Q: My 5-year-old is going through a phase where she is being really mean to her older brother. They used to be the best of friends, and I know this is part of her wanting to be more independent, but she has him in tears at least once a day. It's all typical kid stuff — knocking over his Lego towers, calling him names — but it's relentless, and separating them isn't physically possible. We've had talks, withheld privileges and praised her for the rare times she is nice to him. And, of course, we've scheduled one-on-one time with her. Nothing seems to work. Help!
A: I’m getting a lot of sibling questions these days. Kids have been crushed together for a long time with this pandemic, and they are genuinely tired of one another. I will mention that what makes this harder is that I don’t know how old the brother is. Is he 6, 8, 10 or 14? How old he is makes a difference, so I’ll do the best I can.
However, you’ve given me some good information. As a result of the upsetting behaviors, you’ve had talks with her, punished her by withholding privileges, praised her and had special time with her. This is all out of a typical parenting playbook, and I don’t have a problem with any of these techniques. What I don’t know is how these techniques were applied or how consistently they were applied. Aside from having special time, all of these techniques share one common trait: They are all reactive. And if coaching thousands of parents has taught me anything, it’s that being reactive is exhausting. Let’s try to become more proactive.
What I want to know, and the question you really need to ask yourself, is: Why is your daughter knocking down towers and calling her brother names? We can blame her meanness completely, but are we sure the older brother is never involved? I rarely see sibling dynamics where both children aren’t accountable for the issues, so zoom out and take notes when the two are fighting. What does the back and forth sound like? Jot it down. Our brains tend to get into a groove of assumptions and automatic reactions, so the more detailed your notes, the better.
Next, get specific with your own behavior in these back-and-forth interactions. Do you only get involved when the yelling and screaming have begun? Do you only discipline your daughter and sympathize with your son? Could it be that your children don’t know how else to get your attention?
It’s worth remembering that, although 5-year-olds can sometimes sound and even seem quite mature, your daughter is still an emotional creature. Whatever is dysregulating her to cause destruction and meanness is not calculated. She is reacting to a frustration or to feeling out of control, and there’s no amount of punishing or lecturing that will help that.
Proactively keeping these children apart and helping her learn communication skills are better bets. And, as you dig into finding support for this, please see your pediatrician and give them a thorough list of the frequency and severity of these behaviors. You could be seeing a sensitivity, a sensory-processing disorder or an executive-functioning issue that doesn’t allow her to slow down or learn from her mistakes.
Also, if we’re building skills, please coach your son on how to move or respond differently to his little sister. Make and rehearse plans with him, so he isn’t always reduced to a puddle of tears.
Whatever you do, please try to avoid punishments that take away connection or laughter. Yes, you may create consequences for toy destruction and hold that boundary, but don’t take away special time or cuddling. Your daughter needs it now more than ever.
As for resources, I like the website childmind.org for ideas, as well as the books “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings” by Laura Markham and “No-Drama Discipline” by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Good luck.
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