Q&A: mediating between a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old

Kristen writes:

"I am having a sibling problem. I have read your posts on the topic, read Siblings Without Rivalry and Between Parent and Child and still can't seem to find a solutions.

I have 2 daughters, 3 yo and 6 months. The 3 year old has some jealously especially when I have to nurse the baby and lie down with her to get her to sleep. It is a tantrum every time the baby needs a nap no matter what measures I take to avoid it. It usually ends with her lying in the hall outside my room crying that she doesn't want to be left alone. Eventually she will go into her room to play. No go nursing the baby to sleep in a communal room, she's too distracted.

The other problem is that the 3 year old likes to wrestle with the baby. She thinks it is hugs and kisses but it's really pulling and grabbing. The 6 month old is really active, crawling and pulling to standing but not exactly steady on her feet, I don't feel that pulling and grabbing (sometimes picking her up) is a safe interaction. Right now I have to separate her from the baby and repeat that this is not a safe way to play, I usually get an "ok, ok, alright' and then she is back at it, until eventually she is in her room and we are all crying.

I am at my wits end trying to deal with these issues. (It would really help if I could get a good night's sleep, but that's a whole other battle) I do my best to give my oldest some special time when the baby is asleep. I am so mixed up and hugely afraid that I am causing problems instead of solving them."

This evening I'm going to put up a weekend review of the classic book Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy by Ames and Ilg. I think if Kristen gets a chance to read this book she'll see that this sounds like a 3-year-old problem, and not a sibling problem necessarily.

The dirty little secret that most parents of kids 3 years apart (like, oh, say, me) won't tell you is that 3-year-olds can be amazing little creatures, but at a certain point they become cranky little jerks. And it's kind of a crapshoot where in the cycle you'll end up when you have your baby. So you could have a newborn and a sweet loving 3-year-old angel, but then later a 6-month-old and a 3 1/2-year-old cranky jerk. Or you could have a newborn and a cranky jerk, and then 6 months later a 6-month-old and an angel.

In other words, this isn't your fault. And there's not really much you can do to make the older one suddenly become loving and not jealous. Because she is jealous, and that's appropriate, if not particularly adaptive. But she's also just at a tough age.

I can tell you what I did, with some success. No guarantees that my ideas will work, so I'm hoping we'll get great comments with other ideas.

For the nursing down for naps problem, use the TV. We had a Bob the Builder DVD that my older son was only allowed to watch while I was nursing the younger one down for naps. Because it was limited to that time, he'd get really excited to see it, so he actually started looking for ward to my leaving the room to get the other one to sleep so he could watch that DVD. Bonus: I never had to see the first part of the DVD because I was in the other room nursing. So if your child loves some video you can't stand, this could be the nursing-your-sister-to-sleep video (hello, Wiggles).

For the too-rough play, all I could do was just try to be on top of it as much as I could. It was excruciating to have to be there all the time (and I got nothing done), but there were a few months when that was all that worked. There were brief periods in which I could give the older one a job and he'd do it or help me do it, and that would distract him, but for the most part it was just constant vigilance.

From having read Siblings Without Rivalry I knew not to set up any situations in which I was getting angry or telling him he was bad for interacting with his brother (even when that interaction was covertly malicious). So I'd just praise him for the good interactions, and then kind of play dumb about the intent behind the bad ones and try to distract him the way you would a young toddler.

It sucked, but it got us through those evil months.

I'll have my review of the book up for this weekend, and it's a book I highly recommend. Three years is both the best of times and the worst of times, and the Ames and Ilg book really lays it all out and lets you know that you're not crazy for thinking your child is both Jekyll and Hyde, and it's also not anything you did to make them that way. So I think reading that book will help you get a little breathing room emotionally.

Can anyone else offer practical suggestions for dealing with the immediate problems?