Help mediating sibling spats?
October 1, 2016 9:52 PM   Subscribe

My (possibly-autism-spectrum) three-year-old and his 14-month-old brother are at the stage where nearly every interaction breaks down at some point. I’m looking for some tools for how to deal with some of the typical scenarios that arise.

I have two darling children. I’ll tell you a little bit about them because this is partly a question about how to handle the interactions between these two specific personalities.

The oldest, Alex, is three — almost four — and possibly on the autism spectrum (I asked a few questions about him here and here; we took him in for a preliminary assessment about a month ago and the doctor thought something like high-functioning ASD was probable, and we have the full long assessment in a few weeks). Alex is enormously bright and extremely verbal but also pretty rigid and struggles a lot with social interactions. He loves to play things with very clear roles (e.g., he loves board games and card games, or putting together large puzzles) and has a hard time flexibly adapting to changes in those things. He also dislikes being touched, especially by other kids — the only touch he appears to like is big hugs from parents when he asks for them. Finally, he has a very hard time understanding or even noticing most non-verbal signals.

The youngest, Owen, is 14 months old and very, very active, independent, and fearless (he started walking at nine months and now runs around, climbs, and generally can get into anything). He understands a great deal for his age, including multi-part directions and I’d guess hundreds of words (based on what he points to in books and what he appears to understand). However, his productive vocabulary is pretty low because his pronunciation is awful, so trying to figure out what he wants or have any sort of actual conversation is very difficult. Unlike his brother, Owen is super-social and really attuned to people — the comparison between the two is in fact what finally motivated us to get Alex assessed — and really seems to feed off of other people’s emotions a lot. But of course he is still only 14 months so he doesn’t exactly have mature responses to those things, and he’s still working out even basic social stuff like that hitting is bad. He LOVES Alex and wants to do everything Alex does.

So, combine these two: (1) an older kid who hates being touched, really struggles to understand people socially or non-verbally, and is quite rigid in his interactions and desires; and (2) a little one, still nearly a baby, who is into everything, has little sense and very little means for communicating his desires other than non-verbally, and constantly wants to play with the older one. This combination means that we are CONSTANTLY having conflicts - pretty much every interaction leads to some meltdown or conflict, and I don’t feel like I’m handling it well at all.

I know that mediating siblings is hard for all parents but there MUST be tools or techniques that other people have found work for them. So that’s what this AskMe is about. In order to help things out, I’ll sketch out a few of the typical interaction types and what appears to happen.

(1) A lot of times Alex will be doing his own thing and Owen will come on by and touch him. Sometimes the touch is incidental (e.g. this morning Alex with playing with his stuffed Bunny and Owen climbed up next to him to point to a poster on the wall, and climbed on Alex’s leg in the process). Sometimes it is from Owen trying to engage Alex, which often is in the form of patting / hitting (I would say they are pats to Alex’s chest or arms, Alex interprets them as hits) or hugging (Owen hugs; Alex shies away). Almost always, Alex responds by looking to me and saying something like “Owen hit me!” or “Owen won’t let me move my leg!” or “Owen is pushing me over.” The pattern is that Alex ascribes some intent to Owen that I don’t think he’s showing (like hitting or pushing). Almost always Owen responds by increasing the behaviour (i.e., hitting more, climbing again); I think he does this because it gets a response from Alex and that’s all Owen wants. Alex rarely engages Owen directly but if he does it is to should “Stop it! I don’t like that!” (a rote phrase daycare taught them to say) and then gets more and more upset when Owen, predictably, does not stop it.

I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried talking to Alex (either in the moment or later) about how Owen is not trying to be mean or hit him, he’s just trying to start playing. But either he doesn’t get it or he says “I don’t want to play.” I usually end up trying to take Owen away and distract him, but Owen is so active and persistent that it means all of my energy is spent doing that, and both kids end up upset anyway — Owen because I’m stopping him from doing what he wants, Alex because I’m not paying any attention to him. And it’s not sustainable; I can’t literally monitor every second of their interactions. Plus doing so means neither of them ever learns how to interact. If Owen does a particularly hard whack or something I tell him “don’t hit” but I don’t feel comfortable teaching Owen to literally never touch or interact with his brother, even if it were possible. I can’t use the “be gentle” thing because Alex doesn’t want even gentle touches. Conversely, however, I don’t want Alex to feel like he has to put up with touches that are clearly unwanted; that seems bad as well.

I have tried just ignoring them but this leads to utter meltdowns on both sides. Alex has never ever been a hitter, but these times are the closest I’ve seen him come to hitting. He gets incredibly upset and it takes ages to get him calm. Also I don’t know that it will lead to them learning anything; it feels like these are two people who don’t remotely have the tools to learn how to have positive interactions without some guidance. So leaving them to their own devices will at best lead to one bullying the other, with little learning or positive development happening at the same time.

(2) Sometimes Alex will be doing something and Owen will try to join in. If it’s something that Owen clearly can’t be part of (e.g., Alex is doing a puzzle or playing a board game) then I take Owen away and try to get him to do something else, and ask Alex to do it somewhere else. But a lot of time it’s something that Owen could join in (e.g., Alex is playing Duplo or in his toy kitchen). Owen of course wants whatever exact toy Alex is currently playing with. [Sometimes the scenario is reversed and Alex doesn’t want a toy until Owen has it.] I have taught Alex to give Owen another related toy, which sometimes works, but more often Alex doesn’t remember to do this or Owen rejects it. If one of the children has had the toy for quite a while I say “you can have it for a little bit more and then we have to share” and then count to twenty or something and the children can each have it for counts of twenty until they get tired of this. But if they’ve only just started than I say that the person who is playing with it can play for a while until it’s time to share.

This doesn’t work HORRIBLY but it completely needs all of my involvement — they are not remotely able to do this themselves. Also it still doesn’t work great, because Owen doesn’t totally understand what’s going on so every twenty seconds he’s crying because Alex has his toy, and Alex does not appear to get any pleasure out of it when he has it because he’s constantly alert to how many seconds he has left. And god it’s exhausting and no fun at all.

What I would like is for them to actually play TOGETHER, or at least parallel. Like, for Alex to incorporate Owen into his game with his stuffed animals or even play on the same piece of playground equipment in a coordinated way. These are the skills that friendships are made of and Alex seems completely incapable of even understanding that this is an option, much less wanting it. I have no idea how to facilitate this, though, or even if this is an age-inappropriate expectation. It doesn’t have to be a lot, I’d settle for a few minutes at a time of actually appearing to interact, but the closest it ever gets is if Owen’s actions accidentally happen to fit into whatever thing Alex is trying to do anyway, or I am heavily sculpting a narrative around Owen’s actions so they appear to.


Part of why I’m seeking help is just to make each day less grindingly painful. But it’s also because I think Owen is starting to feel pretty hurt by Alex’s constant rebuffing. Until recently he’s mostly been oblivious to it but I can see him becoming more and more tentative (particularly when he does things like try to hug Alex and Alex stiffens and says to me that he doesn’t want to be hugged - ignoring Owen entirely). Even beyond that, though, Alex is really starting to struggle with the social interactions at daycare as well — he’s managed a few friendships over the past months but increasingly he comes home with sad little contextless tales of this or that kid who “was mean” or “wouldn’t share” or whatever. It’s really hard to tell what is going on but based on how he is at home and what little I glean from them, I think these things are happening more and more because the other kids are having joint interactions and Alex simply can’t figure it out. And maybe if he can practice some of those basic skills with Owen, that’ll help him with kids his own age.

I hasten to say that Alex does seem to care a lot about Owen in his own way. Alex is constantly aware of whether Owen is safe, warning me if we left the baby gate open and making sure he has his jacket. Alex makes him little presents and gets him food for breakfast and likes to talk to me about what Owen is doing and what he likes. So I think he likes Owen in theory; he just has no idea how to interact.

Oh, and Alex knows that he can at any time go to his room and Owen is not allowed in there without his permission. So he has a safe space where he is guaranteed to be able to be on his own. And where possible we do give both of the children one-on-one time -- Owen mostly when he wakes up in the morning, Alex when Owen is napping.

So… my questions:

(1) Any techniques or suggestions for what I should do in these two typical kinds of interactions, or more generally, to help make it so that every interaction isn’t a major conflict? I’m mainly concerned about the long-term; I want to do what I can to help them have a decent sibling relationship. I would also, if possible, like to make it so the days when we have one parent and the two of them are not quite so long and difficult.

(2) Any suggestions for things I could do with Alex in particular to help him with these kind of social interactions? I fully plan on asking this at the assessment, and if he is diagnosed I’m sure that this will be one of the main interventions, but that is still several weeks away and we’ll have a lot to talk about then. And if he isn’t diagnosed then I’ll still have this issue to deal with.

As always, the MeFite wisdom is greatly appreciated.
posted by forza to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don’t feel comfortable teaching Owen to literally never touch or interact with his brother, even if it were possible.

He's already learning it, you can see it in his becoming tentative with the hugs. You really want to teach him not to touch Alex instead of having him accidentally learn not to touch other kids at all. You mention that he's not good at pronouncing words but can understand a lot - have you considered teaching both of them some sign language? If not full ASL, just inventing a "hi Alex" wave or symbol that Owen can use instead of hugs? Maybe even an OK way to touch him like a pat on the shoulder, if Alex can manage that?

Also, I assume Owen is regularly spending time with other kids so that Alex isn't his only experience of interacting with kids.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:12 PM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the goal should not be to mediate things, but to give them the tools, the language to mediate things themselves. I know that they are probably too young for that now, but I would demonstrate the skill set and with you there have them try it themselves with you helping them to a solution or agreement or path forward.

I also think that their relationship now will not be their relationship as they grow up. I have three children very close in age and they got along more and more as they grew from toddler stage to where they are all three in college and have very good relationship. When they were 2, 3 and 4, their relationship was more along the lines of "What's mine is mine and what's your is mine if I want/grab it". Around when they reached the end of elementary school (5th grade-ish), they realized that they are all very different personality wise and that they needed to appreciate each other for who they are rather than try to make their siblings into something they want.

I know this is kind of general advice (above), but I also think a decent amount of it is age and that they will grow out of it and that Alex will learn to interact with his brother and Owen will appreciate Alex's needs.
posted by AugustWest at 10:28 PM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not ASD but I have always hated casual and unexpected touch and I second that teaching 'don't touch Alex' is different to 'don't touch anyone'. Particularly in terms of Owen learning to respect the other person's space and decisions. My kid (slowly) learned that mama is different to daddy and while I am okay with some hugs I am not with others, and not at all times, and I don't kiss on the mouth. Teaching your youngest the building blocks of individuality will help I think, even more if you can get Alex in on it.

Does Alex understand/recognise those differences? Maybe working with that will help too - rather than invalidating what he feels as aggression, help him identify those interactions from Owen's POV and communication style?
posted by geek anachronism at 10:29 PM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

The hugging thing is really normal, ime. Younger kid having a melt down because older kid won't play is also normal. To a point the younger kid has to learn that older kid does not exist solely to entertain them and older kid had to learn that sometimes you have to remember your younger sibling is not as grown up and be patient. This is all pretty normal sibling stuff, honestly, all parents deal with it. Overall the best thing is to not force them to interact too much in a way you want, and let them work it out within hard boundaries of no hitting, being nice, sharing joint toys and not having to share individual toys etc. And talk, talk, talk to them. Remind Alex that Owen is small and can't understand or talk well yet, remind Owen that Alex needs space. Remind both of them to be kind and thoughtful and to respect each other. 17 or 18 more years of talking through their problems and keeping them from punching each other and they should get along just fine :)
posted by fshgrl at 10:52 PM on October 1, 2016

I don’t feel comfortable teaching Owen to literally never touch or interact with his brother, even if it were possible

I don't have expertise with autism, but I don't think it would change my answer: Alex should be allowed to refuse social touch from anyone, up to and including you and your partner. Obviously, there is no way a three-year-old can have complete bodily autonomy, but when it comes to things like hugs and pats, Alex's wishes should be respected. Owen is not going to learn this overnight, and he shouldn't be criticized for accidental/incidental touch, but you need to gently redirect him away when he goes for the hug or other social touch, unless Alex invites it.

Having to heavily supervise play between a toddler and an even wee-er toddler is essentially inevitable, I'm afraid, and doesn't in itself indicate a failure in your parenting or a problem with either of your kids. Some of the issues may be disorder-specific, but don't you remember the sibling squabbles of your childhood? Some of my earliest memories are of my younger sister attempting to yank out my hair!
posted by praemunire at 11:14 PM on October 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: This is all pretty normal sibling stuff, honestly, all parents deal with it. Overall the best thing is to not force them to interact too much in a way you want, and let them work it out within hard boundaries of no hitting, being nice, sharing joint toys and not having to share individual toys etc.

Thanks for the reassurance, but more than that, I'm wondering if people have specific techniques for accomplishing this. Right now if I try to maintain those hard boundaries there is simply no room left for them to work it out themselves -- maintaining those hard boundaries takes up the entire interaction. So SPECIFIC techniques that would make things go more smoothly or in the long run help this along would be great.

For instance, the idea of teaching Owen a signal (that doesn't involve touching) and not to touch Alex in general -- those are great and are the kind of things I'm looking for.
posted by forza at 11:37 PM on October 1, 2016

Response by poster: To further clarify (and then I'll shut up!) I'm not concerned about whether this is normal. I realise that spats between siblings of this age are absolutely typical. Maybe the ones between Alex and Owen have a few wrinkles on the typical situation -- people's comments on touch are really useful -- but I'm not concerned about "are they normal?" or "am I screwing up?"

Rather, GIVEN that it's so normal, my thought in writing this AskMe was that more experienced parents must have techniques that work better than the things I've been trying. When I try to look up advice in books or the internet much of it is so general that I don't know what to do with it (like "enforce boundaries but let them work it out" above). I gave so many details about the specifics of the interactions so that it's clearer what kinds of specific techniques might work. Perhaps there really are none, and if so, fair enough. But specific techniques (for both of the two questions above) are what I am after rather than reassurance that this is normal -- I know it is. Sorry if that was unclear.
posted by forza at 12:33 AM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel odd recommending a book I haven't read, but their other books are so good I can't help but suggest Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, from the "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" authors (also, "Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family," which is, I think, overshadowed by "How to Talk..." but possibly the better book; it's excellent for all sorts of hassles). Also given her other work I'd take a look at Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life (from the dr behind the very useful -- here's the site's section on siblings).

Have you tried chucking Owen in an Ergo-style carrier and separating them that way? At that age he's still young enough to be interested in what's up at your eye level and content to be "worn" instead of down on the floor roaming and playing. (If you haven't used a carrier before, introduce it gradually -- always when he is already happy, perhaps a bit drowsy, and in a cuddly mood already, not when he is stressed out; that'll come later once he's figured out the carrier is a happy place.) Might sound counter-intuitive for a kid who loves to bounce off walls &c, but it can be very calming, and at times entertaining (lots of parents develop a repertoire of absurd made-up songs to sing at/with the kid in a carrier, I notice); it comes with little bonuses like a piece of red pepper to gnaw on because the parent carrying you is doing some meal prep or whatever.

Do either or both like music? That can be a good distraction tool, something to focus on besides the other kid. As a side bonus, toddler dancing is a riot to watch.
posted by kmennie at 12:48 AM on October 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Can you get a playpen (or other childproof hideyhole) and show Alex how to get in so he can get away from Owen? My mum put her sewing machine in a playpen and sewed whilst I crawled around and explored the rest of the living area. Owen may meltdown if he can't get to Alex, but it's worth a try.

And Owen can definitely learn that it's not OK to touch Alex, but is OK to touch you.
posted by kjs4 at 1:15 AM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Related to the playpen suggestion above, what has worked a few times here is to tell older toddler that they can take their toys and play in the crib, where baby can't climb in, and then all staying in that room. Older toddler wants peace but not being alone. (Hi!)
posted by meijusa at 2:50 AM on October 2, 2016

This might not be an issue in your case, but I'll mention it. For us, relations got better when the older one dropped the daytime nap and started sleeping earlier in the evening and getting more total sleep hours than before including the nap. This made them better rested and helped us parents get some more rest as well, recharging the toddler wrangling batteries a bit.
posted by meijusa at 4:15 AM on October 2, 2016

Our daycare had the kids create stop signs with strings around them, and if you wanted to be left alone you could hang one round your neck.

The kids seemed to like it.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:21 AM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you heard of social stories? It might be worth making a simple social story on Microsoft Word for Alex that talks about specifically what to do when Owen touches him and he doesn't want to be touched. I teach preschoolers both on and off the spectrum, and I use social stories for many of my students. It takes some time up front (maybe 30 minutes when you aren't familiar with them), but it can prevent a lot of frustration day to day.

Social stories are repetitive, use simple language, and focus on teaching one specific behavior at a time in positive language--so instead of repeating "I don't yell at Owen, I don't call to mom when Owen touches me, I don't...," it uses repetitive scripts to teach what you actually want him to do in this situation. Here is a site with examples:

You could use pictures of Alex and Owen in the story to make it more engaging. It sounds like Alex's calling out to you to "tattle" on Owen when he touches him is a big issue, so I would focus on that behavior, and work up to teaching parallel play. A super simple, quick example for this could be:

I'm Alex, and I'm a big brother to Owen. Sometimes Owen wants to play or touch me when I don't want to be touched. I feel frustrated when this happens. When Owen touches me, I can move my body so that I have space. I can use a calm voice to say, "No thank you." I don't need to call to mom, because I am in charge of my body. Playing with Owen is fun when I have the space that I need."

You can of course tailor the story to Alex! This is just a suggestion. Maybe make a social story for not yelling out to you (or yelling at Owen), and making another one for parallel play when Alex gets not yelling out down.

Also, kudos to reaching out for help on here and with the assessment. I hope that both are helpful for you and your family.
posted by shortyJBot at 5:34 AM on October 2, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: To start with, I've found that MetaFilter has a habit of thinking of children as tiny adults. I'm not sure your kids are ready yet for some of the social skills that have been proposed here thus far. The both good and bad news is that I really don't think your kids are at a developmental stage where you can reasonably expect them to play together nicely without intensive supervision.

This is (1) tongue in cheek (2) VERY approximate and (3) NOT intended to disparage any atypical child. That said: based on my kids I consider there to be an Age of Reason, followed by a separate Age of Rationality. The Age of Reason creeps in between 18 months and 2, when kids start acting a little more logically and sometimes you can bargain with them, but often they apply their logic in absurd directions. This is why 2-3 year olds make demands that defy the laws of physics and then melt down when you don't comply. Then the Age of Rationality starts creeping in around 4-5, when they begin to understand *why* you want them to behave in a certain way. Doesn't mean they can always comply or that they never melt down, but there's a shift - for example they understand that you can't un-cut the damn sandwich.

Your younger has not yet reached the Age of Reason, and your elder has not yet reached the Age of Rationality. So it will be hard for Alex to grasp that Owen is a baby and doesn't understand that he doesn't want to be touched. Nor will Alex grasp why you keep inflicting Owen on him when he doesn't want to play. (There are very good grownup motivations, but they're out of reach for him now.) Owen, for his part, won't grasp or remember that he should touch Alex in a certain way, because he wants what he wants and he wants BIG BROTHER. And whatever big brother is doing. The bad news is it means they need to grow a little before they'll be able to do what you want, which is play together nicely. The good news is there isn't some peaceful-sibling boat you've permanently missed. As your kids get more reasonable and rational more of that negotiation can occur.

All well and good, you say, but WTF DO I DO RIGHT NOW? We used to have your problem and we moved all the furniture in the living room and put up baby gates to wall off a corner that we designated the Big Kid Zone. There, Micropanda could work puzzles without having them destroyed, play with legos with small parts, and not be tackled by a young toddler. Nanopanda spent a lot of time sitting right outside the gate where she could see him. Sometimes she fussed, but we saw MUCH more of that parallel play you are hoping for. I know you said Alex has his room, but Micropanda still wanted to be with us and he didn't see why he should have to give that up just because of his sister. Giving him a space where she could see but not touch him filled everyone's needs: space for him to not be disrupted, line-of-sight on BIG BROTHER!!! and 2 kids playing without fights constantly being broken up.

I'd like to reassure you that 3-4 was a VERY difficult age for Micropanda, and though we needed some help to get him through it, he's much calmer and happier at 5-6. He and his sister love each other very much these days. There is still a fair amount of brawling, but nothing like the non-stop screaming we used to have and you describe. As she has gotten more reasonable and developed some of her own interests outside of BIG BROTHER!! it's gotten WAY easier for them to coexist. (He is still the coolest thing ever, though)

Please pursue your evaluations, and get whatever help is available to you. That may make a difference in and of itself - being less stressed about the world in general gives Micropanda much more room to be tolerant of his sister's less adorable behaviors. Explain to Alex as much as you can that Owen is still learning how to play with his brother, and you are trying to help him learn but you also need Alex to try to be tolerant as much as he can; explain to Owen as much as you can that Alex doesn't like to be touched, and try and help him modulate his touches on you.

Good luck. I've been somewhere close to where you are right now and it's really tough. But there's plenty of reason to believe things will improve.
posted by telepanda at 5:50 AM on October 2, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, if you get a diagnosis and can avail yourself of the help of an ABA team, they will be able to observe and facilitate these interactions and can give you specific, concrete advice and strategies. I have an only child on the spectrum so I can't speak from experience on the sibling issue, but it sounds like you are doing the right things. It's exhausting, I know, I just wanted to encourage you to hang in there and pursue treatment for Alex and you will get help with this as well.
posted by JenMarie at 6:36 AM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll just say, as the older of two kids- as they get older, you do not want the dynamic going forward to be 'the little one can provoke the big one all he wants because he doesn't know any better, and the older one should learn to deal with it because he's older.' I had an absolutely awful relationship with my little sister for most of our childhood because of that dynamic.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:38 AM on October 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Physical separation is the key at this age. The older kid needs to be able to get away.
posted by fshgrl at 9:52 AM on October 2, 2016

Best answer: I feel odd recommending a book I haven't read, but their other books are so good I can't help but suggest Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, from the "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" authors (also, "Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family," which is, I think, overshadowed by "How to Talk..." but possibly the better book; it's excellent for all sorts of hassles). Also given her other work I'd take a look at Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life (from the dr behind the very useful -- here's the site's section on siblings).

Came in to suggest exactly these books. I have read the first one, and it's fantastic--it just really challenges the common thinking about sibling relationships.

Do you guys do Daniel Tiger or have you tried? It's not my 2.75 year old's favorite, and yet I make her watch two episodes a morning over breakfast because of how tremendously helpful it's been in giving both of us verbal scripts for various situations. There's a series of episodes specifically about sibling challenges, including how babies can change the play landscape. One of the characters (O the Owl) displays autism spectrum traits, too, so that might give your child something to relate to. It's just really, really good and has absolutely changed the way I parent my child.

Thinking of your family. I remember your earlier posts and hope you know we're all cheering for Alex (and Owen, and the rest of you, too).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:00 PM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, if you'd like some reassurance that this sibling dynamic, at this pair of ages, is stone cold normal, I highly recommend you read through this thread about Grabby and Argh.

Although I 100% wholeheartedly get why you feel like this:

I can’t literally monitor every second of their interactions. Plus doing so means neither of them ever learns how to interact.

The takehome from that thread is that actually, that kind of is what you have to do; that or physically separate them. BUT it doesn't mean that neither of them will ever how to interact. Keep in mind that you're playing the long game here. They will learn, you're laying the groundwork, it takes time to see the payoff.

It doesn't matter how many times you tell a 9 month old not to put an electrical cord in his mouth, he can't comply. You just have to keep the electrical cords out of his reach. Over time he learns about being safe, and eventually he knows not to put them in his mouth. Similarly, for now, you need to keep the kids supervised or separated, keep teaching them how to be kind to others, do your best to treat them fairly when you break up fights, and over time they'll get better at playing together.

In terms of helping Alex get through the short term, I recommend that you spend some time thinking about exactly what you *want* him to do or say , e.g. when Owen climbs on him. Then script it out for Alex and help him rehearse it. This is in the vein of the social stories mentioned above.
posted by telepanda at 12:31 PM on October 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

A routine with a scheduled, shared playtime, but that playtime is each boy having the exact same toy and playing the mirror game (so, no touching one another). Younger siblings want older siblings to pay attention to them, but that attention can be folded into daily routines like, say, Alex is the one to get Owen's breakfast stuff ready. Or a good-night ritual where they both hug the same stuffed animals and put them to bed.

Alex is a good big brother (noticing the baby gate, making sure Owen has his jacket), he's clearly attuned to Owen, and it sounds like he's already Owen's favorite person. They can learn to interact in ways that are less stressful for the both of them, and I think establishing certain routines (within their respective comfort zones, with each one's needs being addressed) will be the key.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:26 PM on October 2, 2016

My Dad took the ladder off our bunk bed and my younger siblings couldn't climb up unaided but I could. I spent many a happy hour reading up there and ignoring the whining from below. I am the only introvert in a family of extroverted, clingy, can't-be-aloners so I really did need to physically get away or I'd kill someone. My little brother who was closest in age followed me and later my friends literally everywhere for the first 7 years of my life. If we ditched him he'd tattle or cause some other kind of drama. Thankfully a family with a son his age and just like him moved next door that year and they became inseparable, because I was planning on drowning him in the river if he didn't learn about personal space. My parents were really good about having us do our own things and having rules and enforcing "leave your sister alone" but even they were at a loss with his eternal neediness.
posted by fshgrl at 1:28 PM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Aw man, you guys are fantastic!

There are some great suggestions here. After reading this thread at the beginning of the day I sat down with Alex and told him that there was a new rule which was that nobody could touch anyone else unless they wanted them to. I said Owen might have trouble learning the rule and we went through some social scripts of what Alex could do if he didn't, but I emphasised that the main point was that Alex never needed to have Owen touching him if he didn't want.

I then rearranged some furniture in our living room to make Alex a "house" that he could go in and play with his games or puzzles so Owen could see him but not touch or bother him. I said he could go in whenever he wanted.

It helped SO much. I mean, I know it's just one day, but Alex has really seemed much happier and less stressed today. And while Owen found it a bit difficult at first to have Alex in his house, he adapted fairly quickly. Moreover, I was kind of surprised how little Alex actually used it; he was in it for most of the morning but as he reassured himself that it worked and he could do it whenever, he only used it about an hour tops in the afternoon. It really seemed to mainly matter for Alex knowing that it was there as an option.

By the end of the day Alex did two things that he's hardly ever done before: first, he willingly put Owen on his lap (seriously, the one other time in his life he's done that was about eight months ago and I took a picture of it because I was so amazed). And second, he offered to hold Owen's hand to help him across a muddy puddle they were playing in. I didn't even ask.

So, I'm sure this isn't the end of it, but just these suggestions have helped immensely. I also appreciate some of the less immediate-term ones as well. To thank you I've posted a few photos so you can see Alex and Owen yourself. The first ones introduce the main cast of characters, the last ones show how today went (with sitting in his house and finally the lap sitting and the muddy puddle). I'll probably end up taking them down soon for privacy reasons but I couldn't resist sharing. Thank you again.
posted by forza at 3:53 AM on October 3, 2016 [14 favorites]

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