My lit­tle girl dom­i­nates her older sis­ter

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry Send your queries to health@irish­times.com Dr John Sharry is a so­cial worker and psy­chother­a­pist and co-de­vel­oper of the Par­ents Plus Pro­grammes. His new book Bring­ing Úp Happy Con­fi­dent Chil­dren is now avail­able. See so­lu­tiontalk.ie.

Ihave two girls who were born within only 14 months apart. They are now five and six years old. The trou­ble is that there can be lots rows and fights be­tween them. The youngest one in par­tic­u­lar tends to dom­i­nate the older one. She has a fiery per­son­al­ity and tends to get her own way, whereas her el­der sis­ter is qui­eter and more re­served. They will be hav­ing a row about a toy or some­thing and the el­dest girl gives up and lets her sis­ter get away with it – she goes off and sulks and the youngest gets the toy or wins what they were fight­ing about. I worry for my older girl, that she is not as­sertive and that she is go­ing to get into a habit of los­ing out all the time. I of­ten get in­volved and in­sist they share some­times, but this only works to a de­gree. When I watch them by them­selves it seems to be that the younger is al­ways win­ning. I don’t think this is good. What would you ad­vise?

Sib­ling rows and dis­putes are among the most com­mon child­hood prob­lems that par­ents worry about. As in your case, many par­ents worry about an im­bal­ance of power get­ting es­tab­lished, with one child be­ing lower down in the peck­ing or­der and al­ways los­ing out.

While usu­ally it is the older child who is the most dom­i­nant, oc­ca­sion­ally it is the younger child who is the most as­sertive. While the temp­ta­tion as a par­ent is to jump in to de­fend the child who we feel is be­ing picked on, you have to be care­ful about con­tin­u­ally do­ing this.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, tak­ing the side of one child in a dis­pute can be prob­lem­atic as a par­ent. Usu­ally this leads to the other child feel­ing un­fairly treated and that you favour the child you are de­fend­ing. This is es­pe­cially the case if you re­act an­grily or if you are crit­i­cal of the “dom­i­nant child” who can then feel that you “love” the other child more.

This can lead to re­sent­ment and worsen the chil­dren’s re­la­tion­ship with each other rather than im­prove it.

As a re­sult, the goal in sib­ling ri­valry and dis­putes is to help them sort out their prob­lems them­selves. Rather than tak­ing “sides” when you in­ter­vene, you make sure to be be im­par­tial and take “both their sides” as you en­cour­age them to get on bet­ter.

Thought­ful re­sponse

When wit­ness­ing a dis­pute, make sure to re­sist re­act­ing and in­stead take a pause, so you can thought­fully re­spond.

For ex­am­ple, if your older daugh­ter backs off and lets her sis­ter win, your first re­sponse might be to check in with how she is feel­ing about what just hap­pened. You might say “I see you let J have the dolly . . . is that okay?” You might ac­knowl­edge her feel­ings if she is sulk­ing or looks sad – “you don’t seem happy . . . would you like to to have kept the dolly?” Then you can dis­cuss what she wants to do about what hap­pened – “shall we talk to your sis­ter about shar­ing?”

And if she wants this you can go back to her sis­ter and guide the two of them in prob­lem solv­ing.

Prob­lem solve

Take time to guide your chil­dren in prob­lem solv­ing. This es­sen­tially means that you give them space to share their feel­ings and to dis­cover pos­si­ble so­lu­tions them­selves. For ex­am­ple, in the above ex­am­ple you might start a con­ver­sa­tion with the girls to­gether – “we have one dolly and two girls who want to play with it – what can we do?” Then you lis­ten to their feel­ings and thoughts.

You can praise them for all their good sug­ges­tions such as tak­ing turns, shar­ing the doll and play­ing to­gether, get­ting some­thing else for one of them to play with, etc. If they come up with in ap­pro­pri­ate sug­ges­tions (eg “I want to keep it for my­self”), then you re­mind them of the prob­lem solv­ing rule – they have to find a so­lu­tion that they are both happy with (and one which you as the par­ent are happy about too).

Some­times, they are up­set to prob­lem solve and then you might en­cour­age them to share their feel­ings and to lis­ten to each other. Some­times you need to take a break be­fore prob­lem solv­ing – “We will talk later to sort things out, Mum will hold onto dolly un­til then”. Prob­lem solv­ing can take a lot of time and re­quire re­peated at­tempts, but it al­ways leads to more en­dur­ing so­lu­tions that the chil­dren take re­spon­si­bil­ity for. In ad­di­tion, it does not lead to re­sent­ment and in­stead im­proves the chil­dren’s re­la­tion­ship, as well as giv­ing them skills they can use in lots of other sit­u­a­tions.

Dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties

Recog­nise that your daugh­ters have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties and dif­fer­ent strengths. When they have dis­putes, nei­ther is par­tic­u­larly in the wrong – they just have dif­fer­ent things they need to learn.

The younger girl has the strength of be­ing as­sertive and knows how to fight her cor­ner, she just needs to learn the so­cial skills of lis­ten­ing to oth­ers and ac­com­mo­dat­ing their needs as well as her own. The older girl might be more of a peace­maker and sen­si­tive to other peo­ple’s feel­ings, she just needs to learn to as­sert her­self more of­ten when some­thing mat­ters to her.

Han­dled well, their dif­fer­ences could be a source of con­nec­tion be­tween them as they grew up to­gether. The younger girl might sup­port her older sis­ter to stand up for her­self in the out­side world and the older girl might show the younger one how to be sen­si­tive to other peo­ple’s feel­ings.

Sib­ling rows and dis­putes are among the most com­mon child­hood prob­lems that par­ents worry about.

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