Positive Relationships: Ask the expert ... It's mine!

Dr Maria Robinson
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What are practitioners to make of it when the children in conflict over toys are siblings? Dr Maria Robinson shows how to look more closely.

Two brothers in our nursery are very close in age (the younger is almost three, the elder almost four) and in the same room. Recently, the younger one has become determined to play with the toys that his brother is using and hangs on to them or throws a tantrum at the slightest encouragement to hand them back. His brother, for the time being at least, just gives in to his younger sibling. What should we do?

This question has several strands influencing what seems to be an issue of 'sibling rivalry' - the developmental phase of each child; parental expectations; and nursery staff approaches.

Sibling rivalry is very common and as old as time. Part of the reason is that we do not choose our siblings, and while many siblings do have loving relationships, others find it much harder to get along. Reasons can include differences in temperament, and perceived or real favouritism.

Here, the boys' closeness in age may also be a factor. The younger boy is possibly just emerging from the phase of wanting to explore his independence and identity and perhaps is able to more clearly sense any differences in abilities between himself and his brother. The older boy, in his turn, is working towards a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others, but also is establishing his identity as a person in his own right.

On the other hand, in spite of this closeness in age, there are maturational differences between a threeand a four-year-old, which may intensify any rivalry between them.

It does seem as if the younger child is trying to establish a degree of power and control, which may link to his growing feelings of independence and wanting to 'catch up' with his brother. These feelings may be balanced by the fact that there are probably things that he is unable to do that his brother is able - or allowed - to do.

Family dynamic

This brings us to the second strand: the family dynamic. Parents with more than one child often make strenuous efforts to treat each child 'equally'. However, in a strange way, this can sometimes be counterproductive, as children want to be seen as unique and loved for themselves and their own particular areas of need.

No brother or sister is exactly the same in their skills, abilities or temperament. Parents have to remember that a child inherits half of their DNA from each parent, and the mix from their grandparents and so on. So, one child might more strongly resemble a particular 'side' of a family than another, which may lead a parent to feel closer - or more distant! - to one child than another. This doesn't mean a lack of love but simply that some aspects of a child's basic temperament may be more 'in tune' with either Mum or Dad.

Children at this age may also go through phases of seeming to 'prefer' one parent or the other, and be treated differently by either parent as a result.

Gender may also influence parents' attitudes and expectations. Birth order, too, can bring its own pressures, as an older child might be encouraged to take responsibility for their younger sibling.

This makes me wonder if, in this case, the older boy has been told that he must be 'kind' to his younger brother and share his toys. This could go some way to explaining his apparent passive acceptance of his brother's demands. Likewise, the younger child may have been told that his brother 'has to share' and so he may see his brother's toys as equally 'his'. So, if he wants something, he thinks he should have it.

Such a young child still has limited understanding of what it means to 'share', while his older brother may have the glimmers of what this means and so feels helpless in this situation.

Exploring feelings

It would be useful for the nursery staff to gently explore the parents' feelings about the 'rights' of each child. Children are incredibly sensitive to ideas of fairness and justice. Even primates have been known to refuse to do a task if they see another receive a larger reward for the same task! The older child may be feeling a great sense of unfairness when his brother can successfully take away his playthings. This could be very detrimental to their future relationship.

Early years staff need to be aware of this possible aspect and acknowledge it. Saying, for example, 'I imagine it doesn't feel very nice when your brother just takes your toys' may help him deal with his feelings. The demands of being the 'older' brother can seem overwhelming when you are still so little yourself!

As regards the younger child, anger and aggression are very common traits in all children between the ages of two and four. So the younger boy's anger at any attempts to return the toys are an understandable, while not acceptable, reaction. However, this is an important phase for learning about managing strong feelings and so the child needs adult help in coping with the situation. Perhaps he feels that if he has his brother's toys, then he is as capable, strong or powerful as him.

I also wonder what happens when the younger boy has his brother's toys. Does he actually play with them, or does he simply want to have them? If the former, then it may suggest that he wants to be like his brother and do the same things. If the latter, then it may suggest some competitiveness between them, which, in turn, may link to parental attitudes.

Again, something of the family dynamic needs to be explored. For example, if the older boy is expected to always be kind to his younger brother, then the younger boy's snatching may be tolerated at home, which means that he simply won't understand why staff want him to return the toys.

Finally, staff should try to find out if anything has triggered the younger brother's behaviour. A disruption of some kind, such as a change in sleeping arrangements or a clear-out of toys, could have caused the younger boy to feel he must have 'everything', while the older boy may be experiencing a sense of helplessness within the family.

As well as talking to parents, careful observation is also helpful in establishing what is going on in the lives of the children. Perhaps there are particular situations when the younger child demands his brother's things.

These boys need support in playing together co-operatively, although each child may also want to play with others in the setting, as they have a wider choice than when at home! Noting and building on the individual strengths of each child is also helpful. Siblings may not always like one another but they can be supported in being together peacefully.

- Maria Robinson is an early years consultant and author of 'From Birth to One' and 'Child Development from Birth to Eight: A journey through the early years' (Open University Press). Her Nursery World series on child development can be bought online at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk/Books

- If you have a behaviour query for Maria Robinson, please e-mail it to: ruth.thomson@haymarket.com, or write to the address on p15



- www.childdevelopmentinfo.com/parenting/sibling_rivalry.shtml (child development institute)

- Understanding Sibling Rivalry by Dr Virginia Molgaard, Cooperative Extension Service, Iowa State University of Science and Technology

- Berry Brazelton, T, Sparrow, JD (2001) Touchpoints 3-6. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books

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