Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Family Dynamics

3 Tools to Dissolve Sibling Jealousy

How to resolve the feelings that are triggering aggression.

”When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish and their love for their parent is deepened. A parent’s sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child’s plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face reality.” –Haim Ginott, author of Between Parent and Child

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Last week, we talked about setting limits, using the example of a 3-year-old lashing out at the baby. But enforcing your limit in the moment is only the beginning. Since all "misbehavior" is driven by upset feelings or unmet needs, the real work here is helping the child resolve the tangled-up feelings that are triggering his aggression. As promised, here are three tools to help dissolve that jealousy.

1. Strengthen your connection.

When your child believes that you couldn't possibly love anyone else more than you love her, sibling rivalry melts away. Build one-on-one time with each child into your routine. Connect with each child every morning, and then again every hour you're with them throughout the day, by looking for opportunities for a warm smile, touch or comment. Whatever your child says or does, try to see the situation from her point of view.

2. Get your child laughing.

Laughter helps humans let go of anxiety (which is mild fear) and transforms the body chemistry to reduce stress hormones and increase bonding hormones. It also helps children work through their fears.

For instance, when your child suddenly has to wait for your help and attention all the time, it’s natural for him to wonder if you’ll still be there for him if he really needs you. Tell him, “If you need me, I will always come as soon as I can. So if the baby is in your way, or you need my help with something, you just say ‘Mom, I need you!’ and I will be there as soon as I can. Here, let’s practice.” As soon as your child calls you, come running, grab him up, kiss him all over, and toss him around. It’s a guaranteed way to get him laughing. And since he loves this, when you suggest that he yell ‘Mom, I need you!’ as an alternative to grabbing his toy back from the baby, he’ll be more likely to try it. That gives you a chance to get him laughing at those tense moments, after which he’ll be more open to trying to work out a trade with the baby—or he’ll suddenly feel more generous and just let the baby use the toy while he tries a different one.

There are countless games that will get young children laughing. It might be the best connection you’ve had with your child all day, and he’ll be more cooperative for the rest of the day because of it. And if you can get multiple children laughing, the oxytocin they’re feeling will also help your children bond with each other.

3. Acknowledge your child's mixed emotions.

Every child is bound to have some complicated feelings about their siblings. It might be hard for you to hear about her anger at her sibling, but if she can talk about it, she won't have to act it out. By contrast, if she thinks her jealousy is unspeakable, she’ll push it down, out of consciousness. But stuffing emotions causes anxiety and rigidity, because we have to work hard to keep them down. What’s more, emotions don’t stay stuffed; they pop out again. And because they’re not under conscious control, they often take the form of aggression, defiance, clinginess, or whining. To transform negative behavior, give your child some help with her "negative" emotions. For instance:

“Do you even care about me anymore?”

“Oh, Sweetie, I love you so much. I could never love anyone more. You are my one and only Samantha and there is no one like you in the whole wide world. I feel so lucky to be your dad. Are you feeling like I don’t care? I guess I have been very tired, and super busy, so it has been hard to show you my love in the ways I used to. I have more than enough love for both you and your sister. I’m sorry that you have felt not cared about. Let’s find a way to make things better. I think we need some Samantha and Daddy time this weekend. What would you like to do with our special time together?”

“It’s not fair; you never help me. I need help, too!”

“Does it seem like my hands are always too busy with the baby to help you? That must feel so unfair! It’s hard to wait, I know. I know you need help, too, and I will always be here to help you when you really need meI am your Mom, too. I will try to do a better job noticing when you need help. But I’m not perfect, so I won’t always notice. Can you tell me when you need help, with your words?”

“I hate having a baby!”

“It’s hard sometimes, having a baby in the house. I guess it makes you very angry sometimes to have to share us, and to have to be quiet so he can sleep, and to have to wait your turn. It can be very hard, can’t it? You can always tell me when it’s hard, and I will always understand, and help you.”

“I might as well be dead!”

Don’t panic. He’s choosing the most powerful word he knows to show you know how miserable he is. Don’t argue with him. Instead, empathize and offer comfort: "Sometimes you feel that bad, huh? Oh, Sweetheart, I am so sorry it’s so hard. Come here and let me hold you." Hopefully, then, he'll cry. If he resists, he’s using his anger as a shield for all that pain. Prioritize preventive maintenance and rebuilding your connection with him so that he feels safe enough to show you those feelings. The more you can soften your heart, the more he’ll soften his, and the faster healing can begin.

Children get along best with their siblings when parents make it clear that all feelings are normal and acceptable, even while not all actions are permitted and civility is expected. Acknowledge how hard it is for your child, and give her permission to grieve. She's lost something of value when a new sibling entered the picture (or when he recently reached some new stage that feels like a threat to her), and she doesn't yet understand that this is a gift she'll end up treasuring. But as you connect with her, help her laugh, and acknowledge her feelings, her hurt and loneliness will begin to heal. Your love and patience will give her relationship with her sibling a chance to blossom.

More from Laura Markham Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today