Q: My sister's son is the same age as mine, 16 months, and I want them to be good friends. The only problem is my nephew is a more aggressive than my son; he'll run over and grab my son or snatch a toy out of his hand. Now my child is scared of his cousin and runs over to me when he sees him coming! How can I get them to get along?
A: Ah, the politics of family relationships; so challenging, even when it comes to the smallest members! These situations are best handled by open, respectful communication and collaboration between the adults—in this case, you and your sister. It's usually a disaster if one parent starts disciplining the other's child, unless there is a clear agreement that this is okay.
First, tell your sister how eager you are for your kids to become good friends. Then, in a non-judgmental way, share your observations with her. It's important not to sound like you're criticizing her or her son, or she may get defensive. You might tell her that you notice that your children have very different personalities and styles of communicating; your nephew is more assertive, while your son is on the shy side and gets more easily overwhelmed. Ask your sister for her ideas for helping them get along better given these differences.
When you're spending time together, model how you'd like your sister to respond to your nephew without disciplining him or making it seem like he's the bad one. For example, when your nephew takes something from your son, playfully chase after him, and perhaps say, Hey silly, Justin was playing with that! Let's get something for you. Then help your nephew find something else to play with. This kind of approach, which addresses the behavior but doesn't make the child feel bad, has a better chance of getting the positive results you’re looking for.
When your son runs to you for protection, it's important that you support him and validate his frustration or anger. But try not to say anything negative about your nephew. Your son is an expert observer and he will look to you for cues as to how he should feel about his cousin. Try to sound excited and upbeat when you talk about your nephew.
Instead, focus on problem-solving by coaching your son about how to handle the situation. You might say something like, Oh no, did Andrew take your toy? Let's go see if we can get it back. I bet we can figure this out together. Then encourage him to use whatever communication skills he has at his age—such as his gestures and sounds—to let his cousin know he wants his toy. Next you can suggest that the three of you search together for a different toy for your nephew. As the kids get older, you can also teach them about taking turns by making a game out of it: Set a kitchen timer for 5 or 10 minutes and have the boys trade toys when the buzzer goes off.
With your support and your sister's cooperation, you will hopefully be able to turn this situation around and help your son learn some important coping and assertiveness skills to boot.