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If you’re worried your toddler is getting too rough with their younger sibling, you aren’t alone.

Of course, it’s necessary to keep the baby from being injured, but this doesn’t have to mean playtime is over for good. With a watchful eye, an open ear, and a helping hand, you can support your toddler as they navigate this exciting (and confusing) new relationship.

Child development expert Janet Lansbury explains that when young children experience difficult periods or big life changes (like the introduction of a new baby, for example), they may begin to feel “off-balance,” and not totally in control of their feelings and impulses. This shows up in play that goes from sweet to scary.

What’s a parent to do? Prevention is the first step. If possible, give baby a safe space away from their older sibling if there isn’t an adult closely supervising. Keep an eye on your toddler’s behavior. Is there a time when they tend to get wound up? Can you tell when they’re starting to feel a little wild? When you can anticipate that things might get rough between siblings, step in as a calm observer. Now, you’re ready to give your toddler the extra help they may need to control their behavior and head off any risky play.

If the play has already risen to an unsafe level, try to keep your interference minimal and calm. When parents react with panic, it can actually reinforce the behavior, and as Lansbury says, “create more of the uncomfortable feelings that are causing [them] to go out of bounds.” Diffuse the situation with phrases like, “That could hurt the baby, so I’m going to help you move,” or, “I’m going to make sure you’re touching them gently.” If necessary, you can tell your toddler that they are being unsafe and then remove them from the activity. It’s okay if they express frustration at this boundary; it’s a lot to process, and their brains are building important connections.

Empathizing, listening, and showing your toddler that you trust and support them will help develop healthy regulation skills and learn that boundaries keep playtime safe and fun for everybody.

Try to keep your interference minimal & calm