Friday 27 April 2018

Dear David Coleman: My seven-year-old and two-year-old don't get on -how can I make things better?

A pair of siblings don't always get on. Photo: Getty Images.
A pair of siblings don't always get on. Photo: Getty Images.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q I have a seven-year-old and a two-year-old, both girls, who just don't get on. My seven-year-old has no time for her sister and I'm finding it hard to get them to bond. She can't bear to have her little sister around. Having said that, my two-year-old has a temper and she will bite and hit out at anyone. I have tried "time out" with her but she doesn't understand it fully yet. Are there any other ways I can get her to stop hitting out? Also how will I help the two girls to get on? At times it feels like a crazy house with all the fighting!

A Your children are at very different developmental stages and so, have very different needs and interests too. It is tough for a seven- and two-year-old to find something of common interest that might engage them enough to want to spend time together.

Your older daughter may have felt very displaced by the new baby who, probably, cornered the market for 'cuteness'. Perhaps some jealousy has persisted?

Equally, If your younger daughter has grown up to be a busy toddler with a penchant for hitting and biting, then I could imagine it is very difficult for your older girl to like her. While she may love her, because she is her sister, she may not like the way she behaves and how she feels treated be her.

If you can get on top of your toddler's misbehaviour it might help the dynamic between the two girls, as your younger daughter might be less of a "pain" to her older sister.

I think you are right to abandon time out as a punishment. I don't believe in it. Indeed, I think time out, when used to punish children, is emotionally distressing for them and often creates more problems than it solves.

Discipline, for two-year-olds, is much more about using repetition, firm tones, and clear physical limits to encourage them to do what you want them to do, and dissuade or prevent them from doing what you don't want them to do.

So, with the hitting or biting you need to intervene every time you see it happen, by saying sternly "no hitting!" or "no biting!" and then lifting her up and away from the person she hit or bit. She needs to learn that you won't allow her to stay (and play) with anyone that she tries to bite or hit. This will happen when you consistently intervene to stop her.

I think if your older daughter experienced this kind of intervention by you, when her little sister attacks her, she would feel safer from, and more tolerant of, her. She needs to know that you are in charge and that you are monitoring and intervening when her little sister misbehaves.

I also think your older daughter might need a forum where she feels it is okay to complain about her little sister. I can't remember where I came across the phrase, but I think it holds true, that "until the bad feelings come out the good ones can't get in".

You might be reluctant to let your daughter complain about her sibling, for fear that it will escalate any negative feeling between them. But, in my experience, when children feel that their parents have clearly heard and understood just how they feel about stuff their siblings do, it often clears the air and allows them to be more tolerant and to get on better.

I could imagine that your younger daughter, because of her age, could be very disruptive of her older sister's games or her things. Your older daughter may need some guaranteed, toddler-free time.

Or, you may need to be more actively involved in helping her to play better and, if needs be, distracting the little one away if things seem to be about to get fractious.

Often sibling conflict or disharmony just needs more adult involvement to try to work things out, or to increase fairness and remind everyone of tolerance, sharing, turn-taking and so on. Your toddler might need lots of this kind of practical intervention.

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