Big sister is mean to the younger one

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQ. I have two daughters, the eldest is nearly five and the younger nearly three. My eldest is very aggressive towards her younger sister. She screams in her face constantly, despite being told it’s not acceptable. She will pinch, push, grab toys, etc. The younger girl is a very easy-going happy child, but I am very worried about the constant bullying she endures. She will try to kick, hit or, on occasion, spit at me or my husband, particularly when we intervene in any incident. We have tried talking to her and explaining that it’s rude. We have tried confiscating toys, distraction, time out. I have drawn pictures of the house rules and they are stuck to the playroom wall. I also make sure she gets “mummy time” more or less every day.

I don’t know what else to do. It is relentless and quite stressful. She is very shy in public and even in school. She struggles in any social situation and I wonder if the two are linked. To help her along, we do two play dates a week. She loves one-on-one play. We have one or two books about joining in and playing and also give lots of praise for any nice play. All this has helped to some degree, though she still finds it tough. I would love to help her be the happy little girl I know she can be, because between outbursts she’s brilliant and it breaks my heart to see her so angry.

A. There are many different aspects to the behaviour problem you are describing but I think the most significant issue could be the sibling rivalry between your daughters.

It is quite likely the elder girl feels jealous of her younger sister and feels insecure about her place in the family.

The problem could be exacerbated by the fact that even though she is the eldest she might have poorer social skills and she may perceive her sister as more “cute” or “charming” or simply getting more attention because she is younger.

Unfortunately, disciplining the eldest about her behaviour towards her sister can be part of the problem. Any time you criticise or judge your eldest to be wrong in front of her sister, she is likely to perceive this as a sign that you favour her sister over her, thus increasing her feelings of jealousy and insecurity. It is almost as if the bad behaviour is a test to see who you prefer and the conflict between them is a fight for your approval.

To change this pattern, the crucial shift to make is never to judge one child over the other and instead empathetically take both their sides in a dispute to help them resolve it.

Practically this means that rather than becoming a referee and deciding who is wrong, you try to help them sort it out by saying such things as, “Come on girls, let’s calm down and play like friends”. If you need to explain consequences then you should use an equal one, “If you can’t get on, you will both have to play with different toys” or both take a time out for a minute, for example. The key is to communicate a message that you are on both of their sides and just want them to get on together.

Even though your eldest might display more of the aggressive behaviour at the moment, it is important to err on the side of being impartial and to see them both as responsible for the problem and the solution, as this will help them to feel less competitive and to get on in the long term.

There may be occasions when your eldest may be aggressive in a way that you have to intervene, and in these instances, I would suggest you discipline her privately so the comparative victory is taken out of it. For example, you might take her aside and say, “You have to be kind or you will have to play with something else” or “I know your sister took your toys, but you must not hit out.”

Often the best thing is to get in early before an outburst, so you can divert your daughters more positively by saying “Come on you know you have to look after your sister.” It is also useful for the eldest to see you discipline and correct the younger sibling, ideally in equal measure to her being corrected. For example, if you see your eldest getting wound up, you can get in early and say to the younger girl, “Now you must give your sister some space so she can play her own game.”

This approach is very hard for parents to implement as you naturally feel a desire to jump in and protect the younger child. In the long term, however, your children have to learn to resolve these disputes themselves and by being balanced, fair and not taking a side, you will help both your children to feel secure and not have to compete for your attention.

There are many other things you can do to help your daughter, many of which you are already doing such as having special one-to-one time with parents, being clear about rules, and helping her social skills with books.

You might also need to teach her to use language to manage her feelings, such as telling you when she is upset rather than screaming, and also to solve problems by using alternative strategies to manage conflict such as walking away or assertively telling the other person to stop.

You might also observe that there are particular “flash” points for her outbursts, such as coming in from school when children are tired, and that managing her routine carefully can really help, by having chill out time after school, for example.

As you also suggest, praising her when she behaves well is crucial. The key is to notice any time she behaves kindly towards her sister. For praise to be effective, it needs to occur about three times as often as criticism.

If such positive events don’t occur that often, then you can set them up by sitting and playing with the two girls or putting them on the same team in a game, for example, so you have plenty of opportunity to identify all the times they are getting on well together.

For more information on managing behaviour problems particularly in the context of sibling rivalry please see my book Positive Parenting.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, January 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.