Dear Katherine: My toddler won’t stop bugging his older brother!
How to Create Boundaries Between Siblings
Hello, Conscious Parent! Welcome to “Dear Katherine,” a monthly Q&A with real-life parents/caregivers. If you’d like to submit a question of your own, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a mother of two sweet boys, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old.
Recently, my husband and I have noticed more fighting in our household. We were quick to attribute it to our older son, but after talking to him, we discovered it was actually the other way around. My toddler keeps pressing his older brother’s buttons and won’t leave him alone! What should I do? How do I explain space and boundaries to two kids under 7?
– Trying to Create Space
Dear Trying to Create Space,
I couldn’t help but smile at your letter. We often attribute sibling misbehavior to the older child, failing to consider all the mischief younger ones are capable of!
The truth about your toddler is that he’s not yet at the developmental stage where he can fully understand social interaction. Because he doesn’t have a fully formed frontal cortex, it’s still quite difficult for him to distinguish which behaviors are upsetting.
That explains why jumping all over his older brother or pulling his hair is so much fun!
Still, it’s never too early to teach your children to respect each other’s boundaries. Here are some tips you might find helpful:
Create a “space bubble.” Sit your two boys down and explain that it’s normal for them to want time to themselves. Ask them to identify these moments (e.g. “I like to be alone when I’m building my LEGO set or taking a bath”) and reassure them that alone time is perfectly okay.
Then, make a game out of creating a “space bubble.” Whenever each of them wants time alone, they can announce “I’m going to the space bubble” or wear something silly on their head to signify what they’re doing. If your toddler isn’t having it, tell him he can spend time with Mommy or Daddy while his brother’s in the space bubble.
Teach them to respect each other’s belongings. It’s common for young siblings to fight over toys and other belongings, but you can help them become better at sharing. Teach your boys to ask permission when they want to play with each other’s toys, books, or crayons. When your toddler suddenly grabs his brother’s coloring book, explain that he can either wait his turn or ask to borrow it. Encourage sharing on both sides.
Also realize not sharing is OKAY. There are things all of us worry about getting broken or soiled or damaged. We protect ourselves from loss and disappointment when we know what not to share. Honoring those boundaries is part of being respectful, too.
Find better ways to connect. What do toddlers crave most? Attention. If your 3-year-old keeps poking his brother in the rib or making faces at him, he probably just wants to connect with him. Show your little one that there are better ways to get someone’s attention, like touching them (gently!) on the arm, calling their name, or asking them if they want to play.
Take the opportunity to discuss that people can only truly say yes to you when they know it is okay to say no to you, too. This rule applies to humans of any age and may provide an opportunity for a conversation about handling disappointment.
Model effective communication. Your 3-year-old may still stumble over his words, but everyone else in the family should model effective communication to set a good example. Prompt your toddler to name how he feels (e.g. “Are you crying because you’re hungry/sad/angry/tired?”) and ask for what he wants (e.g. “I want to borrow your bike or build a LEGO set with you.”)
The phrase “would you be willing” is especially powerful because it conveys that what is being asked is actually a request and not a demand (e.g., “Would you be willing to share your LEGOs with me? Would you be willing to let me ride your bike”) Good communication allows for empathy and understanding.
Trying to Create Space, raising two kids at different developmental stages certainly isn’t easy.
But it’s never too early to start teaching the importance of respect, personal space, boundaries, and communication!
Love and Blessings,