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My daughter is 3.5 years old and, naturally, sometimes has tantrums, gets upset and frustrated, and wants a hug. Her brother (22 months) adores her and, imitating us, will often try to hug her or give her a toy when she is crying.

As their parents, it's upsetting that she often doesn't respond to his affection and will generally only hug him when asked to by us. Although they do sometimes play (and rough-house) together and she is rarely outright hostile, her attitude is more often one of wary indifference.

What can we do to encourage her to reciprocate his feelings?

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At that age, 22 months, her little brother is probably a bit too little (as far as she's concerned) to be a very fun playmate. Things will likely change significantly once he gets to 3.

Our children are approximately the same age difference as yours, and we encountered similar issues at that age. Our daughter was mostly just frustrated and annoyed by her younger brother, until he was old enough to understand and be able to actively participate in her imaginative games. Now they're best friends and are very affectionate with each other.

I think you just need to be patient, and they'll be just fine.

  • My two youngest are exactly the same age difference (20 months) and my experience was the same: at 3.5 my son barely noticed his brother. Now at almost 6 and almost 4 they are inseparable. I will add that both boys' emotional intelligence improved when they entered social groups outside the home (playgroups and pre-k). – Jax Feb 19 '16 at 0:39
  • Thanks both! I'm sure they'll grow close. I just hope our youngest doesn't give up trying to comfort his sister. – user293594 Feb 19 '16 at 15:03
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Oh yes siblings love each other, but they are also most capable to do things where the other reacts angry, upset, sad etc.

In my view there is two issues at those ages to resolve conflicts: the lack of understanding the other as individual and his or her emotions (more developed from age 4 on) and the very basic communication (in particular with 22 months).

What I do with ny kids (3,5 years and 19 months) is the following. When talking to the older I first empathise with his situation. Describe what I see: Playing with XY and her approaching. Guess his feelings (more meant as emotions. Other example: "When she takes your car you react angry"). He might feel annoyed, because he wants to play and not cuddle. Find out his needs: playing/fun, have some peace and quiet etc.. Then when I see he is opening up and feels understood I make him understand his little sister:

"Your sister comes to you and wants to hug you. She loves you a lot and therfore has the need to hug you and wants to be close to you. When you give her a hug and a kiss she will be happy and leave you alone playing." etc.

So I actually translate in four steps:

  1. Observe and describe only what I see.

  2. Guess the feelings (might discuss for the older for the younger I have to leave it to guessing for now).

  3. Find out the need they express or which is the reason for the feeling. (Even works with the little one e. g. for food or things she wants to have but can't reach. I can just show her if that is what she wants to have).

  4. Tell one or the other what would fulfill that need (hug or kiss in your case) or do myself what I understand as request.

I hope this helps for a start, but it takes time to establish something that works for you and your kids. My son got much calmer with me first empathising with him, but he had to get used to me asking for or guessing his feelings.

If you want to train on such approaches NVC from Marshall Rosenberg and the books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (e. g. Siblings Without Rivalry) help a lot already from that young age on.

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