Dear David Coleman: Our seven-year-old's behaviour is a nightmare - she gets irrationally angry and I can't deal with her
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. We are having a nightmare with our seven-year-old daughter's behaviour. She seems so angry and upset all the time, which results in her lashing out at her older sister, who is eight, or else her four-year-old brother. Her anger is always totally irrational. I have tried reasoning with her, shouting, giving out and putting her in her room. She gets negatively compared to her sister a lot by friends and family, but we feel we are always fair with them. I feel so stressed out and unable to deal with this. Advice on overcoming this phase would be great.
David replies: The key to understanding your daughter's behaviour might actually lie in the negative comparisons she receives. I could imagine that it is very difficult to sustain regular comparisons with a sister so close in age, who always seems to come out better.
I doubt that her anger is irrational. I think it is probably her way of either trying to 'get back at' her sister, who seems to be favoured, or her way of showing everyone just how upset she feels that she doesn't compare well to her older sister.
If she feels that her sister is better than her, or more loved, or more valued or more appreciated, then it will impact negatively on her self-esteem. She may feel that she is not good enough, simply because she is not, ostensibly, as good as her sister.
So, even if you try to be fair in your dealings with the two girls, it will be undone if friends and family seem to favour your older girl.
Start by being direct and clear with other family members, and those friends who may comment, that you will not tolerate comparisons of the girls, as it is neither fair nor helpful. If you can bring about some change in their commentary or their behaviour, it will create a much more fertile environment for your seven-year-old to flourish.
Then it might help to open up an empathetic dialogue with your seven-year-old, where you can show her that you understand she might feel negatively compared to her sister.
Acknowledge her probable experience of feeling less favoured, rather than trying to minimise, explain or excuse other people's comparisons.
You may like to use phrases such as, "I'd say it feels awful if [insert name] always talks about how great your sister is and never remembers how great you are." Or, "I think you might feel sad and angry if everyone seems to think your sister is better than you."
Or, "I wonder if you sometimes try to show us how mad you feel when people praise your sister and forget about you?"
These kinds of statements will demonstrate to your daughter that you may understand her plight of being 'second' after her sister.
Rather than seeing her anger or angry behaviour as irrational, try to see it as her way of giving you a message, or a hint, that something is distressing her.
If you think she may feel competitive (but always likely to lose) with her sister, then suggest that to her to see if it fits.
Avoid using punishments to try to discipline her. She doesn't need punishment; she needs understanding and warmth.
Do correct her misbehaviour when needed, but don't punish it. Give her time to cool off, then try empathising with her about how difficult her life might feel.
Alongside this greater understanding that you are now showing her, you can focus on building up her self-esteem to the extent that she comes to know what is good about her in her own right - not in comparison with her sister.
Take time to notice, and praise, her good behaviour. Spot her strengths and talents and comment on them positively. Give her as much individual attention as is possible in a busy family, showing interest in her and showing her what it is about her that you value and appreciate.
She needs to feel loved for being herself and she needs to feel like she is a valued and capable member of your family. This isn't about building her up more than her sister - it is just about building her up for herself.
I think your daughter feels quite hurt and needs nurturing more than punishment, to be able to feel good about herself and also be able to show her goodness in her behaviour.
Health & Living