Jettison Sibling Jealousy

What do I do when my 8yo gets furiously jealous of the attention his younger brother gets?

"My two year old requires a lot of focused attention when outside or in public spaces since they are in the ‘stick everything in their mouth while running into the street to try to bear hug the face of a dog they don't know’ phase. And the eight year old is so sad and hurt about losing that attention that he often resorts to screaming "I hate him I wish he would die."

Obviously, no amount of reasoning or explaining can make it better. Taking turns or shifting attention also doesn't really work in these situations where even 5-10 seconds of "ignoring" the 2 year old can lead to real danger. So, what else could I do to help the 8 year old feel loved and not abandoned/hated."

- A Legends Parent

Let’s hear from the experts on the Legends team 👇

I highly recommend Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish for practical tips on sibling conflict. 

In the moment:

  • Is there something that you can give him the opportunity to do like carrying something, navigating with a map, etc. on those outings that is valued, and helpful, that his little brother can't do?

  • Can you prep beforehand by saying "Hey, we're going to a place where I'm going to need to keep a close eye on him, I know that's frustrating so I wanted to make sure I warned you before"?

In general:

  • Lots of 1:1 time.

  • Positive reinforcement when he shows up as a good big brother + pointing out to him the ways little bro loves and values him too, even when he can't express it. 

  • Validate the feeling: "I can see it makes you really angry when I have to give him so much attention. You wish he weren't taking up so much of my time and I could give you my full focus."

    • It's normal for an 8yo kid to wish their younger sibling weren't around anymore but this can also inspire a lot of self-guilt (which makes the problem worse). He needs to know that these feelings are normal (while still being expected to ACT with kindness towards his little brother, even if he hates his guts sometimes)!

We have a two-year-old and are well acquainted with that phase too! 

Try taking a strengths-based approach to the situation. For example, are there strengths or roles the 8 y/o is proud of that you can work from? Do they love being helpful, do they love solving problems, do they love being a big brother? It can sometimes work better to build off their strengths than to address stopping the negative behavior. 

Granted, this is hard to do in the moment, so it can be good to talk through those strengths and what we'll do when something happens. That way, in that moment, you are reminding them rather than teaching them. "Okay, we're at the store, remember we talked about how much you love being a good helper, can you make sure to help me keep an eye on your sibling together with me, because we'll know how to keep them safe. How do you want to help me keep them safe?"

The good news is that sibling rivalry generally ends at a certain point! It’s hard to predict when and even if it’s going to happen, but it tends to go away as siblings develop their own identifies. Unfortunately, if there’s a super competitive streak between siblings, it can last longer than we hope it would.

One of the best things you can do from a young age is to foster cooperation (as opposed to competition) between siblings. Families doing things together and maybe competing against other families but not each other can certainly help. But I do want to emphasize that most of the sibling relationships I’ve seen among the many college students I had in my care as Duke’s Dean of Students have been good and most seem to outgrow any sibling rivalry. 

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