We have 2 daughters - a 4 year old and a 1 year old. Our 4 year old daughter will not leave our 1 year old daughter alone. It is nothing malicious or intentionally mean, but it feels like we should be protecting the younger one. I actually believe the older one is doing it because she loves the younger one so much.

Some examples:

  1. Overwhelming the 1 year old with toys. The older one will bring the younger one a toy. The younger one starts playing with it, and 5 seconds later the older one will take the toy away and give a her a new toy to play with. This goes on until we tell the older one that it was nice she gave her sister a toy, but she should just let her play with one toy. The older one is doing it to be nice.

  2. Hugging for too long. The older one loves to give the younger one hugs, and the younger one is fine with a quick hug, but the older one wants to hug for 5 seconds or more. After a 1-2 seconds the younger one starts screaming because she wants to go play. The older one is hugging her because she loves her, but we can't get it through her head to do a light, quick hug and then let her go.

  3. Getting in her face. When the older one wants to talk to the younger one, she will get 2 inches from her face. She wants to put her hands on her cheeks and talk to her. The younger one hates it (who enjoys having someone talk to you a couple inches away).

There are a few other things like this, and these things happen many times a day. I honestly believe her intentions are good.

We always tell the older one that it is sweet that she loves her sister so much, but that she needs to give her some space. This has been going on for a few months, and I'm not sure we are going about it the right way.

We have tried gently demonstrating to the older one how hugging for too long or constantly replacing toys is not fun for the receiver (the 4 year old hates it when someone does it to her, but she just can't associate it with her sister).

We don't want to get after the older one all day long (like watching a sporting event when the refs blow the whistle every few seconds - just let them play!), but at the same time it doesn't feel fair to the younger one - or maybe that's just part of being a younger sibling?

Does anyone have ideas of things to tell our older daughter or ways to teach her to give her sister some space? Or should we just leave them alone and let the younger one learn to fend for herself?

Thanks in advance!

3 Answers 3


First thing you want to be sure that your eldest is not repeatedly doing the wrong thing despite being told repeatedly as per what @afrazier said. This is not going to work if your child is deliberately being disobedient.

I have something I do with my son (4 year old) and it works very well for me personally. I combine the collection of rules into a question which represents an idea. The question makes him have to think and provide an answer and a rationale if it is wrong. Eventually it causes my son to infer other rules and because he has thought for he himself he is more likely to remember rules after being asked once or twice rather than repeated nagging. He is essentially providing his own barriers by thinking things through.

I would aim to combine all your efforts into a central idea, it could be something like "Is that a nice thing to do to your sister?". This should not be posed as a rhetorical question, you should ask in a way that you are expecting your 4 year old to answer and also provide a rationale behind her choice.

So if it is getting in the face of her sister and you ask "Is that a nice thing to do to your sister?" and she answers yes. You can ask her why she thinks so (please listen attentively even if you completely disagree), then you can explain why it is not nice from the point of view of her sister until there is an agreement that it is not the right behaviour.

I notice that after this has been done a few times you will have shorter and shorter discussion. So if she pinches her sisters cheek because she thinks she is cute you can ask the question and what I have noticed over time, your daughter should be able to pause and think for a minute without discussing, compare to previous conversations and then come to the conclusion by her self that this is not good.

The hope is that eventually the child will think for herself every time she approaches her sister and can begin to think in her own mind "is this a nice thing to do to my sister?".


If your four year old is on par with others her age developmentally, she has yet to fully grasp perspective taking, which is why she can't see that this is annoying to her sister and to you. Doing what others have suggested (ie asking "Is that a nice thing to do to your sister?) will help her learn that her sister may not want to hug her for as long as she may want to or that taking toys away from someone is not a great way to practice sharing.

A few other suggestions would be to allow her to play out her affections on a doll or to plan frequent play-dates with her peers--chances are, she won't act that way with them, and it may start kicking in that she shouldn't treat her sister differently. Its tough, because you want to encourage altruistic and loving behaviors between your children while also controlling the intensity of those behaviors. I think that explaining to her that her sister is a baby and that babies are fragile might also help; you might suggest that when she wants to give someone a great big hug, you'd be happy to oblige her, since you're less fragile.

  • Great comments! I like the idea of letting her hug us instead of her little sister - we'll have to try that. Thanks!
    – BrianH
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 14:33

Is there a possibility that the older one is doing these things because she knows that she'll get attention (from you) for them? If she's otherwise well-behaved, then there might be some other non-obvious motive. Not that she's scheming -- she probably doesn't even know what it is.

I don't think that the 1 year old is quite at the point where she can fend for herself from her big sister yet either.

  • The older one was definitely acting out for attention for the first 3 months after the younger one was born. The older one is usually obedient, but I think the younger one is "just so cute" she can't help but hug her or give her toys or something. I guess I could be wrong, but it just seems like the younger one will do something really cute which kind of triggers something for the older one. And I think you are right about the younger one not being old enough to fend for herself - screaming is pretty much her only defense right now.
    – BrianH
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 13:48

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