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Reality Check: Little Sister Troubles

Q. Our 14-month-old is rough and mean to her gentle 5-year-old sibling. How can we teach our little one to be nicer to her big sister?

You're wise to take note of this. The natural impulse is for parents to look out for the smallest member of the family, and maybe not take it as seriously when the big one is getting the shaft. But both kids are learning fairness from you every day.

When you catch your toddler being rough with her sister, "say in your most serious voice, 'No hurting! You are my sweet baby, and this is your delicious sister -- I don't want anybody to hurt you, and I don't want anybody to hurt your sister either,'" says Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. This "victim-centered" approach teaches a toddler to note the hurt someone else feels and shows your older child you understand. You might also take your little one's hand and demonstrate a gentle touch on her big sister's arm so she has a concrete example of kindness in action.

But think, too, about what your eldest might be doing to trigger her little sister's abuse. Remind her not to constantly jump in and "help" her sibling when she's trying to do something on her own, and that she doesn't have to rescue her every time she attempts something and fails. Aside from the age gap between your girls, their relationship may be suffering from basic temperamental differences. Your second child simply may be more intense, moody, impulsive, or possessive, and her behavior could be just a reflection of a nature she hasn't yet learned to tame.

And, Honig says, consider how you treat your big girl in front of her sibling: "Do you give her lots of hugs and kisses, or do you scold her because you expect so much more, since she's older?" If it's the latter, you may be unwittingly giving your toddler permission to do the same.

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.