Q Our 4-year-old daughter is very sweet and very sensitive, too, which makes her react quickly and tearfully to the things that kids say to her and about her. She even cries if someone looks at her the wrong way. Her brother, who is about a year younger than she is, can make her howl if he says that her favorite color is blue, when he knows very well that it’s pink. ¶ Now that he knows how easy it is to frustrate his sister, I’m afraid that he is turning into a bit of a bully. He is even inspired to tell her that she can’t play with her favorite plastic horse or eat more grapes at dinnertime even though we have repeatedly told him not to say things like that to her. But how can we diminish his motivation when she responds to him with tears, time after time? ¶ For the past six months I’ve been telling our daughter to ignore her little brother when he behaves like this, but she still acts the same way. How can we build up her resiliency? And how can we teach her to ignore her little brother when he teases her and to ignore the children who torment her sometimes?
A Brothers and sisters often squabble, much like puppies that nip and bark at each other when they’re bored. Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of sibling rivalry.
You can solve the problems it causes most of the time, but only after you realize that children usually act up so they can get attention from their parents. If teases, tattles and tears get more attention than pleases and thank yous, then guess what? They’ll keep teasing, tattling and shedding those tears.
Your children will usually stop taunting each other, however, if you notice their good behavior far more than you notice their bad behavior. It’s as simple as that.
Because children listen better when their parents are calm than when they’re angry, wait for a time when the three of you are peaceful and happy and then lay down some new rules. Tell your son that the next time he starts teasing his sister, you will walk him into another room immediately without saying a single word and that you’ll leave him there until he’s ready to apologize and behave. And then tell your daughter that the more she cries, the more her brother will tease her, so the next time she cries, you will walk her quickly and quietly to a different room until she can pull herself together.
If you don’t talk to your children when they’re stashed away and you don’t let them talk to each other, you can expect them to shape up in about 10 minutes. That’s when you should praise them vociferously: your son because he’s beginning to realize that he’s too smart — and too good — to bully anybody; your daughter because she’s trying to find other ways to express her sensitivity.
Once you’ve poured on the praise, tell your children that everyone is sensitive; they just show it in different ways. Some draw pictures, dance, sing or read a book, but the happiest people learn to talk about their feelings and to tell others why some comments hurt more than others — and why.
There’s no use asking your daughter what makes her cry the most — your son has enough ammunition — but be sure to ask him what makes his heart hurt because most boys (and some girls) need encouragement before they learn how to talk about their feelings.
To make it easier for your daughter to talk about her feelings, ask her, “Did someone at school make fun of your friend?” Was he rude because he didn’t know how to make a joke? Was he trying to flirt with her? Or was he upset because it’s been a while since he has heard from his dad in Afghanistan and he wanted her friend to feel as bad as he felt? If you ask your children questions about people they know and incidents they’ve seen, they will become more understanding of others.
You can’t make children grow up any faster than nature intended or think any faster, but you can — and should — encourage their empathy and their compassion. If more parents did that, the world would be a better place. Think of it as your gift to mankind.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/parenting , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.