Scratching and Pinching Older Sister

Dear Miss Faith,

Lately my 2-yr-old daughter has really escalated her scratching and pinching of her big sister (age 5). My 5-yr-old recently broke her leg, so I have to carry her quite a bit and that is likely making the younger one jealous. Also, she is definitely struggling to use her words. But to my horror my older daughter’s face looks like a cat attacked her! It’s awful! And the little one even appears to be smiling after she scratches her. The older one gets very upset but never, ever retaliates. Folks have told me that the older one just needs to scratch her back… But I don’t think that sounds like a good approach. I’ve tried taking away the little one’s favorite pink shoes when she does this, modeling “gentle touches,” telling her she needs to use her words and telling her how much this hurts her sister… But I’m wondering if you have an approach to nip this in the bud? Whatever I’m doing (or not doing) doesn’t seem to be working.
Thanks on any advice you may have!!

Dear Mama,
What a tough situation for everyone! It’s so hard to know what to do; most books I’ve read on the subject tend to say things like, ‘try to see it coming and step in to prevent it.’ Obviously if that worked, you wouldn’t be writing! So, here are some ideas for you to try. I’ll talk first about how to respond when it does happen, and then about how to help prevent it from happening so frequently.

When She Scratches:
Try to respond as consistently as possible. Here’s what I would probably do: First, I would briefly be VERY stern: look her right in the eye and say, “Oh, no. No thank you.” It doesn’t really matter what you say, just make it VERY stern (and very brief). When I’ve done this, kids have even been know to burst into tears! I’m not doing it to terrify them, but to really let them know that this is NOT OK. Then I’d turn and tend to the older one for a moment, showing lots of concern and asking if she’s OK, giving her a hug. Then back to the little one, I’d switch over to being sad and disappointed. I’d say what I DO want, and set the image for future growth: “Oh my goodness. You forgot to be gentle with with your sister. Poor sister! Even if you’re grumpy, you can still touch gently. Even if you want a toy, you can still touch gently. You can ALWAYS touch gently, EVERY TIME. You forgot! But soon you’ll be able to remember, to be gentle EVERY TIME. You’re learning. Come show me how you can touch her with your gentle hands. That’s it. Now you’re remembering!”
I don’t tend to have children say that they’re sorry (see my post on Why I Don’t Use Sorry); in this case, I’d have her move into action to help make things right. Perhaps she could get an icepack or a cold washcloth for her sister? You will probably need to go with her to get it, talking about how she’s getting it for her sister to help her feel better.
Lessening the Frequency
Is your little one still napping? If she’s not napping, or she’s not napping enough, make sure that she gets some real downtime in the afternoon, either in a big chunk, or a few minutes every half hour or so during that hard time of day. Also, could you change things up so that you guys are outside during that hard time in the afternoon? That may help too.
Finally, I suspect that your feeling that the little one is jealous is probably right on! If your older one is getting lots of attention because of her broken leg, you can ‘play’ that the little one needs special treatment, too. Maybe pretend that she’s broken her leg too. Really ham it up and pour in lots of affection. “Oh, no! Did you break your leg, too? My poor baby! Let me hold you! Let me carry you around!” Pick her up and rock her, singing ‘rock-a-bye baby.’ If she REALLY loves it, swing her more and more, dipping her upside down. Anything that gets giggles and laughs. When she finally struggles to get down, be thrilled at this, too. “You’re all better! It’s a miracle! You’re cured!” Grab her hands and do a happy dance, and then let her run off to play again. If you give her some of this type of play periodically throughout the day, she may not need to feel like she has to steal the attention from her sister.
Poor little one, it’s hard being two and being tired and having an older sister who gets all the attention, and not knowing how to express your frustration in a way that gets you positive attention.
Warmly ~Miss Faith
I love your comments! Please post below.
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  1. Thanks Faith!
    I have been working with scratching in my toddler program. What are your thoughts on putting gloves or mittens on someone who is doing a lot of scratching?

    • Liz, We did have one little boy wear gloves and it helped. They were those thin, stretchy gloves that you can get at the dollar store, so he was still able to pick things up and manipulate them; we’d take them off for meals and pottying. We spent a lot of time outdoors and the kids were used to wearing gloves, so we just had a pair of special “indoor gloves” for him to switch into when we came indoors. I also started trimming his fingernails myself a couple times a week, which helped as well.

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