Q. My 4-year-old son bullies his 2-year-old brother. How can I get him to ease up?
-- Eric O'Brien, Minneapolis
A. Bickering among siblings is inevitable. It's usually best for parents to stay out of the squabbles and let kids work out their own solutions. A pattern of constant bullying, however, calls for parental intervention.
"Children play and fight. It's normal," says Nancy Samalin, author of "Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings" (Bantam, $12.95). "But constant bullying without any signs of bonding -- playing and having fun -- is unusual and unacceptable."
If a child is getting hurt, either physically or emotionally, it's time to step in, break up the fight and figure out what's behind it, experts say.
First, separate the boys for about five minutes so they can cool off. Intervene in a neutral way that doesn't favor one child over the other, Ms. Samalin says. Use a firm, evenhanded approach. Otherwise, the younger child may learn to play the role of the victim in order to get a sibling punished.
"Then the older one feels like you're favoring the little brother, which makes him dislike the child even more," says Ms. Samalin, who has been running workshops for parents for more than 20 years.
One way a parent can avoid taking sides and foster a safe home is to say to the siblings, "I will not let one child I love hurt another child I love," Ms. Samalin suggests.
"Another one of my favorite phrases is, 'I'm not going to let him hurt you or you hurt him.' "
It's also a good idea to talk to a child about why he's angry, says Lorraine Nadelman, who has taught child psychology for 40 years.
"Don't assume the behavior is unprovoked by the 2-year-old," says Ms. Nadelman, a retired psychology professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
An older sibling needs to learn that it's OK to be angry when his brother breaks his toys or tears down his towers, but that it's a definite no-no to hurt him.
Hitting and other hurtful behavior need clear consequences such as a time-out, Ms. Nadelman says.
"You have to defuse the anger by showing the positive aspects of having a sibling," Ms. Nadelman says. "You could say, 'I know your brother is a nuisance now, but he's going to grow and you will be able to play together.' "
One source of the anger may be that the older child doesn't like to share his parents.
"Every first child is an only child for a while," Ms. Samalin says. "Kids don't always feel as welcoming of the second child as the parents do."
When reader Carole Magee of Canton, Ohio, had this same problem, she solved it by spending more one-on-one time with the older child.
"Try giving the 4-year-old a little more attention," Ms. Magee says. "It has worked wonders for my youngest two children."
Ms. Nadelman agrees.
"They really need time alone with the parent to know they're still loved and cherished," she says. "They're being dethroned. It's a big adjustment."
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