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Sibling Rivalry Between a Toddler and an Infant

Sibling rivalry is a common occurrence among siblings, especially when a new baby is born. This question was submitted by a mother who is wondering what to do about the sibling rivalry between her two year old daughter her infant son.

Dear Doctor Life Advice,

My daughter is 2 years and 7 months and my son is 7 months old. My son is trying to learn how to walk. He is holding on to furniture to help balance himself to stand, and my daughter is constantly pushing him down and hitting him or tackling him. She is also trying to run him over with toys that she can push like her toy grocery cart. I have tried several different things to get her to be nice to him. I give her three warnings, and then I either put her in time-out or I take her toys away. Everything I do only works for maybe 5 minutes. When I give her warnings, I make her look at me so that I know that she understands. I have been very consistent. I try for a week one form of discipline before trying something new but nothing seems to work. What can I do to keep her from hurting him all the time?

Signed: Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned Mother,

This is a common issue that parents face, especially when a new baby is born. Your daughter has been used to having her parents all to herself for the first two years of her life. All of a sudden, she finds herself having to compete with a baby for everyone’s attention. Obviously, she is not happy with this new arrangement. To begin with, no one asked her opinion about this change, and to make matters worse, she is stuck with the changes. She is taking out her anger and frustration at the person she has identified as the culprit behind the loss of attention she is experiencing. I agree that there needs to be negative consequences for her behavior, however, I think there should first be positive reinforcement of her good behavior as well. Lets look at the different changes you can make that will help her cope better with her new life.

Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Children do respond to punishments, however, now always in the ways we want them too. Reinforcement of positive behavior is essential for a child to learn that she is “good,” and will encourage her to do behave in even more positive manners. Start by thinking about cheap little rewards that you can give her frequently. At her age, I believe, she will like stickers, stars, little bouncy balls (big enough not to be choking hazards), etc. Get a large glass jar and fill it up with these little rewards. Some of the rewards can also be just hand-made coupons for things such as “trip to library with mommy,” or “story time with daddy,” etc. Put this glass jar in an area out of her reach and within her eye-sight, so she can see it and want to work towards getting the rewards. Then give her opportunities to earn rewards. Here are some examples of opportunities that will work with her age:

  • Make her Mommy’s helper. Every time you are attending to your son, ask your daughter for her help. It can be very simple. For example, when you are changing diapers, have her hand you the wipes, and then hand you the clean diaper. When she does a good job with this, let her pick a prize out of the jar. When you are preparing to feed your son, your daughter can help you set up, or clean up, and get a prize. When you are putting your son to bed, your daughter can help you with the sleep routine. This will all give her a sense of responsibility over her little brother. She will feel confident that she is useful to her mother, and still has her mother’s attention and love. Her view of her brother will also hopefully change from anger to a more caring and loving one. Acknowledge her accomplishments with enthusiasm. Say things such as “I am so glad I have you here to help me,” and “what a wonderful big sister you are.”
  • Give her more responsibilities as you trust her more. This is along the same lines as above, however, you need to make sure you trust your daughter before you give her these responsibilities. You can ask her to watch over your son when you go to the bathroom or take a shower, and if she does well, she gets a sticker. Obviously, a two year old can’t really watch over your son, so they still both need to be near you and under your supervision. You just want to give her the impression of responsibility here. You can ask her to play with your son while you have to cook or do another chore. This way, they can actually both be with you, but your daughter will be in charge of her brother. Give her a prize for being so helpful.  Make sure you praise her often. You may even venture to letting your daughter help you dress her little brother.
  • Make sure she is still getting enough attention. Your daughter may be frustrated because most of your attention is focused on your son. If this is the case, then it is not fair to her to have to go without your attention. Set aside “mommy and me” time for her every day. Your son should be watched by his father or another family member that helps you, so you can give your daughter your undivided attention. She needs to know that she is still special in your life and a priority to you.
  • Remember to tell her you love her. Your daughter may feel that your son has replaced her place in your heart. She needs reassurance that she is still loved by you. Take any opportunity during the day to let her know how wonderful she is and how much you love her.
  • Tell her often that she is doing a “good job.” Do not call your daughter a “good girl.”I see this all the time. When a parent sees his or her child doing something positive, I hear them say “good girl,” or “good boy.” This is a positive reinforcement, however, it also implies that there is a “bad girl” or “bad boy” possibility. In general, let your daughter know that she is inherently a good person. She is never a “bad girl.” Being called “bad” by a parent can be very hurtful to a child that depends on her parents’ love for her survival. Even worse, if a child is told enough times that he or she is “bad,” he or she will believe it, and will act out the role. When your daughter does something you approve of, tell her she’s done a “good job.” When she does something you disapprove of, simply tell her what she did is “not OK,” or “not acceptable.”
  • Do not fall into the trap of giving her more attention when she does something wrong. Think about how much attention she’s been getting from you since your son was born. Has she been getting a lot of positive attention? Children prefer negative attention to no attention at all. In your question you stated that when she does something hurtful towards her brother, you focus on your daughter, make her look at you in the eyes, and give her a consequence. During these episodes, she has your attention all to herself. As far as I can tell, you are rewarding her for hurting her brother by focusing on her. If you do all of the suggestions above, then your daughter will hopefully feel that she has enough positive feedback, and will not seek out negative ways to get mommy to focus on her. If she continues to hurt your son, do not make her the focus of attention. Run to your son, pick him up, and soothe him. Turn your back to your daughter and walk away while soothing your son. Do this only where you know she is safe. She will not like the fact that you walked away with her brother. Hopefully, she will learn not to hurt her brother.

Negative Reinforcement Techniques

Although I believe discipline is an essential part of raising your children, as you have already experienced, it is not always effective. Children need to learn that there are consequences for all of their actions. This is why I think the most effective form of discipline would ideally relate the consequence to the action. For example, picking your son up and walking away from your daughter when she hurts him is a natural consequence. It teaches her that she will lose mother’s attention and the opportunity to play with her brother if she hurts him. Taking away her toys is also a natural consequence. If she runs over her brother with her little shopping cart, then by all means, take away the shopping cart.

You stated in your question that “nothing” seems to work. I think if you give more positive reinforcements to your child, then the negative reinforcements will be more poignant to the child. Here is a list of suggestions I have for using negative reinforcements more effectively. I would like to put in the disclaimer here that I formed these opinions through my years of study, research, experience with my patients, and my role as a mother. Not all mental health professionals out there may agree with my point of view.

  • Corporal punishment is never necessary. I don’t think hitting your children will ever give them the right message. For starters, it is a generic consequence which is not connected in any way to the crime. Think about what you would teach your daughter if you hit her in response to her hurting her brother. You are essentially saying “if you hurt someone smaller than you, then someone bigger than you will come along and hurt you.” How is that a lesson for the child? What worries me most about corporal punishment is the general message that the child gets. The general message states that there are situations in her life where it is appropriate for someone bigger and stronger than her to hit her. I would rather teach children that there are absolutely no justifications for someone hitting someone else, and hope that they will carry that teaching into their adult lives.
  • Pick a consequence and stick with it. Whatever this is, make it something that she knows. For example, for a two year old, two minutes of time-out may be enough. I am not a big fan of time-outs, however, because I have no idea how to enforce them. Unless your child actually goes to time-out voluntarily, then I don’t know if you can make her stand in one place against her will. Taking something away is easier to enforce. The best option would be to take away the object that she hit your son with. Sometimes there is not an object to take away, such as when your daughter pushes her brother. Then you have to get more creative and think about taking something else away. At age two, maybe she has a favorite book or toy, a pair of shoes, or a favorite dress that you can take away. Once an object is taken away, don’t give it back. She will have to earn it back by doing something positive as listed above. When she earns it back, give her a lot of praise for doing the right thing. When you take an object away, don’t be punitive or mean about it. Take it away calmly and let your daughter know what she needs to do to earn it back.
  • You don’t need to give three warnings. You are giving your daughter way too many opportunities before she has to face a consequence. She’s getting away with hurting her brother twice before she has to pay for it. Again, the consequence could be as simple as a firm “that is not OK” statement, followed by you picking up the baby and turning your back towards her. In real life, we don’t get three chances before we face consequences. She does not need warnings either. Whatever your consequence is, carry it out right away.
  • Stick with one method. I know you give each method one week before you try something else. Think about it from your daughter’s point of view. She is too young to learn in one week, so she is just confused and does not know what consequence she will be facing next. She is obviously not very afraid either. Give your consequence more time. She needs to know that every time she hurts her brother, she is going to lose something she loves and will have to work to get it back. If she is getting enough positive attention from you, then she will eventually learn that hurting her brother is not worth her time.
  • Above all, be consistent. If your daughter does not face the same exact consequence every time she hurts her brother, she won’t ever know what to expect. Worst, if she gets away with it sometimes, then she is always going to try again, hoping she will get away with it. She needs to know that under no circumstances will her act of hurting her brother go without discipline.


Most of all, your daughter needs reassurance that she is still loved and treasured by her parents. She is acting out and getting negative attention because she is missing the amount of positive attention she used to get. Remember she is still a toddler and needs a lot of love, nurturing, and reassurance. Sometimes disciplinary actions are necessary, but always start with positive reinforcement. Teach her how fun it is to be the big sister, to have responsibilities, and to be mommy’s helper. Give her individual time with each parent so she can be assured that her parents love her and want to spend time with her. If she needs discipline, be gentle, calm, and very matter-of-fact about your discipline. You don’t need to crush your child’s self-esteem to get through to her. Always be consistent so she will learn that she can not get away with bad behavior. Always remind her that she is a good person who can do a “good job” most of the time, and may do something that is “not OK” every once in a while. Teach her that when she does something that is “not OK,” then she will have to live with the consequences.

Love your children without conditions. It is impossible to give a child “too much” love.

I hope this helps,

Doctor Life Advice

Sayeh Beheshti, M.D.