Sibling Rivalry

Question: I have a 2 and 3-year-old. How do you discipline when the younger one is the bully, and has a very demanding personality. She throws tantrums when disciplined while the older one listens, and I discipline them in the same way. I have to threaten, punish, or spank before they listen, and they are constantly fighting. Please give some advice before I loose all my hair with them.
– S.R.

Answer: Sounds to me like you’ve realized your youngest is not “the baby” anymore. She is becoming a small person who is sometimes innocent but sometimes defiant. Sometimes she needs protection but sometimes she needs limits to protect her from hurting others.

It also sounds like your youngest daughter has a very different personality style than your older child. You will need to find new discipline strategies for this high-energy, independent little girl. As you’ve already seen, threatening, punishing, and spanking are not going to work. At the same time, the gentle reminder that may work with your first child does not work with your 2 year old.

Let’s start with the temper tantrums. Tantrums are a normal part of life with a 2 year old. Your daughter is experiencing anger and frustration before having the language skills and the emotional control to express it calmly. Also, if you respond emotionally, with anger or frustration of your own, you may be unintentionally reinforcing the tantrum.

  • Let her have her tantrum.
  • Stay emotionally calm yourself.
  • Let her know with simple words and clear body language that her tantrum doesn’t change the situation. (You can say, “I know you’re mad but you still may not.”)
  • Proceed to enforce the rules through the tantrum (for example, “I will not let you pull the dog’s tail.” “Your sister will not play with you when you hurt her.” Or “Bathtime is over when you splash your sister in the face”). Then move on.

Start working on a discipline plan that works with your 2 year old’s personality. “Coercive” discipline (based on “I’m the mommy so do what I say NOW”) often leads to increased power struggles and rebelliousness with high-intensity children. Instead, try these effective but less oppositional strategies:

  • Use routines to teach the behavior you want to see. For all the things you need your daughter to do on a daily basis (eat, sleep, bathe, dress, pick up her toys), create a simple but flexible schedule using simple language (“we have to pick up your toys so we know where to find them tomorrow”). She will learn through repetition and your commitment to what’s important.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be prepared to ALWAYS follow through on a message. Stay calm if she tests you. Simply let her know what happens “when she _____” (no threats are necessary). Just state the consequences (“Let’s go find another toy until your sister is finished playing with that one”).
  • Think two to three steps ahead all the time. Remember you are smarter than they are. You know when and where they may “lose it”. Be prepared with distractions and diversions that show them other ways to avoid the struggles with each other and in trying situations.
  • Lastly, try not to compare your children. Even though they are very different from each other, you do not want them thinking this is a competition for your attention or for your affection. Remember she’s only two and has a lot to learn!

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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