Development FAQ: 24+ months – Sibling Rivalry

My two daughters were born 18 months apart. The youngest has just had her first birthday. Over the past few months I have become increasingly irritated and concerned about our eldest daughter’s rough behaviour to her sister. She still seems unable to see the advantage of having a sister close to her in age even though her sister is now walking and less of a baby. I seem to tell my eldest daughter off constantly but she still continues to behave badly.

On a daily basis she hits or is rough in other ways towards her sister and is constantly taking her toys away. I know I need to be more positive with my approach but how can I do this when she continues to behave in this way. I want her to enjoy having a sibling close to her in age. I was an only child and feel I missed out a great deal with not having this relationship.

Your eldest daughter is still young herself. A child of this age has a very egocentric view of the world, believing it revolves round her and her needs. Your daughter’s rough behaviour is her way of expressing her feelings to this rival who takes some of your attention away from her.

She must be encouraged to realize that hitting and hurting in any way is unacceptable behaviour and will not be tolerated by you. Help her to empathize with her little sister. Sit your elder daughter on your knee and explain how much it upsets you when she makes her baby sister cry. Ask her whether she would like it, if a bigger child hurt her. Explain to your daughter that in future if she is rough to her sister, she will need to have a little “time out” to think about her behaviour. Your own response must be calm and consistent. If your daughter uses this behaviour as an effective means of getting your undivided attention, you might be inadvertently encouraging her. Be prepared to take her to her Bedroom, in order for her to have a few minutes on her own the next time she is unkind to her little sister. This gives you both a couple of minutes to calm down.

If your daughter responds by screaming and crying, be firm and loving but explain that you are not concerned by her noise. Tell her that she may join you when she is feeling good-tempered again.

After your daughter has had a little “time out”, find a new occupation for her that will take her away from her little sister for a short while. Ask her to help you with some easy household task so she learns that although you find her behaviour unacceptable you still love her and like to be with her.

You must also try to judge whether you can avoid these episodes by ensuring that you are giving your daughter plenty of attention at the more testing times of day.

You may have felt that your eldest accepted the birth of her sister with out showing too much jealousy and are surprised that it now has become more apparent. This often happens once the younger child becomes mobile and sleeps less in the day. Dealt with in a sensitive way this behaviour can be stopped and the sisters will learn to get along together as they grow older.

Respecting your eldest’s need to have somewhere to play undisturbed by her younger sister should help. Children of this age rarely play together. It will be at least another year before they are capable of doing so regularly. Your eldest daughter is far more advanced and probably beginning to play in quite an imaginative way with her toys. She might be getting cross and angry when her games are spoilt by her sister’s interference.

If you have a playpen then this makes an ideal “safe” spot for the elder child to play. Inside you can set up a child’s sized table and chair so your daughter can have table toys such as play scenes out without worrying her sister will come and interrupt her game. It is also somewhere she can use crayons and other unsuitable toys if in the hands of her little sister. This can work well as both children’s needs are catered for. Your eldest can play in peace and you can let your youngest roam without worrying that she will upset her sister.

It will help if your eldest daughter is helped to feel that there are advantages to being the eldest. When your youngest was born you probably made sure that her older sister was given special jobs to do such as getting clean nappies for you so she felt included and had responsibilities for her baby sister. This is a good strategy to use in the early months but if you try to make the eldest responsible for her little sister too much she may well rebel.

Although still young herself it is easy to make her bedtime 15-20 minutes later than her sister. Make sure you acknowledge this by telling her she may stay up later as she is older.

If your daughter is still using plastic crockery along with her baby sister find a children’s china set, which you give to her. Tell her that now she is a big girl you know she will look after it and be careful not to drop it on the floor.

Use encouragement and praise in everyday situations. Tell your eldest daughter that you are pleased with the way she uses her fork and spoon, the way she can get her Wellingtons on by herself, any small thing which she manages alone.

It is not always necessary to point out that her baby sister is unable to do a lot of the things she can do. Your eldest may feel she would like to be a baby again at times but with boosting her self esteem she will come to realize that there are advantages to being older.

You could still ask for her help with her little sister. Instead of practical things such as fetching nappies ask her to choose what clothes her sister will wear. It may help if you set out two or three outfits and ask her to choose one as some two and half year olds can have some very strange ideas as to which clothes look good together! If she is interested in helping in this way then encourage it but if she does not want to be involved don’t push her.

In the early months after a sibling’s birth most mothers manage to spend time alone with their eldest whilst the baby sleeps. But now your youngest is a year old she is around so much more in the day. Giving your eldest that one to one time is still important. This may mean splitting the girl’s up at weekends. Your husband could take the younger one out for a walk in her pram whilst you spend time with your eldest daughter. Plan to do a specific activity with her such as baking or a craft session so she really feels that you are making time for her.

Providing you are sympathetic to your older daughter’s needs but do not condone her rough behaviour she will learn, in time to accept that there are a lot of advantages to having a sister near to her in age. You are working towards building a united family where everyone learns to give and take. Both your daughters will learn many of life’s lessons in the loving security of their home, encouraging them both to become friendly children who think about each other as well as themselves.