Between Brothers: Sibling Rivalry

I have two boys, ages nine and two-and-a-half. Sometimes they get along, but most of the time the oldest is picking on the younger and the two-and-a-half-year-old is screaming like a banshee. I can't send them to their respective rooms until they are 18, but I am about to pull out my hair. I realize some of this will be alleviated when the nine-year-old goes back to school, but after school the wars begin. Also, I am a stay-at-home Mom with no car and I feel like I am going crazy. I want to know how I can develop healthy, nurturing relationships between the two despite their age differences. Also, can you help me be a better mother/warden? All that I do is scream at them to be quiet and go to their rooms. Please help!

-- janmose1
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Robert Schwebel

Clinical psychologist Robert Schwebel, PhD, has been in private practice for almost 30 years, counseling children, couples and... Read more

First it is important to realize that sibling rivalry is biologically programmed in our species. Each child is trying to survive, and in some ways, compete for attention. However, there is much that we can do to improve relationships.

Considering the age of your younger child, I would think that the most effective way to deal with this problem would be to focus on your older child. Here are some thoughts about this:

Your older son is old enough for a discussion. You could express your concern about the fighting, ask for his explanation, and try to find some solutions together. The younger son probably does some things that annoy your older son. Maybe you could (1) validate that you can see why this would be upsetting to your older son; (2) help your older son understand why young children do these sorts of things; and (3) teach him some positive ways to cope with these annoyances.

I would suspect boredom might be part of the problem with your older son. When children can't use their free time wisely, they often get into arguments with their siblings or other children. Perhaps you could help your son think about (perhaps even write down) the activities he could engage in when he is home. You could encourage him to develop hobbies, to read and to play games that enrich his life. Then he could select activities from his list.

Considering the age difference, there is not much the two children could play together. But your older son could be given a meaningful "helper role." This gives him esteem and responsibility.

Sorry to hear about your "screaming" as the "warden." I can imagine how upset you must be. As you said, you can't keep them in their rooms until they are 18. However, if they behave inappropriately, you could calmly and quickly use time-outs; send them to their rooms to calm down and to think about what has happened. Even though you are upset, you do have the power. It is best not to run with your own upset feelings. You want to show them that people can have upset feelings without "losing it." You can take some deep breaths and separate them without getting totally aroused. Your calmness (even if it is faked at first) will help the children learn to calm down.

No car! Stranded at home. Sounds like a little cabin fever, too. What about getting transportation help from friends or using public transportation, or having other parents and kids visit you? You and the kids need some variety and sunshine.

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