Helping Older Children Cope with a Newly Mobile Sibling

By Jenny Sandwick

Great excitement fills the room. “Go,” people shout. “Look, she’s walking!”

Plop! She falls, and suddenly not a sound is heard while she gets up again and this time wobbles forward until she is swooped up into her mother’s arms, grinning from ear to ear and wallowing in the enveloping pride that embraces her.

It’s a landmark day for this toddler-to-be and her parents – but also for the preschool-age sibling watching quietly from the sidelines, perhaps still unaware of the upcoming struggle.

Toddler and BabyThe preschooler would be better prepared for the next few months if an alarm went off in her head that said, “The terror is mobile! Look out for your space and stuff!” But since such a warning is not built-in, parents need to step in and help older children cope with the baby’s newfound mobility and all that it represents.

The preschooler’s old strategies for protecting her space and toys from her little sister are now useless. Toys are grabbed, structures are destroyed, treasures are made soggy by teething gums. The preschooler’s previous tactics – turning around, walking away, holding the object to her chest and running to another room – no longer work. A wailing baby is now running right behind her.

So the preschooler resorts to yelling, crying, shrieking or hitting. And parents are heard to complain, “She’s become so aggressive lately.”

It’s Normal

The preschooler’s change in behavior may be confusing to parents, since – in their minds – there may be no major change at home that could be stressful to this child. In fact, parents often are feeling comfortable with the new addition to their family by now and at ease with the older child’s adjustment to the new sibling. Indeed, this is a stage when the family may be heaving a sigh of relief that the preschooler has managed the new sibling’s arrival so well.

Taken aback by this change in behavior, parents may alert the child’s preschool teachers or day-care providers, who may note the same trend of behavior in the classroom. When the child’s sense of security at home is threatened, she becomes much more sensitive to perceived threats at school.

In fact, this is a common pattern of behavior in a family with an older child and a young one beginning to walk around the house. And while it can be quite worrisome to parents, early childhood educators and child-care providers see and hear of this problem several times a year. They can easily reassure parents that this happens very frequently in families.

What’s Mine Isn’t Yours

Preschoolers are learning the art of sharing, and parents are invested in their child’s acquisition of this skill, and in wanting their children to “get along.” Parents want tranquility and peace in their home. They frequently remind the older child to “share with your sister,” “give her a turn,” and “let her have one.”

But while sharing is an important lesson, it’s equally crucial to protect certain boundaries and toys for the older child. Children who feel that their space and belongings are safe will be more likely to share with others.

Preschoolers are usually eager to please their parents and will often follow their parents’ direction. They do not have the emotional maturity or verbal dexterity to be able to express their feelings and frustrations to their parents. Thus, when they become angry or frustrated, their stress level rises and they revert to less mature coping mechanisms – usually hitting, pushing, grabbing and kicking, as well as a host of loud verbal exclamations to relieve their distress and protect themselves.

This problem is fairly easy to remedy, and you can do it together with your child. 


Talk to your older child. Explain to him or her that you understand the situation, that you can see how difficult things can be in getting used to the increasingly mobile sibling.

Tell the child it’s OK to be upset by this, and that you can see how hard she is working to protect her belongings and her space. Letting your child know that her feelings are normal can relieve some of the guilt she may experience about her strong feelings.

With your older child, identify several toys which he does not have to share. Reassure the child that you will keep those toys “safe” from the younger brother or sister, and find areas where he can put things that the toddler cannot reach. This is important for your preschooler’s confidence in you, his sense of self worth, and the sibling relationship. It’s valuable to acknowledge that, for example, “This Lego structure is so creative and you worked so hard on it, let’s put it here on this top shelf where your sister cannot reach it,” or “That stuffed bear is so important to you, that can be a toy you don’t have to share with your brother.”

These actions reinforce for your child her value to you, the value of her time and energy, and the fact that she still has some “protection” from her sibling. Knowing this protection is available may decrease her need to be so fiercely protective of all her things and help her identify the things she wants to save for herself. The idea of leaving other things more available to use with the younger sibling becomes more acceptable.

Parents can use the same language with the younger child. Even though she may be too young to understand clearly now, she will understand more and more as she gets older. And she’ll be prepared should a younger sibling join the family. The preschooler, in turn, learns that he is expected to respect his younger sister’s things as well.

It’s exciting when children reach and successfully negotiate developmental tasks and stages. It’s even better when one child’s challenge does not impair the success of his or her sibling.


Common Sense Parenting of Toddlers and Preschoolers, by Bridget A. Barnes, Steven York and Ann Russell, MD, Boys Town Press, 2001.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block: The New Way to Stop the Daily <Battle< of Wills and Raise a Secure and Well-Behaved One- to Four-Year-Old, by Harvey Karp and Paula Spencer, Bantam, 2004.

How to Say No to Your Toddler: Creating a Safe, Rational and Effective Discipline Program for Your 9-Month to 3-Year-Old, by William Wilkoff, Broadway, 2003.

The Mother of All Toddler Books, by Ann Douglas, John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

What to Expect: The Toddler Years, by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff and Sandee Hathaway, Workman Publishing, 1994.

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    Jenny Sandwick, LICSW, is a child, adolescent and family therapist who specializes in working with very young children and their families.