and jealousy ("Why doesn't he have to sit in a car seat?"). "Younger siblings don't understand that it's merely the age difference and the developmental process that sets them apart," says Meri Wallace, author of Birth Order Blues. And it doesn't help that older siblings often flaunt their special privileges, such as a later bedtime or a larger bedroom. You, too, may be sending negative signals -- without even realizing it -- and also contributing to your youngest one's inferiority complex. Here's how to see the world through your little one's eyes -- and take steps to keep him from feeling like second (or third) best
- Acknowledge her feelings. When your child's frustrated ("I'll never be able to tie my shoes!"), you may automatically try to reassure her ("Of course you will"). When she complains ("It's not fair!"), you might resort to excuses ("When your sister was 4, she went to bed at 7:30 too"), or worse, trite responses ("Life isn't fair"). "Instead, let your child know you understand what she's going through," says parent educator Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Each One Best. "If you say, 'Of course you'll learn to tie your shoes,' she'll interpret your response to mean that she shouldn't feel the way she does," she explains. Saying "I know it's frustrating" or even "I bet you sometimes wish you were the older sister" can go a long way toward making your younger child feel understood.
- Keep explanations concrete. Focus on the reason why each age has its own privileges or skills, says Polly Turner, Ph.D., professor of family studies and early childhood at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. If your child is upset because his big sister gets to go to bed later, explain that older children need less sleep. If he's exasperated because he can't ride a bike, explain that his legs are still too short to reach the pedals. Then show him how much he's grown since last year.
- Look for ways to make your child feel unique. Gently remind her that she has privileges of her own -- such as getting to do special things with you while her big brother is at school. You might put her in charge of selecting the bedtime story each night or choosing which place mats to put on the dinner table. Help her find her own interests too. If your older daughter does gymnastics, your younger one might like ballet, playacting, or soccer.
- Focus on achievements. It's only natural for a younger brother to be upset that he can't master a task he sees his big sister do. Point out the things he's recently begun to accomplish: drinking from a big-kid cup, putting on his coat, reciting the alphabet. But don't reserve praise just for skills. Let each of your children know that you value them for who they are, not just for what they can do. Explain that you love your younger one's funny faces or the way he listens to stories.
- Avoid comparisons. Nothing stings a sibling more than hearing a parent say, "Molly doesn't cry when I wash her hair, why do you?" Labels are another subtle form of comparison: "Josh is our athlete; Sarah is the artistic one." Comparisons and labels both set the stage for unhealthy competition between siblings. "Children should only be compared with themselves," says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, Ph.D., associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. "You want to be saying to kids, 'Look what you can do now versus what you could do last month.' "
- Examine your own behavior. Many parents unconsciously give more attention to their older children. Do you always introduce your older child first or focus too much attention on his day at school? "By virtue of his age, an older one sometimes requires more energy and attention from a parent," Wallace says. "As a result, the younger child starts to feel like an unimportant onlooker." Help your littlest one stick up for himself by teaching him to say, "I feel left out."
- Be inclusive. Get your younger child in on the action whenever possible. Give him a toy guitar to play with in the other room during his older brother's music lesson, or let him spend the night at Grandma's when his sister has a sleepover at a friend's house. It's also important to spend some time alone with your youngest. You might use some of that time to help him reach one of his goals. One day, Ethan told me he was upset that he couldn't skip the way Henry can. So while Henry and his dad read stories, Ethan and I spent the time before bed stepping and hopping. He still hasn't learned to skip, but he's an excellent hopper. And for now, that seems to be good enough for him.