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We have two daughters:

  • O. (6 years)
  • Y. (4 years)

We have the impression that O. leaves no opportunity to intentionally make Y. cry. This includes physical acts like hitting/pinching/taking things away, but those can be blocked at least temporarily, e.g. by creating some physical distance between the two/sitting in between, and so on.

What I'm feeling a bit helpless against is the verbal side that we have seen develop over the past 2 or so years. The issue is that, no matter how often we interrupt and tell O. to stop (or tell Y. not to listen to O.'s claims), O. will simply continue - and there's no easy way to just block out the sound.

Some examples:


O: "Y., you won't get [some food Y. considers tasty] today."
Y: "I want some!"
O: "You won't get any!"
Y: "But I want some! I really do!"
O: "No, you won't get any. I will, but there's none for you."
Y: Starts crying.
O: "Ok, I'll give you some of mine."
Y: Still sobbing.
O: "No, you actually won't get any of it!"
Y: Cries again.

(Note that no-one said anything about that food; there are no plans to make it. The existence of that food at that time is a complete invention by O.)


O: "Y., you're such a ...!" (insert either a made-up fantasy word, or just silence, as if omitting a word - in any case, the sentence is spoken with an intonation as if it ended in a swear word)
Y: "No, I'm not!"
O: "Yes, you are!"
Y: Starts crying.
O: "Ok, you're not. But you're a ...!" (insert another made-up fantasy word)
Y: Cries even more.

(If asked to stop, O. will respond with something like "What? I didn't say any bad word. I just said she's such a ... . That's not a bad thing, is it?")


O: "Can I play with your [toy A]?"
Y: "No, it's mine."
O: "Look, you'll get my [toy B] if I can play with your [toy A]." (usually, toy B is considerably more "valuable" than toy A, even though Y. doesn't realize that - think an interactive robot for children as toy A vs. a single play money coin as toy B)
Y: "Ok."
O: "Can we do it like that? Can I use [toy A]?"
Y: "Ok. Yes." (I don't think she realizes what she's agreeing to)
O: "Actually, toy B isn't that good for you, you can't do anything with it yet. You're too young. So I'll take it again while playing with toy A."
Y: Cries.

(When we try to interfere, O. will insist that Y. agreed to everything she proposed and we're being unfair about criticizing that "deal".)


In all of these cases, O. will continue at least until Y. has started crying. These situations occur multiple times every day (interspersed by physical "attacks" as described above). I'd rather they didn't interact at all than interacting like this. But somehow, Y. also doesn't quite learn from it, as she actively keeps looking for O.'s company even if there was a chance for O. and Y. play separately for a while.

How can we react to these verbal attacks by O. to at least make them less distressing for Y.?

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    @BCLC - Comments are not for discussion, idle speculation or amusement. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 20:38

3 Answers 3

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It's not Y's responsibility to learn to toughen up. She is being emotionally abused by her sister, and for some reason, you have not put a stop to it. Every time her sister hurts her, it will hurt her, and she will learn: she is not good enough for her sister, she deserves to be punished and abused, and that abusive relationships are a normal and valid way for people to relate to each other. (If you think I'm coming on way too strongly, read about adults who have experienced emotional abuse from siblings as children.)

You brought Y into the world. It is your obligation to assure her well-being. It's time to sit down with O and have a heart-to-heart talk. It might go something like this:

You: "You know you have been making Y cry and that we don't approve of it. You're old enough now to control yourself and stop hurting your sister, either by hitting/(whatever), calling her names - made up or otherwise - or by teasing her. It is time for you to stop, and that time begins today."

O: "But I haven't (yada yada yada)..." Let her finish. Then pick up right where you left off.

You: "Starting today and every day from now on, you will get a warning the first time you distress your sister. The next time you distress her, you will get a time out in your room (explain what a time out is, and it doesn't include any toys she's playing with at the time.) Every time you distress your sister after that, you will get another time out, no warnings. This will happen every day, every time we see or find out you have distressed your sister."

O: "But (yada yada yada)...so unfair! Y always (yada yada yada)!"

You: "Did you understand everything I told you? Do you have any questions?"

O: "I don't see why (yada yada yada)... ?"

You: "I mean questions about time outs or what distressing your sister looks like."

Etc.

And then you do it. Every single time. No arguments, negotiations, other.

Y needs to see that you have her back, that you think she's a valuable person and doesn't deserve to be treated that way, and that what her sister is doing is wrong. But she will never believe that if her sister has no significant consequences for behaving as she does.

Edited to add:

Time outs are safe and effective, even in abused and traumatized children. I should have added that the most effective time outs are when children have positive experiences with their families - tht is, they are in a healthy environment, and have something to lose from being removed from said environment. Psychologists call this Time Out from Positive Reinforcement (TOPR), and it has been shown to be widely effective and helpful, not harmful to the child. From What is it to discipline a child: What should it be? A reanalysis of time-out from the perspective of child mental health, attachment, and trauma.:

Parental discipline strategies are a necessary and critical aspect of positive child development....Time-out from positive reinforcement is now one of the most common and well-researched discipline procedures across the world, with overwhelming evidence to support its efficacy and acceptability. It has also recently attracted considerable criticism from writers evoking child well-being considerations based on attachment theory. The main concern is that the removal of a child to time-out exposes the child to a break in attachment security and, for children with trauma histories, potentially causes harm. ...We show that time-out, when conceptualized and enacted consistently with contemporary models of learning, attachment, self-regulation, and family systems theory, is actually a positive perturbation to these systems that can rapidly remediate problems the child is experiencing, and thereby generally enhances child well-being. (emphasis mine, and full article is available as PDF.

Also Timeouts Can Help Children, But You’re Doing It Wrong is written from a layman's perspective and covers the cited article well.

If you need more information on effective time outs, you can google it, or order this book: 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan.

Sibling Bullying and Abuse: The Hidden Epidemic
The Independent and Cumulative Effects of Sibling and Peer Bullying in Childhood on Depression, Anxiety, Suicidal Ideation, and Self-Harm in Adulthood

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There's nothing you can do with Y to make Y feel better. You have to solve this by stopping O's behavior. Make sure you're around them enough to correct her. Pull her aside and say, simply, that she's being very mean and that hurting her sister in that way is not acceptable. If she continues, put her in a timeout or take away privileges. Most importantly, realize that you can't stop Y from getting upset at this. All you can do is break O's habit and make sure you're there to comfort and protect Y.

How you stop O depends on her personality and your local culture. Do not try to solve this by giving Y something good at the same time you punish O, or you will foster resentment between the two.

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    Also, you'll need to make O know that you know the difference between intent and content. If she meanly says "You're a fibbut", even if it's not a bad word, the intent is to insult and you should treat it the same way as a real mean word. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 11:04
  • @RobinClower Exactly. The point is that O is being mean, even if the words used are not intrinsically offensive.
    – forest
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 11:05
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    Plenty of resentment is being fostered by Older Sibling as it is. I don't think it can get much worse. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 20:36
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You're saying the verbal side has developed over the past 2 or so years. It isn't explicitly stated, but I take it that this has developed at the expense of physical acting out? Has the hitting and pinching decreased linearly with the increased verbal abuse? I'm asking, because that's the way it tends to go, and I think it is usually instructive to get a sense of that development: with the very young children, kicking and biting may be the only tools they have for expressing their discontent. As they develop, so does their tool belt, and they acquire more sophisticated modes of expression. The end goal you're hoping for is the ability to identify their own needs and communicate them in a constructive manner, and satisfy them through civilized discussion. That's a big ask of a six year old, though.

I'm not saying any of this in defense of verbal abuse. Abuse is abuse. But if what you're witnessing is indeed, as is often the case, the acquision of one means of abstaining from physical violence, I think it is helpful to recognize that, rather than just viewing it as an additional means of causing hurt.

As with any abuse, your priority must be to side with the victim to minimize harm. Having taken care of that immediate concern, and moving on to putting an end to further harm, however, your focus must be on the aggressor. It is their behaviour that must change; not the victim who needs to build up resilience, as others have noted.

To that end, I stress that all bullying must be taken seriously, and that obliges us to look at what is effective, and not satisfy ourselves with what feels intuitively like the right thing to do. Applying punishment may feel effective, but it has been shown to be really poor.

I am personally vehemently opposed to time outs. We are a social species; solitary confinement is one of the harshest punishments there are, and it is heavily regulated in most penal systems. Communicating that our children are not worthy of our love and attention unless they act in a way that pleases us is a terrible lesson to teach. Furthermore, acting from a place of authority teaches that those who are older have the right to treat those who are younger in whichever manner they see fit, which is exactly what you see perpetuated in your older daughter's behaviour.

You want to teach the exact opposite lesson: compassion and cooperation. In order to do that, you need to model it. The fact that you describe how she refers to not having broken any rules also indicates to me that you are currently having a very rule-based focus on behaviour, in which case this is a natural and expected response. Forget the rules, I say, and get down to core principles. There are no loopholes in "be nice" the way that there are in "X and Y are forbidden words". There is room for interpretation, yes, but you want them to learn how to navigate nuance. Those will be meaningful discussions that your children will grow from, which is not the case with the mindless discussions on whether Z should also be counted as a forbidden word. When a set of house rules govern behaviour, we all look for escape, and hypocritically, we the adult arbiters of that law will tolerate our own diversions from the rules as reasonably motivated to a greater extent than that of our children.

Now, you're asking for how to deal with this behaviour, but to find the very best and most effective answer to that question, which I think the immediate nature of your situation obliges you to, you need to go deeper, and enquire about why it occurs in the first place. Rather than just laying down the law, ask your younger daughter about her behaviour. Why is she doing this? What is she looking to achieve? Kids don't act out without a reason. They may have poor reasons, or good reasons acted on poorly, but they're not acting entirely at random.

"I notice that it seems difficult to you to be nice to your younger sister. What's up?" And then really listen. Don't judge, don't correct, don't intervene. Listen. Dig deeper. She will never be open to accepting your solutions until she feels heard in her own distress. Obviously something is distressing her, even though the little sister may well have nothing to do with it. She is probably just innocent collateral damage.

Perhaps that leads to some revelations, perhaps it doesn't. Either way, the listening will have been useful. But quite likely, if she truly feels seen, you may be able to unearth something that is bothering her. And you may be able to get her to go along with another mode of expressing that.

And you need to analyze not just the incidents that happen, but the circumstances surrounding them. What is weighing on the younger daughter when she cannot be nice? Because kids do well if they can. All children would ideally want to be constructive members of their family or peer group. It is much more efficient to try and help her by analyzing lagging skills rather than assuming a lack of motivation. The ALSUP is a good place to start, if you don't know what to look for.

Perhaps she is too tired or hungry at a particular time of day to be able to keep from acting out? I'm sure you know most of us don't always have access to our ideal responses, but are affected by mood swings entirely unrelated to the conflict at hand. Perhaps she doesn't know how to constructively engage with her sister when she wants to interact. Perhaps she doesn't know of a more effective way to get your attention? Perhaps she has difficulty channeling her own hurt into an acceptable outlet.

Often, backing up to 30 minutes before an incident will be enough to find useful clues to what the triggers were, and doing that often enough will hopefully also reveal patterns that were not immediately apparent.

The best course of action will depend on what the problem actually is. You need to find that out together with her. But the most effective solution is always to help, never to punish. And as I said, bullying needs to be taken seriously. You cannot allow yourself to resort to knee-jerk reactions.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 12:41

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