How to help an oldest child deal with feelings of sibling rivalry

Candy kids asks: I have three boys ages 3, 4, and 6. My 6-year-old is very unhappy lately. He pouts a lot, and does not smile or act silly like he used to. He gets mad at his little brothers often and has been getting aggressive and angry with them. I am concerned about him and want my happy little boy back. He gets very upset when he doesn’t get his way and acts more like a 2-year-old than a 6-year-old. He was never a child to throw tantrums or fits when he was younger, but is doing it now. He never seems happy with all that we do or with what he gets, and recently always wants more. I am concerned he is becoming a spoiled brat. I just want him to appreciate and be happy with what he has and to be nice to his brothers. Please help! What can I do other than discipline him?

Hi Candy kids –

If you read what I post on here, you’ll see that very often I’m kind of, sort of, I don’t know, unsure about my answers.  I’ll say something like, “Well it might be this, but it might be that… I just don’t know enough to be sure…”

Yours isn’t one of those cases.  I’m about 99% sure I’m right about this one!

You see, I have this wonderful human I live with, Handsome.  He’s my favorite thing in the world, and I’m his.  And I know very well that he could never love anything in the world nearly as much as he loves me…

…and then he sees some cute puppy.  And he runs to it and plays with it and pets it and gives it a kiss on its head, and it rolls over, and he rubs the little thing’s warm chubby tummy, and…

…and I go BALLISTIC!  Not at Handsome, I just want him to like me better.  I go angry at that sweet little innocent Puppy!  I jump right on top of that little beast, growling, snarling, showing just how big and sharp my teeth are and how much bigger I am than that little cutie is, and give one clear message:  “STAY AWAY FROM HIM!  HE’S MINE!”

You see, although I have lots of interests (pizza, squirrels, who’s been at the fire hydrant lately, pizza, this website, other dogs, other people, pizza…), the most important thing in my world is, and always will be, Handsome.  I depend on him for my home and my food, and my faith in the world is all based in my sureness of his love.  And while I’m fine with him being friendly to others, and even all huggy-kissy with his girlfriends, I can’t deal with the idea that I might have to share his love for me with another dog.

Now your son, when he was two years old, had the same view toward you that I have toward Handsome.  He knew he was the center of your whole universe.  And suddenly, something very strange happened, and you went out to the store and came back with this odd pet called a Baby!  And around a year later, when that baby started to become someone who actually talked and walked just like him, you went and got ANOTHER!

It’s in nearly every tradition in the world, from the Greek myths, to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, to Hamlet and The Lion King, and on and on… the greatest insult that ever happens to a first-born human child is when their parents have a second one.  Their whole world splits, and they’re suddenly expected to share their home, their toys, and worst of all, their parents’ love.

I can’t tell from your letter if you and the boys’ father are still together, but if so, imagine how you’d feel if one day he brought another woman home, and told you, “Here’s your new co-wife.  Be nice to her, share everything with her, and don’t be bothered that I give her more attention than you.  In fact, be prepared to get the job of taking care of her, since you’re older and more experienced!”  THAT’S what your having those other boys was like for your son!

If he was older when you had your second child, it might have happened more immediately.  But since he was so young, it’s taken some time.  But now, he is fully acting out on that resentment.  And you’re right, you need to do some things about it.

And you’re also right, that you don’t want it to be all about discipline.

What that boy needs, more than anything else, is to be reminded, and proven, over and over again, that he is every bit as important to you as he ever was.  My prescription is that, while of course you have to set boundaries at home, and he needs consequences for bad behavior, you also find special time to take him out, by himself, for special dates.  And if his dad is around, that might mean one of you taking him out (and leaving the other two with the other parent), or both of you taking him out, and finding a babysitter for the other two.  Try to figure out – what’s great about being a six-year-old?  Are there places he can go where the others aren’t allowed yet?  Are there activities he can do with you that the others can’t?

This will help.  A lot.  But then there’s another step to take.

Oldest siblings develop certain qualities, pretty much universally.  And the biggest are Leadership and Responsibility.  Why?  Because those are how they get to feel good about themselves.  When the older kid becomes the “boss” of the younger ones, he’s no longer suffering having been excluded from the family – he’s created a new and essential role for himself!  So, just as, if Handsome brought home a new puppy to stay here, I’d take on the job of teaching that pup the rules of the home, find ways for your six-year-old to take ownership of his brothers.  If he’s learning to read, maybe he could help you teach them their alphabet.  If he’s learning to play some sports, maybe you could get him to teach them to throw or kick.  When he gets a taste of them looking up to him, he’s going to start to like it.  And that’s when all of these problems will start to shift in a big way.

Well, at least all of his problems!  Then you’ll have to deal with all of those middle-child issues (usually that they feel like they’ve never been important and gotten enough attention), and younger child issues (feeling like they never get taken seriously, that no one respects them, etc.).  Oh there’s a lot of ground left to cover.

And if you do it right (and no one can ever do it perfectly; doing it “right” just means “good enough”), what you’ll end up with is three boys who are competitive and feisty at times, but also are deeply loyal to each other, and enormously devoted to their wonderful mother – who cared enough to reach out to a friendly dog, long before they can possibly remember!

Have FUN – it’s quite an adventure!


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