QUESTION: Our five-year-old daughter has recently started trying to get our two-year-old son in trouble, or even injured. The most recent incident involved her telling him to jump off the top bunk in her room. When I asked her what she thought would happen if he had jumped, she said that she thought he would break an arm or a leg. Telling him to run around the garden in his socks is one thing, but consciously trying to get him to injure himself is very worrying. This behaviour seems to happen only at home, and she is very well behaved at school. She was very jealous when he was an infant but this passed quickly so is this simply another phase, and what can we do?
One of the most important goals of parenting is to help your children learn to get on with each other, especially their brothers and sisters. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures as a parent is seeing your children being kind, having fun and taking care of one another, and this gives you a great sense of security for the future.
Even if you are a parent of an only child, seeing him or her being kind to another child is a great source of reassurance that they have the most important skills to get on in life. As a result, witnessing your children fighting or being mean towards other children is particularly hard and a little bit shocking, especially when directed towards a younger brother or sister. However, this is one of the most common behaviour challenges and it does require a thoughtful response.
Understanding your daughter’s behaviour
In helping your daughter, it is important to understand just how hard it is to get on with a younger sibling and to deal with all the feelings of jealousy and competition this can entail. Your daughter might feel that you favour her younger brother, and if you criticise her behaviour towards him she might feel that this is another sign that you prefer him, thus making the behaviour worse in the future.
She may not understand the potential harm of her behaviour (getting him to jump or run in his socks) and may see only the fun side of this: it is a sure-fire way of getting attention (albeit negative attention), meaning she will continue to do it until she learns another way.
Helping your daughter have a good relationship with her brother
The goal is to help your daughter learn to be a positive teacher and a good influence on her brother. Rather than criticising her when she is negative, you should put all your energy into showing her how to be a positive influence and to learn to enjoy this. She is much more likely to learn when you focus positively on how you want her to behave rather than focusing on the negative behaviour you don’t want. Here are some ideas:
Constantly acknowledge how important she is as a big sister in her brother’s life. Say things like, “Your brother learns so much from you . . . he watches you all the time . . . he looks up to you.”
Praise her any time you see her being kind towards her brother: “That was lovely, the way you shared with N; you are so kind.”
In particular, praise any time you see her being careful with her brother (for example, the opposite of the unsafe behaviour you are worried about): “That is great to see you being so safe with your brother,” “Well done for helping him get down the bunk so carefully . . . I can always rely on you to be a safe big sister.”
Point out to her any time her brother is kind towards her: “Oh look, N wants to give you his toy,” or any time her brother expresses positive feelings towards her: “Oh look, he wants to play with you again; he really enjoys the way you read to him.”
Tell her about positive connections between her and her brother. For example, you could say how when her brother was tired as a baby, he settled once he held the special teddy she gave him because it reminded him of her.
Sit down with the two of them and show them how to play energetic games safely. For example, you might set up a wrestling time with cushions in a room or in the garden with all obstacles removed. Make sure to have a clear rule about when wrestling time is over.
Coach your daughter about how to be kind towards her brother, especially in hard situations. For example, you can help her think of strategies by asking, “What can you do when your brother is giddy and annoying you?” and then give some suggestions as needed: “Perhaps you could tell him to stop and walk away for a minute.”
Managing the fights and negative behaviour
In responding to negative behaviour, the important thing is to try to de-escalate it and not over-criticise. Instead, you want to move on quickly and focus your daughter on the good, “friendly” behaviour you want to see. For example, if she says she wants her brother to jump so he will hurt himself, rather than reacting with anger or a horrified expression, simply say something like, “That would be silly, wouldn’t it? Why don’t you tell him something fun and safe to do.”
In addition, it is important not to focus only on your daughter in these situations, and to instruct both of the children. For example, if your daughter tells her brother to do something dangerous you might say to him, “Just say no when your sister tells you to do something silly,” and to her, “Suggest something safer to do,” and so on.
Though they are of different ages, sharing the responsibility between the two children like this feels fairer, removes the jealousy, and also begins to teach her younger brother how to stand up to her.
Finally, have a look at my other articles about dealing with sibling rivalry and helping children get along.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.