According to the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, 80 percent of children living in the United States have at least one sibling. Many children have more than one sibling, and some days you may think you have at least 100 children under the age of 5 living in your house! The day to day battles and camaraderie between young children and their siblings is more than just fighting for the last cookie in the cookie jar. Young siblings develop psychological connections that have a lifelong impact.
Sibling relationships take on distinct characteristics during the early years. Don’t be surprised if you’re playing referee between your children one hour and watching them nicely take turns the next. These extreme differences are the way young siblings work out how they feel about each other. The Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development explains these ever-changing relationships in terms of three characteristics. First, sibling interactions are defined by strong uninhibited emotions that are positive, negative and ambivalent. Second, sibling relationships of extremely young children are defined by the intimacy of knowing each other very well. Finally, these relationships are characterized by individual differences in the children’s relationships with each other, which can explain why some days your children like each other, and some days they don’t.
Even during the toddler years, young siblings can experience rivalry. When a toddler is the only child she is the center of attention, until a little sister or brother comes along. Suddenly she has to wait her turn for Mommy’s lap or Daddy’s knee. Snack time comes after the little interloper gets fed instead of immediately when your toddler is hungry, and your toddler may have to share a room where this tiny stranger cries, wakes up all night and doesn’t always smell good. These early days have their own brand of sibling rivalry, and you may see your sweet little toddler angel begin to act out, pout, throw temper tantrums and revert to baby-like behaviors you haven’t seen in a while. In Jane Isay’s book, “Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings,” she equates this behavior to might makes right, giving older kids the power and younger ones the urge to fight for survival.
The number of years between children seems to have a direct impact on their psychological connection. According to child psychologist Dr. Dianne S. O’Connor, Ed.D, sibling rivalry can be most intense between children who have two years or less separating them in age. The rivalry is usually at its worst during the toddler and preschool years, which may explain why your toddlers fight over toys and attention so severely and so often. The good news is that as children grow and become more independent, sibling rivalry usually decreases.
According to an excerpt from “Supporting Children in Their Home, School, and Community,” by D.H. Sailor, found on Education.com, birth order and personality have been debated among child psychologists since Alfred Adler described the characteristics of children based on their birth order. First-born children are often natural caregivers, leaders and role models. Even if she is just a toddler, you may see your oldest child try to help her baby brother him a pacifier or toy, giving him a hug or coming to get you when the baby is crying. Second-born children often turn to attention-seeking activities and are generally more outgoing than their older siblings, but while they are small they look to their older sibling for leadership. Middle children may see themselves as overlooked and are more difficult to categorize than their siblings. This is especially true when all the siblings are of the same gender.