Q. I have a four-year-old daughter and I find we are in constant battle with each other. Everything from getting dressed in the morning to meal times is met with constant whining and arguments. She spends a lot of time with her grandmother and, being the only grandchild until recently, she was used to getting undivided attention at home and at her gran’s. However, since my three-month-old son has been born, I have not been able to give her the same level of time, and our relationship has become very difficult and strained. I find that I am regularly getting frustrated and shouting. I worry that I am damaging her emotionally because I am constantly giving out.
A. When faced with a child misbehaving by moaning, whining and arguing, it is easy as a parent to react negatively by criticising, giving out and arguing back. Though understandable, such reactions are largely ineffective and can actually worsen the child’s behaviour. The more you argue and criticise, the more your child argues back and the problem escalates.
At the bottom of these exchanges is your child seeking your attention. The more you provide this attention negatively, the more your child will seek your attention in negative ways. The interchanges can easily become patterns that increase over time and become damaging emotionally for parent and child. However, as with any habits, these patterns can be changed. The good news is that you are aware of what is going on and are ready to take action.
An important factor in your own situation is the birth of your son and the impact of this on your daughter. As a parent dealing with the stresses of a new baby, it is hard to imagine just what the arrival feels like to an older child. Your daughter has to move from a position where she was the centre of your world (as well as her grandparents’ world), to a position where she has to share your time and attention with a little brother.
Lots of children can find this transition difficult. It is probable that your daughter feels jealous of her brother, making her insecure in her relationship with you. This can cause her to fight for your attention and you can experience it as all the behaviours you describe above.
However, when you criticise her, she can feel that this is a sign that you love the baby more. It can cause her to feel more insecure in her relationship with you and make her even more jealous of the baby. And this all comes at a time when you are dealing with the stress of caring for a baby and have even less time than before to share around.
In moving forward, the first step is to “press the pause button” during the rows. When she acts up, take a deep breath and give yourself time to collect yourself so you can choose to respond calmly and positively. Lots of different responses can be effective. For example, if she acts up, you can take a step back and ignore the misbehaviour for a moment, or you can distract her with something else – “Look at the nice dress on your dolly” – or you can acknowledge and soothe her feelings – “I know it is hard”.
Even if you do need to impose discipline, such as giving her a choice between behaving or insisting that she takes a “time out”, this is best done calmly using a positive tone of voice – “When you calm down, then you can come and play”.
The key is to switch from attending to your daughter’s misbehaviour and instead go out of your way to notice and encourage the positive behaviour you want to see. For example, if she is moaning and whining when she is getting dressed, you can ignore it and instead focus on when she helps – “Good girl, you have got your dress out of the cupboard”. Alternatively, you can positively remind her of the behaviour you want to see instead – “Come on, let’s hear your nice voice” or “Mummy loves when you speak politely”.
It is also really important to address how she might feel about the arrival of her little brother. Try to involve her in his care, so she feels included. For example, perhaps show her how to stroke him gently or how to help when you change him (for example, by getting a nappy). Any time she helps, or is kind, or shows an interest in her brother really make a fuss of this – “Gosh, you really are a great big sister.” Even when commenting positively on the baby, try to involve and link these compliments to her – “Look your brother is smiling . . . he learned that from you.”
A simple rule is to try to praise them equally and to praise her first as the older girl. For example, when people visit and are making a fuss of the baby, you can jump in and remind them of how your daughter is a great help and comment on how kind she is.
In addition, it can really help to ring-fence special one-to-one times each day with your daughter such as reading before bedtime or playing when the baby is sleeping .
You can also attend to your daughter and make her feel special when caring for the baby. For example, as you change the baby, you can chat with her and listen to her news.
The key is frequent bouts of positive attention throughout the day. This can avoid and divert problems.
Finally, it is easy to feel alone as a parent even though the difficulties you are dealing with are very common. Do seek support from your family and friends – such as getting your partner or mother to mind the baby, so you have time with your daughter, or both children so you get a break yourself.
You may also gain support by contacting professional services such as your local baby nurse, from meeting other parents or by attending a parenting group or course. The more supported you feel, the easier it will be to change positively and thus to help your daughter behave better. Please see more information in my book, Positive Parenting , published by Veritas.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, November 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.