Dear Miss Faith,
I have two daughters, four-and-a-half and two-and-a-half. Whenever my littler one takes something, or ‘hurts’ my older daughter she is very dramatic in her response. She makes it seem like it’s the end of the world! Any suggestions for being compassionate, but not encouraging such a reaction? Is there any way to discourage it?
First, cue your older daughter to say something more appropriate to the little one: “You can tell her, ‘please don’t hit me!'” And really start working with your little one on listening to requests to stop (see my last post on social interactions). Your older daughter may not feel like she needs to put up such a show if it’s clear that you’re helping the little one learn how to act appropriately and that it’s not “all right” just because she’s little; she’s learning how to touch with gentle hands!
In the meantime, how to react to your daughters reactions. Our tendency is to tell her to stop over-reacting, or to minimize what happened to show her how unimportant it was, but I suspect that the more you try to minimize it, the louder she gets. In my experience, kids are often overly dramatic for two reasons: first, they want more attention from you, or second, they have a melancholic temperament. Or both. If a child is simply wanting more attention from you, you can give it to them in a way that still empowers them to solve the issues on their own, by using humor. If your two-year-old hits your four-year-old and your older child starts wailing, “She hit me!” You can respond by going WAY over the top. “Oh no! Stop right there! Are you bleeding???? Don’t move, don’t move. I’ll call the ambulance right away!!!” This allows her to suddenly become the “bigger” person and tell you that it’s really not so bad. Or she just starts laughing and is distracted, which is also fine. If your two-year-old “ruins” the older child’s drawing, you might look at her tragically. “Ohhhhh nnnnooooo. That is now ruined for good. We’ll have to get a coffin and bury it in the back yard, don’t you think?” Really play it up for her.
On the other hand, your child might be over-reacting because she has a melancholic temperament. Melancholics feel things very deeply. They have a strong sense of justice, and they feel any perceived injustice very deeply. If this is your child, she will NOT like it when you use humor. In that case, she’s getting loud because what she wants from you is understanding. Instead of trying to minimize or distract, let her know that you really understand. “Wow. You were just sitting there and little Addie came up and hit you. That’s no fair! YOU know that hitting’s not allowed, but she’s too little and she just hit you!” Look right into her eyes, and ask sincerely, “Are you ok?” It makes no difference that you know that she couldn’t possibly have been hurt. When you show your understanding of the injustice of it all, she can relax again, and nod. “Oh, I’m SO glad,” you say, giving her a hug. “Addie is lucky to have a big sister like you, who knows how things should be.” If your bigger kid is up for it, you might even ‘brainstorm’ with her. “What should we do to help her learn?” If she doesn’t have any ideas, you could chip in, “I know! If you are playing with something and she comes up, you could give her another toy so she doesn’t try to take yours! Do you think that would work?” In this way, you can help give her some ideas of other ways to react.