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Mama Drama: Staying Sane Parenting the Spitfire and the Saint

Dear Mama Drama:

I have two great kids. One is the model son who is sweet, obedient and tries to do what is right. His older sister is a fun spitfire who frequently gets in trouble for antagonizing her little brother or not listening.

The other day when I was reprimanding her, she accused me of not loving her as much because I always side with him. Though I try to be a loving mom, I can see how she’d feel that way because he rarely gets in trouble. How do I teach her certain behaviors aren’t acceptable but also show my love? I also don’t want her to resent her “perfect” little brother.

~Misunderstood  Mama

 (photo credit)

Dear Misunderstood:

It can be challenging to find balance in our interactions with our kids. Siblings often think we should treat them the same, but each child has different needs and personalities so we need to tailor our parenting to each child.

It sounds like you and your daughter may be in a bit of a rut with your reactions to each others’ behavior. Start by taking a step back to look at what is behind your daughter’s behavior (its intent or function).

  • What is she getting from the interaction when she antagonizes her brother?
  • Attention (from who?), avoidance of something undesirable, or a sensory need met?
  • Is she tired, hungry, or over-stimulated?
  • Are there particular activities or times of day when the behavior is more common?
  • Is she trying to rile him up so he will get in trouble, too?

Once you figure out what might be behind her behavior and other factors that might be impacting it, you can teach her an appropriate replacement behavior to meet her needs and adjust your schedule or expectations if needed. Talk about options and let her choose something she feels comfortable trying. Remember, she’ll need time and opportunity to practice the new behavior with lots of support from you.

Make a point to catch your daughter making good choices and notice and recognize all the little things she is doing well throughout the day. An easy way to do this is to say, “Thank you for…” We often focus on what isn’t happening and forget to recognize what is. Research shows that it takes five positive comments to outweigh one negative one. Challenge yourself to a ratio of five to one with your daughter (and anyone else in the family who may need it).

When your daughter misbehaves, act rather than react. Re-teach the expected behavior and set limits using reminders instead of reprimands as much as possible. Take a breath or two before you respond, check your tone of voice and body language, and think about the situation from her perspective. Also, make sure you have her attention before giving directions to minimize incidents of “not listening.”

You may also want to take a look at your little obedient one to see if he is doing anything that may be exacerbating situations with his sister. Even if he isn’t, he may need to work on more effective strategies to respond to his sister. Discussing actions both children can take to improve their behavior can help to balance out the perspective that she’s the only one who gets in trouble.

Rivalry and competition is a common issue between siblings. Encouraging cooperative activities where they work together toward a common goal can support them in developing a balanced and positive relationship.

Finally, you note that your daughter is a “fun spitfire.” Does she know you think those qualities are fun? Be sure to let her know how her personality contributes to the family fun and acknowledge the positive qualities of both of your children. A great book to read with them on this topic is I Love You the Purplest by Barbara M. Joose.

How do you manage the different needs and personalities of your children?

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be our next column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.