Mostly, children learn from our modeling. So if you respond with calm empathy to your children, even when they're upset and angry, your older child will learn that that's how we respond to an upset person of any age. Of course, he won't always be able to stay calm, particularly if he's worried about his little brother knocking down his tower, taking his truck, or ruining his game. And if the little one actually hurts him, you can't really expect him to master his fight or flight response.
Hopefully, though, if you've coached him and if his sibling rivalry is in check, your older child's response will be measured. Meaning, he'll resist clobbering the 19 month old, but might take his own toy and leave the room. That's not so different from a puppy ending the game when his sibling gets too aggressive, and it's not a bad natural consequence for the younger sibling to encounter. (No, I'm not recommending that parents leave the room when a 19 month old is aggressive, because it triggers the child's abandonment panic. Siblings play a different role in the little one's life.)
Here are eight essential tools to help your child deal with aggression from a younger sibling.
1. Model. To the 19 month old: "Ouch, that hurts! I'm going to move back from those hitting hands.....You must be mad! Can you show me what you want? Oh, you want to use the red car? Okay, here you go. I can use the blue car. See, you don't have to hit. You can just show me what you want."
2. Teach. "Your little brother hits because he gets so worried about getting what he wants. He's still very little, and when he gets upset, it's hard for him to use his words. If he knows you'll try to help him, then he won't need to hit so much. So if you can tell him you understand, he won't won't feel like he needs to hit to get what he wants."
3. Empathize, Acknowledge, and Problem-Solve. "It's hard when your brother hits, I know.... I appreciate your trying to be patient with him..... and I see he gets fixated on using the red car. You probably get tired of using the blue car, right? Thanks for being so flexible. It it starts really bothering you, let me know. Maybe we need a second red car, so everyone gets one."
4. Give him the words. You can't really expect your child to know what to say to his sibling, which makes it more likely that he'll use his fists. Expect to give him the words over and over: "You can tell your brother, 'Hey, I was using that. No grabbing.'" Over time, he'll start using your scripts.
5. Act out scenarios in a fun way to help your older child remember what to do in a tense situation. For instance, if you have a toddler who thinks he's a monkey, make sure your older child knows how to dump him on the couch in a way that gets everyone laughing! Be sure to include practice, with your older child saying "No! Don't hurt my body!" and then moving away from the fight and calling for a parent.
6. Set limits. "Your brother's brain is still growing, so when he gets mad he can't always stop himself from lashing out. But he's learning. And the way we teach him is, we control our own upsets, and we never hit. It is never okay to hit a younger child, no matter what. Just move away so he can't hurt you, and yell for a parent: 'Mom, Dad, we need you!'"
7. Protect. Be sure that your older child has a space to work on projects that the younger one can't reach. He may well enjoy playing with his little brother, but he shouldn't be expected to entertain the younger one when he's focusing on his own "work." Set up a table for him so they can stay in the same room while the older one draws, builds, or does puzzles. Or move some of the little one's toys into the kitchen so your older child gets a break from having to play "mature big brother." There's nothing wrong with him playing with his little brother, but his main job is to grow and master his own developmental hurdles, not to provide childcare. If that need's not met, you can't expect him to be patient with his brother.
8. Make sure your older child knows he always has back up. Tell him "Sometimes you can tell when your little brother is cranky and going to get aggressive, right? Usually, that means he just needs to cry. So please just call me at those times, and I'll take over and help him with his feelings." Giving your older child tools is terrific, but even adults have a tough time with an aggressive toddler. You can't expect him to handle his brother's big feelings without you.
Did you notice that none of this will work if the older child is in the grip of sibling rivalry? Older sibs need one on one time with parents where they feel seen and valued for who they are. They need to be reassured of their special role in the family, that the younger child looks up to them (as younger kids always do.) And they need to know that they're still the apple of your eye, that you could never love anyone else more -- no matter who's on your lap at the moment.
Next post in our Sibling series: When Your Toddler Grabs from the Baby