Misbehaving Older Sibling
By Judith Lolas, MSW, ACSW
Q. I am on maternity leave with my 2 month old, and I have a 7 year old daughter as well. I have been very short tempered with my older daughter, most of my frustration stems from her not following rules she already knows, not listening to me, lack of common sense, etc. We spent lots of time before and since the baby's birth affirming her as a family member, making her feel special as a person, explaining that she could never be replaced, etc. She seems reassured of our love for her, and she loves the baby. But she absolutely cannot seem to behave herself properly, and I seem to have no patience. I find myself immediately angry, raising my voice, etc. I get so irritated because she knows better! I realize that she may be adjusting to the new baby, after all she's been an only child up until now. But I am also usually better at dealing with her. Maybe I'm just not used to being with her all day long, as I work full time. Is it normal for me to feel so angry at her? How can I be more empathetic to her adjustment, affirming her as a person and member of the family, and still stand firm on how we expect her to behave? (Having "talks" to this effect just aren't getting through.)
A. It sounds as if the new baby's arrival has affected her more than you realize. All the things you are doing are good. Perhaps some negative reinforcement may work too. One of the things I have found works is to say to the misbehaving child, "You are really a big girl, but your behavior is telling me you want to be a little girl again. That's okay but you will also have to follow little girl rules." Then consequence her according to a younger child . . . earlier bedtime, less privileges because she's not acting old enough, etc.
At the same time, try to walk away or ignore as much as you can of the misbehavior and be quick to reward the good, but keep stressing that her actions indicate that she wants you to treat her like "a baby." It doesn't take long before they get the message. You can also try saying to her, "Your behavior is telling me you want me to be in charge of you instead of you being a big girl enough to take charge. Is that right?" If she says no, then give her your expectations. If that doesn't work, "take charge" of her with swift consequences and do NOT spend any time arguing with her about this. After a while, ask her as calmly and lovingly as you can if she'd like to be "in charge" of herself again. I have seen this work wonders while also teaching a child to learn self-control.
Remember, good discipline and change takes time. And this child is most likely acting out her biggest fear; loss of her parents' love and attention, no matter how much you reassure her. I know it's difficult. Bite a bullet and be consistent. And walk away from any power struggle you feel you can.
I hope this helps,