When I fell pregnant only five months after my first daughter, Lucy, was born, I was reassured by EVERYONE not to worry because my children would be the best of mates and that whilst the age gap would be initially difficult it would be worth it to see them happily play together when they got past the newborn stages. It came as quite a disappointment, therefore, when having reached a stage of mobility (about eight months of age) coupled with an inherently curious nature, my youngest daughter, Penny, came up against enemy number one – her big sister (about 20 months)! I guess I hadn’t really done the maths or I could have pre-empted this phase and perhaps coped better when it first hit us. Lucy had reached a psychosocial crisis stage typified by egocentrism (aka the terrible twos) just as Penny was beginning to investigate her surroundings using more tactile and explorative techniques than just sight, sound and smell. This combination was to prove to be a highly volatile one fraught with highly stressful situations, many tears and tantrums and a generally miserable household.
In his article on Simple Psychology, Sean McLeod states that
” egocentrism refers to the child’s inability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. According to Piaget, the egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear and feel exactly the same as the child does”.
For Lucy, this meant that whatever existed in our household was hers. If Penny had it, she wanted it. If Penny looked like wanting it, she wanted it and if she was already playing with it, Penny should not even look in her direction because it was hers and Penny couldn’t have it! Sharing was not something that Lucy was interested in doing unless it was absolutely on her terms.
Luckily for us, unlike many other critical moments throughout our daughter’s infancy, we were by now fairly well versed in the RIE approaches. When I started to realise that this sharing drama was something that was going to be an issue in our household for the foreseeable future, I read up as much as I could on the best ways to handle these situations so that it was respectful of both our daughter’s needs and took into consideration both of their stages of development. The overwhelming advice given for this exact situation is to let the toddler take the toys, often the younger child won’t mind as this is symbolic of ‘play’ for this age group and developmental stage. So following this advice, I let Lucy take toys from Penny and I diligently sportcast each occasion, following Magda Gerber’s guiding wisdom to acknowledge the interactions of children in a matter-of-fact way. Initially, this played out as described in the examples I had read. Lucy would see Penny with a toy, Lucy would move to take the toy and Penny would seemingly, not mind and move onto a different toy.
After a short time, however, Penny, who was used to playing with single items for extended period of times, showed some annoyance at having her playthings taken. This grew to anger and then full blown distress anytime Lucy even approached her play area. It was at this point that my resolve to let them work through their conflicts themselves waned. I could see that Penny was never able to engage with anything that interested her for much longer than the time it took for Lucy to notice that she had something and make her way straight over there. It grew increasingly distressing when Lucy would snatch things aggressively and then put them out of reach of Penny before returning to her own play. She was not interested in playing with these toys, she just simply did not want Penny to have them. I started trying to intervene in the girl’s struggles and did not allow Lucy to take everything from Penny. It was clear pretty quickly, however, that this was not effective either. When I would put a ‘block’ between Lucy and the toy, she would then try to lash out at Penny. With increasing acts of violence occurring in these situations, I knew I needed to seek some help. After contacting Janet Lansbury, an RIE specialist who trained under Madga Gerber, I received advice that helped me to reassess the situation before moving forward. I came to the realisation that there was more than one issue at play here. There was Lucy’s perfectly normal egocentricity steering her behaviours as well as a deeper issue of sibling rivalry and jealousy that was the driving force behind her aggression and persistent interference in Penny’s play.
Armed with a newfound understanding of these behaviours, I began to approach the situations somewhat differently. Instead of seeing Penny as the sole victim in these conflicts, I began seeing Lucy as a victim also. She was a victim of her own psychosocial crisis of egocentricity as well as of another situation she was finding difficult to cope with – being a big sister. So I reverted to allowing Lucy the freedom to take Penny’s things from her whilst always commentating on the situations: “Penny had the trolley and now Lucy has it. Penny is crying now”. I could see the look of contemplation in Lucy’s eyes as I spoke aloud the actions as they were occurring. I was always careful to acknowledge Penny’s feelings in these situations also: “Penny are you feeling frustrated that you cannot play with the trolley?” I had released my own anxieties and doubts about how to approach the situations which I am sure the highly sensitive girls picked up on. Gradually, I began to see small changes in Lucy’s behaviour. Very occasionally, after careful thought in the aftermath of one of their exchanges, Lucy would toss something Penny’s way and say ‘here you go, Penny’. This was a huge step for Lucy and seemed so much more meaningful and authentic than me forcing her to get something for Penny or making her give a toy back to her.
At the same time I was practicing keeping my cool in what were often quite physical and emotional exchanges, I was working on helping Lucy through some strong feelings surrounding her role as a sibling, a big sister. Janet Lansbury conveniently posted a fabulous article around this time, with some key points for helping transition toddlers into this role. She highlighted the need to acknowledge the feelings of the toddler, Lucy, relating to the times when she felt the need to act out towards the baby, Penny, as well as bringing up the notion with Lucy that it is hard being a big sister sometimes and that I understand and want to help her.
“When children act-out with the baby — kissing or patting the baby too hard or jumping on the bed next to her — after calmly but confidently stating the boundary (“I can’t let you…”), the parent can ask matter-of-factly, “Are you feeling rough toward the baby right now? Are you upset that the baby’s here? Big sisters often feel that way. But I’m going to help you get down from the bed. I’d love for you to sit on my lap or jump on the floor next to me.”
b. Casually bring up the subject of negative feelings as often as possible: “Being a big sister is very hard sometimes. It’s normal to get angry at the baby or at mom or dad, feel sad, worry or just be upset and not know why. If you feel any of those things I want to know. I will always understand, love you and want to help you.”
I know this advice seems to focus on acts with babies, but I simply adapted them to suit my situation. When I could see that Lucy’s interference with Penny’s play was persistent or getting aggressive, not because she was just interested in Penny’s toy but rather, she was having a hard time with Penny in general and was testing boundaries, I would ensure I used some of the words Janet suggests above. Initially, these words escaped me at critical moments but after placing cue cards around the play area, I was soon able to speak confidently to Lucy about how it can be difficult being a big sister and how I understand how she feels. I also took the opportunity during calm moments throughout the day to talk more about these feelings and how I much I love her no matter how she feels or what she does; always assuring her that I would not let her hurt Penny and would always help her when she was feeling this way.
The last strategy I employed in my quest to support my children through this tough phase of their childhood was probably the most critical. It was to develop immeasurable patience; realising that none of the strategies I was adopting were cures for fixing a sharing problem but rather tips for guiding my children safely and securely through their struggles so that when they were developmentally ready to share of their own volition, their relationship with each other would remain in tact and that their experiences at this time could be felt as opportunities to develop conflict resolution, negotiation and resilience without gaining feelings of resentment, shame or helplessness in the process.
A good five months since the sharing issue first arose in our household (one month since being more confident and resolute in our approach), there has been some truly astounding developments. We have noticed over the past couple of weeks some changes in Penny’s reactions to having her play things taken. Using the trolley example, Penny (12 months) will be happily pushing her trolley around the house before Lucy sees her and takes it from her, pushing it off in another direction. Penny immediately cries out loudly, strongly; clearly upset over having her beloved trolley taken from her. Within 20 seconds of the initial point of take over, with barely enough time to finish sportcasting the event, Penny stops crying and moves quickly to another toy. As predicted, Lucy leaves the trolley and makes for the newly acquired toy. Penny relinquishes this toy without so much of a whimper before quickly darting back to the trolley and resuming pushing it happily around the house. Lucy is left holding the other toy looking thoroughly hoodwinked by her younger sister. She has never yet gone back for another go at the trolley in that moment. It is abundantly clear that Penny has used every experience of having her toys taken to slowly develop a strategy that allows her to play with her toys in peace. This doesn’t always happen but it happens enough for us to know that it is not a coincidence.
Lucy continues to monopolise the household toys on a daily basis but there is less conviction in her actions and she seems less desperate in her need to assert this power over her sister. More frequently now, we see Lucy bringing things to Penny to play with, rather than taking her toys. I always knew that this was a phase Lucy would eventually grow out of but my concern was whether such a prolonged period of being on the receiving end of Lucy’s egocentricity would have a negative effect on Penny’s relationship with her big sister. I am now nothing but certain that both girls will emerge from this period full of confidence not only in each other and themselves but in us as their trusted parents.