How can I help my younger daughter move out of her big sister’s shadow?

My three-year-old daughter lives in the shadow of her six-year-old sister. In some ways it is very cute – she follows her around all the time and looks up to her – but sometimes I think it is too much. She can be very passive and just lets her sister get her own way all the time. Though most of the time her big sister is kind, sometimes she does manipulate the little one to do things that I don’t like.

Also, when we are out socially, my youngest daughter is very passive and quiet, and I see the pattern continuing with other children. She sits back and lets them decide what is happening. I just worry that she won’t be assertive or stand up for herself when she is older. Am I worrying too much? Is she just very young and will she grow out of it?

It is very normal for a younger child to look up to their older brother or sister, and this is a common dynamic in family relationships. Frequently this natural hierarchy is very helpful as usually the older child is a little more sensible with age and thus can be protective of and a good teacher for the younger one. Indeed, both can benefit from this positive relationship.

As they grow up you would expect this relationship to change as both girls become independent in different classes in school, and make different friends and develop different interests.

However, you are right as a parent to keep a close eye on the dynamic in their relationship as they grow up together to ensure it remains positive.

A complicating factor in your situation is that it sounds like your two girls might have different personalities with the younger one naturally more introvert and reserved, and the older more extrovert and social.

Your goal as a parent is to help them develop as unique individuals while supporting them to continue to have a good relationship with each other.

Ensure you have one-to-one time with each child
The best way to help your children develop their own individuality is to have your own individual relationship with each of them. These means that you find unique connections and enjoyable interests with each of your daughters that you can share with them on a daily basis. These can include reading a book, going for a walk, having a chat or rough and tumble play.

If you are lucky, it can even involve household chores such as putting away laundry, preparing food or tidying up. These activities don’t have to be complicated or take a long time. They can be as simple as developing a habit with one daughter where you read a five-minute story from a favourite character series before bed and a habit of five minutes of rough and tumble with the other. This all works best when both parents are involved. For example, mum plays with the younger girl while dad is reading with the older girl.

The goal is for each parent to develop their own “thing” or unique connection with each of their children. This does wonders for their sense of security and self-esteem as they grow up.

Support their relationship with each other
How you respond as a parent is a crucial factor in determining how your daughters’ relationship develops over time. The first thing you can do is to praise and value their positive connection – “it is great to see the two or you being kind/ looking after one another”.

Secondly, you can have a particular role in encouraging them to have a more equal relationship. For example, if your older girl continually answers for her younger sister, you can respond by saying “let’s wait for N to answer, it is her turn now”.

The most important thing is to hold them both to account in resolving any conflicts that arise. While the temptation is to blame only the older girl when you see “manipulative” behaviour, it is better to hold them both responsible when you try to change this.

For example, you might work on encouraging the younger one to say no – “tell your sister you don’t like that”, as well as calling the older girl aside and asking her be more positive towards her sister – “let’s see more of the kind behaviour you normally show”.

Coach your younger daughter in being more assertive
As your younger daughter gets older, it is important to encourage her independence by letting her make her own friends and choose her own special interests. If you worry that she is a little passive, it can be helpful to coach her in being more assertive by helping her identify what she wants and to ask for this. However, be careful about over-pushing her on this.

The most important thing to do is to value her personality and her existing strengths – for example, lots of introvert children are quite thoughtful and are understanding of people’s feelings.

Often the key is helping them find their “niche” areas as they grow up – activities and interests which express their talents and help them shine.

Coach your older daughter in achieving her own independence
While it is important to praise your older daughter when she displays her “kind big sister” role, it is also important to encourage her independence. Give her space to express the occasional frustrations of having a younger sister – “it can be hard having a little sister into your stuff all the time”. Give her opportunities to do her own thing telling her “I will look after your sister and you get some time with dad or on your project.”

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
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