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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceBig Sister Is A Bully—Good Parenting

Big Sister Is A Bully—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My first born has always been dramatic and driven. She’s now six and a bit of a bully to her mild-mannered and cautious three-year-old brother.

Their new baby sister often has me occupied which has only made things worse for my sweet son. What can I do to keep him from being picked on? I hate that he has come to expect it.

In His Corner

Dear I.H.C.,

Your older daughter’s age, her birth order, and her personality traits are a challenging mix, particularly for the target of her bullying. The typical “I’m better than you and can prove it” attitude of a six-year-old will pass in time, but her birth order and personality traits will endure. There are, however, some things you can do to improve the dynamics of your family for the long haul.

Call the Shots
A first-born child often identifies with her parents’ role more than later born children do. She may back off from pushing her brother around if you fortify yourself as the authority over them. Impose a short list of readily enforceable house rules, particularly those related to how members of the family should interact with one another. At the same time, be a model of fair and consistent leadership. Some examples house rules are:

Ask before you use someone else’s things. Related rule: No means no.
Follow a schedule, or use simple turn-taking, for shared items, such as the television.
Wait until someone has finished speaking before you speak.
Make amends if your actions cause harm or inconvenience to someone else.

Compassion is a Family Value
Use precious one-on-one time with your older daughter to reinforce the standard of treating other people with compassion. Make observations about how people she knows, or characters in stories, have done the right thing for someone else. The Lion and the Mouse, a fable told by Aesop  almost 500 years ago, teaches us that kindnesses cost little to nothing and are often repaid.

Although she is about a year away from truly being able to take another’s perspective, your emphasis on concern and kindness toward others will help her to develop the ability to understand that she can and should affect other people in positive ways. For more guidance toward building compassion, see my previous column on sincere apologies.

Build Self-Esteem
You can adjust the imbalance of power between the bully and the bullied by building self-esteem. Often a bully lashes out because she is experiencing feelings of inferiority. Treating someone else as if they are lacking in value can make her feel better about herself. Likewise, the child who becomes accustomed to being bullied has accepted that he deserves no better. As you noted, the arrival of a rival for Mom’s attention could be causing both older siblings to feel unvalued.

Make time each day to do something with each child that demonstrates their competence and your awe of them. This could be a household chore or some shared playtime with blocks, dolls, play dough, coloring, or whatever they enjoy doing. At bedtime you can recount the amazing job they did with weeding, table-clearing, castle building, drawing a chalk picture on the sidewalk, etc. The subconscious mind is very receptive to the positive messages we give our children as they drift off to dreamland.

Re-direct Her Drama
To address your first-born’s flair for the dramatic – which can lead to a coping mechanism for her brother of shrinking in her presence – give her space to perform. Fill a box or basket with dress-up clothes so she can take on pretend roles during playtime. Add elements to help her feel as if she’s on stage: a large mirror or lighting that let’s her see her shadow as she moves; a theatrical backdrop (which can be a sheet); a small rug or a taped “X” to define the performance space; music to play as she dances or sings along; a “microphone” (paper towel tube with a small black sock on one end); and seating for the audience (mostly you and the baby!). If she likes, make video recordings so she can watch and admire herself repeatedly. She may also like for you to share these videos with adoring relatives.

Keep ‘Em Separated
A good way to lessen the effect of birth order is to lessen the amount of time siblings must vie for space, objects, and parental attention. Use play dates with their friends, scheduled lessons or group activities, and separate parts of your home as often as possible to reduce the frequency of friction between them.

Your son needs experience in being on par with a playmate, that is, someone who is more or less equal to him in verbal abilities and other developmental skills. A suitable playmate could be one who shares his calm and quiet demeanor. You or another adult can coach them with conflict resolution skills as they play. Also make sure the playtime doesn’t go on so long that the children get cranky. Your daughter will likewise benefit from time with a peer who is well-matched to her abilities for speaking her mind and for taking control of their interactions together. A bit of adult guidance can help them to see the benefits of playing fairly with each other.

Separate activities can give each child opportunities to learn who they are – apart from being X’s sibling. One may pursue gymnastics, while the other follows a passion for art or paleontology or baking. Along with developing their skills, each sibling will also be developing a peer group that shares their particular interest, further strengthening this part of their identity.

If the children have separate bedrooms these can serve as sanctuaries. A sibling must be granted permission to enter. Other spaces can be designated as personal space, including regular seats at the table for family meals, and seats on the couch for family movie watching. As the children develop separate hobbies, help them respect each other’s shelf or closet space for their equipment.

As she moves past being a six-year-old, and the baby takes up less of your attention, things should get better between your daughter and her sweet brother. However you can’t completely prevent Big Sister Super Star from dominating your accommodating mouse. Fortunately your son’s widening social world and deepening self-understanding will give him plenty of other relationships in which to learn where he shines best.

Dr. Debbie

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.

 

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