A parent recently asked me what to do when her child’s older sibling constantly answers for him. While it’s caring that the older sibling wants to help his little brother, it’s also very important for each child to have his own space to learn and develop, try new things, and make mistakes. So how can parents help?
What to do when an older sibling compensates for a child with speech and language difficulties:
- Talk to the older sibling alone. Instead of being reactive, be proactive by talking to your older child about his younger sibling’s needs. Teach him that it takes time to learn how to talk, and he can help his younger sibling talk by giving him space to try on his own.
- Use positive language. Instead of telling older siblings what they can’t do, tell them what they can do. For example, “You can help Jonny talk by being a good listener,” or, “You can be a helpful big brother by letting other people have a turn to talk.”
- Teach older siblings alternative ways to be a helper. Praise your older child for wanting to help his younger sibling, and then offer him other ways to help. For example, he can help his younger sibling by being a good listener, by giving him time to finish his ideas, and by saying encouraging things (such as, “good job!” or, “thanks for sharing your idea!”).
- Emphasize “talking turns” between family members. It’s important for all children to learn conversation rules early on, which includes learning about listening, interruptions, and waiting for a turn to talk. This can certainly be hard for young kids. To help, emphasize “talking-turns.” (“It’s Jonny’s turn to talk. Next will be your turn to talk.”) You might even use a tangible object, such as a toy microphone, ball, or teddy bear, to pass back and forth when it’s each person’s turn.
- Play games as a family that promote turn-taking. You might take turns with a toy by passing it back and forth, play catch with a ball, or play a board game that involves turn-taking, such as Barn Yard Bingo, Candy Land, or Zingo.
- Encourage active listening. Teach family members what it means to be a good listener. Use concrete examples such as, “You can listen by looking at the person who is talking,” or, “When you are listening, your mouth is quiet.”
- Set aside one-on-one time for each sibling to play with a parent alone. Language development is enhanced through modeling, practice, and play with caregivers. To make sure your child is receiving language-rich opportunities, set aside 15-20 minutes each day to play one-on-one with your child.
- Praise the things that are going well. When you notice positive behavior, reinforce your child right away using very specific language. For example, “Wow! You let Jonny have a turn to talk. You are a very good big brother when you let other people have a turn to talk.”
By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, you can help your children develop healthier communication habits. Older siblings have a special role as a “big brother” or “big sister.” By teaching them about their special role, you can encourage your kids to feel more positive about helping their younger siblings. For more ideas about how to incorporate siblings into your child’s speech and language development, visit the blog, Encouraging Siblings to Help With Speech & Language Practice.