Siblings Both Wanting Your Attention

Dear Dr. Rene,

Thank you for the great class on sibling rivalry. My big problem now though is that my  one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half year olds are competeing for my attention, expecially physically. If one is sitting on my lap, the other wants to be there too. If I am holding one to comfort their crying, the other will often start crying too wanting to be picked up. If I walk out of the room (where I was sitting with my husband and both children) and one child follows, the other will drop what they are doing and follow too. Is is exhausting physically and emotionally. They do not demand the same of my husband and tend to not want to be with him in these moments. Please help!


Betty, mother of two

Hi Betty,

It seems there is a short term answer and a long term answer here. In the short term, focus on teaching turn taking. Start by highlighting when they take turns with toys and when they have a turn with the preferred blue cup at lunch. Talk about how patiently the other is waiting for a turn. Coach them on how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait including finding something else to play with or do. With the three-and-a-half-year-old, try to introduce an exchange of turn taking at least once a day. When she is happily playing with her toys, sit beside and start to play with one of them, comment how you are enjoying you turn and ask if she’d like the next turn. In a minute, remember to give her a turn and then ask if you can have it back when she’s done. If she remembers to give you another turn, comment on how nice that was. Coaching can include reading books about turn taking and sharing as well as having puppet shows or role plays to illustrate the point. Here is a list of related children’s books:

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

The idea is to teach the general social skill first. Once the kids have had this practice and coaching, carry that language over to taking turns on your lap or being held. I know it can be difficult to hear their upset while they wait, but there is benefit in learning to wait, have patience and to delay gratification. Do your best to give them empathy, but follow through and finish the turn you are on before moving to the next.

In the long term, be sure you and your husband are each getting some individual time with each child at least once a month. This can be as small as going to the grocery store together if the child is getting to help pick items and there is open, pleasant conversation.  You might also read Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish that lays out other guidelines to reduce sibling rivalry.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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