Sibling Annoyance: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Valentines Kids W

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our six-year-old calls his sister “annoying”. She gets in his space, repeats what he says, and tries to take things out of his hands. She’s two and a half years-old. It’s been challenging for me to keep the peace between them.

Mom in the Middle

Dear MitM,

As one of five siblings I can empathize with both of them. Older siblings amaze the younger siblings with their advanced abilities, so the younger ones hover to admire and absorb as much as they can. And the last person an older sibling wants to spend time with is an immature younger sibling who is clumsy and not very bright by comparison. Child development theory, with stage by stage norms, has explanations for your children’s behavior as well.

Separate Space

By the time I was six, if I wasn’t outside playing with friends my own age I was commonly at home reading a book. My friends felt the same about their siblings – they were playmates of last resort. This is typical of many families, especially where there are opportunities to play with other children.

One way to keep siblings from violating each other’s personal space (once they’re old enough to desire it) is to clearly identify places in your home that “belong” to one child or another. This might be a room, a bed, a desk, a pillow behind the couch, or any corner that can be at least partially blocked off by walls or furniture. Help your older child set up his space so that he can enjoy some solitude when he’s at home.

This personal space could even be a family space (for example, a couch or the dining room table) that’s off limits for the two-year-old during specific time periods. Be sure to support the two-year-old by keeping her fully engaged in an activity during this time so she’s not tempted to see what her brother is up to.

Normal Two-Year-Old Stuff

A two-year-old is typically very interested in other children. She sees them as a model of what she could be doing. However, she is a long way from being able to use effective language and to patiently wait for a turn to use what another child is using. Preschool teachers know this as “parallel play” and set up play spaces with duplicates of toys and other materials. The children are perfectly content as long as they have ample equipment to imitate one another.

Age two is also the age of normal “echolalia” in which a child repeats what is said – even if no one is talking to her. Language specialists consider it involuntary. In other words, she can’t help it. This is how she is gaining proficiency in pronunciation, vocabulary, and contextual meanings. A person might comment (not necessarily to her) that “it’s really hot outside” and the little language learner will echo with the exact intonation, “sreely hah ow-sigh”. Yes, this could be annoying, especially to a six-year-old sibling.

Normal Six-Year-Old Stuff

While a five-year-old might consider a younger sibling “cute” and feel proud to be able to help her out at times, there’s an interesting turn of events at age six. This is the age at which the brain is 95% of its adult weight. A whole lot of learning has gone on by this time, including, for most children, the amazing feat of starting to decode written words.

This can make a six-year-old feel superior, and not in a nice way. Typical six-year-old behavior includes teasing and being mean to younger children, especially nearby siblings. According to the developmentally-based Waldorf approach to education this behavior is evidence of inner turmoil. A six-year-old is more aware of the world around him and of his own thoughts. Less dependent on his adults for self-help tasks such as dressing and getting food, he wants to do more and more things by himself, even when he can’t do it perfectly yet. This frustrates him.

Explanations May Help

Try to give your older child reasons for his sister’s behaviors along with tactics to manage the unavoidable. For example, explain about echolalia and see if he can spot when she’s doing it to other people. He might find this amusing since she’s really not trying to annoy him with this – she does it when anyone is speaking. If he doesn’t want his words to be copied, he’ll have to try to spend less time around her.

Having a place for him to be alone will also work to prevent his annoyance that she seems to be attracted to anything he’s doing. Personal space is important as a preventive measure. (See above.)

Explain that it’s not easy for her to share yet. He might help you identify parallel items (toy trucks, balls, etc.) that he could safely play with and expect her to join in with a duplicate toy. You might also encourage him to help you come up with plenty of activities that need no materials whatsoever such as dancing in the living room or taking a family walk. 

Twos Will Be Twos

Rather than trying to explain her brother’s irritation (which is caused by her mere presence), help them both out by steering her away from him. Be the playmate who shares well with her so that eventually, maybe when the children are 5 and 9, they can spend some pleasant time together without your needing to intervene. Your younger child will benefit tremendously if you can arrange for her to have play time with other two-year-olds – with adequate supervision to minimize the inevitable conflicts over toys.

The best parenting for siblings is for parents to accommodate their normal stages of child development.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  She will be presenting a series of Zoom workshops for parents, starting Monday, October 3.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.