Sibling rivalry is always challenging, but let’s talk about violent toddlers. Little brother or sister were cute the first year, but now they’re walking, and they make fantastic targets for 3-4 year olds to push down, shove over, squeeze, hug, bite, punch, slap, pinch, etc.

Suddenly, your little cuties have gone from two separate kiddos with budding personalities, to a full-on bickering relationship, and you feel like the referee.

We know the most important thing is to not react out of fear and anxiety, but to respond and intervene only when necessary.

So when you have at least one child that’s non-verbal and one with significant physical advantages, what do you do?

I wanted to explore this topic more from the perspective of playful parenting.  You know, play really is the most important thing you can do with children this age.  Through play, you’re modeling respectful touch, fairness, compassion, and on and on.  Children do naturally know how to play, but they don’t necessarily know how to be naturally good social citizens with others.

Don’t ask your children to share (would you share your brand new iPhone if I asked for it?), but do teach them how to find another toy for the other child to play with.

If it’s a “family toy” (as we call them), teach them about taking turns but highlight the fact that they WILL get it back.  Ask them to help you set a five minute timer.  If one of the children is a non-verbal toddler, however, explain to them that the toddler doesn’t understand but WILL move on quickly, so just watch for them to put the toy down.

Likewise, if a toy is ripped from a child’s hands, always return it.  Know that is definitely a red flag that the thief’s love cup is likely low or empty.

But, if you have an older child that seems to just run up to the toddler and shove for no reason, well, other than to crack themselves up, then you need to do a little investigation as to what need they are trying to fill.  Remember, ALL behavior is a best-attempt at getting a need met.

Check out this video I did on Facebook recently about this topic of sibling rivalry with toddlers:

Here are some key pointers:

But the most important thing you will do is make sure you’re making deposits in your children’s love cups EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Fill your own first, so you’ll do this all throughout your time together.

First, determine your child’s love languages.  If they are older, there is a quiz online, but if they are younger ponder these questions:

1.  How does your child express love to you?
2.  How does your child express love to others?
3.  What does your child request most often?
4.  What does your child frequently complain about?

And, finally, if you’ve narrowed it down but aren’t quite sure, offer them two choices and see which they most frequently choose.

The 5 Love Languages are:

1. Physical Touch
2. Words of Affirmation
3. Quality Time
4. Gifts (for a child, think handmade/homemade or free – such as a picked flower from the garden)
5. Acts of Service (beyond the norm, such as helping them get dressed even if they are perfectly capable of it)

So, to sum it up: it is less about how you respond to a toddler being shoved down by an older sibling and much more about prevention through generous deposits in each child’s love cup.  Prevention is the key.

When you DO need to respond (when someone has been hurt):
  • Offer BOTH children nurturing and affection (KNOW that the aggressor NEEDS it or would not have acted out in the first place)
  • Check your own anxiety at the door; your child isn’t going to become a mass murderer down the road, this is completely developmentally NORMAL
  • Stay present, there is often NO NEED for words in THIS moment
  • DO NOT SHAME: “We do not hit” “That’s not nice” “Why would you do that” – these are ALL shaming phrases.  If you can’t think of a non-shaming thing to say, don’t say anything.  At most, simply observe what happened out loud: “You pushed him down.”
  • If the aggression doesn’t stop, attempt to separate the children, you can say “I will not allow you to hit.”  You may need to take the smaller child out of the room.  Older child can follow you if the aggression will not continue, or if they immediately say they are done, stay.  This is AFTER you’ve attempted to nurture the aggressor, play with them, and fill their cup.  This is if the violence is relentless.
  • In calm waters, (later, perhaps during bedtime), you can discuss the acting out and brain storm WITH your child ways to handle the little sibling (often they just need to know to ask you for help getting the sibling out of their space) or expressing their own needs (if you feel left out, what would you like to do with mommy that you could ask for?)


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