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The Competent Parent: Battling brothers

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Battling Brothers

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 18-month-old and 3-year-old boys are constantly at each other. One only has to think about playing with something across the room, and his brother runs ahead of him to get it. Screams, scratches, and a few bites get me in the middle of it, and all I can do is scream as loudly as they do and send one or the other to his room or crib. My husband let me hire a part-time nanny just so I can get a break from this. Any advice?

Battle Weary

Dear Battle Weary,

This sounds unbearable. I’m glad you are getting an occasional break. That’s an important strategy for managing the often frustrating demands of young children. I wonder how the boys do with the nanny, or if they’re any different when Dad is home with you? Sibling rivalry often is rooted in rivalry for the adult’s attention. This need can be addressed with ample one-on-one attention, best accomplished by sharing the children among a handful of adults. A nanny adds to the number, as will a family-friendly neighborhood association, a church “family,” a moms club, a play group, or the friends to be found when your older one starts preschool. Divide and conquer between two parents (or you and the nanny) by including one child at a time in chores and errands, during which one raptly attentive adult is encouraging the child’s use of language and problem solving, teaching life skills (cooking, cleaning, budgeting, etc.), sharing family stories, in essence, investing in an individual relationship with an individual child.

Have you looked into medical/personality/learning issues which may be making one or both of your children harder than normal to live with? Allergies, for example can bring out the worst in a person, no matter what the age, and in the toddler and preschool years it can appear as the behaviors you described. A compelling case was made by Dr. Doris Rapp in her book Is This Your Child? in which she ascribed many behavioral and learning difficulties to children’s allergies. A clip of her discussing her work appeared on the Phil Donahue show and is now on YouTube. You can save your child(ren) and your whole family from years and years of behavioral misery by getting to the bottom of allergies early. Sleep needs can also affect niceness, so look into improving everyone’s slumber habits.

Certain temperament traits – which are nobody’s fault, they’re inherited – can cause behavior challenges. All of us range from lower to higher on each of nine traits, and these traits tend to stay stable over a lifetime. The key is to tailor your parenting expectations to fit the child’s needs. For example, if one or both of your children are at the higher end of activity level, they will feel bottled up if they spend too much time indoors. Hence the running across the room and brother bashing brawls. A management technique for this behavior trait is to spend more time with high energy activities outdoors. A good website for more on temperament differences is at: temperament.com.

Learning differences and disabilities can be detected in very young children through a process which often starts with the parent feeling exasperated by behavior. Bring your concerns to the attention of your pediatrician, or call the county’s free service, Child Find at: 410-766-6662. A professional screening can help determine if your child is struggling with a hearing problem, a language disorder, autism or other such issue which can affect how he processes information and expresses himself. It may feel like a path you don’t want to travel, but the sooner you do, the sooner you can identify or eliminate these possible causes of challenging behavior and move closer to harmony at home.

Take charge and wage peace,

Dr. Debbie

Don’t miss last week’s advice for parents dealing with sibling jealousy.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]

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