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Sibling Rivalry: Older Sibling Acting Like a Parent

Sibling Rivalry: Older Sibling Acting Like a Parent

“Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth.” “If you throw that toy, I’m taking it away from you.” “You need to eat some broccoli before you get dessert.” Contrary to how they sound, these are not statements that I’ve recently made to my toddler but came from the mouth of his 7 year old sister. Sibling rivalry comes in all forms, from arguing over a toy to securing the premiere seat on daddy’s lap, and each presents its own unique challenges. This month my husband and I are stumped by this parenting challenge and need some advice about what to do when an older sibling is acting like a parent to a younger one.

Owen (2.5 years) recently transitioned from the toddler program to preschool. One of our biggest hurdles during the transition is helping him to better control his impulses and use words as an alternative to grabbing and hitting his peers. As part of the process, I began spending more time around the kids while they play in order to identify his behavior trigger points.

In the process, I realized just how often my daughter is parenting her little brother. Instead of being a collaborator in mischief, she’s constantly letting him know what the rules are. Once again we see her utilizing her “executive leadership (ahem – bossy) skills.” Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE that she knows the rules and want to enforce them. However, her “rules” are naturally different from his. We expect a little more control and better behavior from her than from her toddler brother. To be fair to her, many times she is actually spot on with her positive discipline techniques. But she doesn’t have to be the parent. We don’t want her to be his parent. We want her to be a kid, a fun friend, a sneaky sidekick, etc.

At first, I tried to casually point out to her that she doesn’t have to enforce the rules but rather should just be a friend. She got a bit defensive thinking she was doing something wrong. I explained that even though she’s correct that Owen is breaking a house rule, it’s not her “job” to enforce it. That conversation didn’t really solve the problem – no matter how many millions of times we had it. Then, I read that giving her other responsibilities around the house or outside the home through extracurricular activities can help. We do both of these pretty well but maybe the more casual summer is playing a bit of a role here. We’re at the point where it’s quickly escalating to the point of frustration for me. Nothing we do seems to help her stop this behavior.

Is teaching them sibling teamwork or supportive communication the answer? And if so, what are practical strategies to build these sibling skills with a 7 year old and a 2 year old? Or should I just let them work it out knowing that they’re establishing problem resolution skills? I’m not sure this is the right direction for my toddler with little impulse control. Do you have an older sibling who acts like a parent to a younger brother or sister? What do you do?




  1. Kate July 25, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Speaking as an older sister with excellent “executive leadership skills” growing up, I think it could also just be a phase. I was absolutely a mini-parent with my sister and brother. I was also the oldest cousin in the family and anytime we’re all together they rag on me for the plays we used to put on together and what a bossy director I was. As we all got older, I grew out of it and started acting more like a fun big sister instead of the unappointed family hall monitor. They’ll be causing trouble together before you know it and you’ll be longing for the days when you had a mini-parent in the mix!

  2. Media Mom July 25, 2014 at 11:17 am

    I could have written this same post. We have the exact same situation with my 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. I have been stumped with how to deal with it because my daughter gets so offended when I urge her to stop trying to be a parent. And in all honesty, she doesn’t get it, he doesn’t get it, and it’s hard to develop a logic to explain in a way she can understand that my daughter shouldn’t try to enforce the rules of the house. After all, at 7 they’re in the midst of learning in their own social groups how to police themselves, urge friends to follow the rules, play fair, etc. What I’m trying to do instead is to guide my daughter to deal with her brother kindly, and think about “teaching” him rather than scolding him. I’ve tried to get her to understand that she’ll get a much better response from him that way, and that will make her feel better too. And it does work. Sometimes.

  3. Amy July 25, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Kate – it’s great to hear this may be a phase and her simply learning how to be a big sister. Media Mom – I love the suggestion of showing her how to “teach” rather than scold. Just this morning I heard her yelling at him to get down from the chair (he’d been standing on the kitchen chair which is something we’ve been working with him to stop). He got frustrated and hit her. She got mad. And you know the rest. I looked at the situation and thought about what went wrong. I explained to my son (the stander) that his sister was only worried about him being safe and her not wanting him to fall. And that it’s not okay to hit when he gets mad. And I shared that maybe next time she should say something along the lines of “Standing on the chair is not safe and I don’t want you to hurt yourself. You should sit down.” Teach – rather than scold. Let’s see if it sinks in at all! 🙂

  4. LVMom August 14, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this, my 4 1/2 year old daughter does the same thing to my 2 1/2 year old son (also named Owen). Is it just older daughters who take on this role? It drives me crazy, him crazy, and then he does whatever she’s telling him not to, just out of spite. I love the idea of teaching, not scolding, and will try that too.

  5. Larry January 28, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I have found through my experiences as a father of seven and being in the early childhood field that when I approach this situation that I give both children the power to work together. I help the older child to be the example and to guild and teach the younger child. This way they are creating bonds between each other. The older child does not have that authoritative role and the younger child want to be like the older child. It works. Great article most families with multiple children go through this one time or another. These skills help the children at school as well. Instead of being the child tattling on the other children they are engaging and helping the other children in the classroom.

    • Leela Obilichetti September 16, 2015 at 8:41 am

      Larry, I would love examples of how you gave other children power. It would be so helpful.

    • Abby Hunt May 17, 2018 at 2:21 am

      Thanks for this perspective. I have stumbled into this method as well. I’m a homeschool mom to a 5-yr-old mini mom and a 2-yr-old button-pushing, bull-dozing little man cub. My little mini-mom often talks about being a mom and tells me she just wants to be like me. So, I just started coaching her about how to be a teacher, like me. I even point out, when she has a success in learning a new concept, what teaching method helped her to master it… and how to implement it. I hope I’m not creating a monster, but it is so much more peaceful than the nagging big sister syndrome!

  6. megan April 10, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    I’m a 21 yr old big sister of 5 and a younger sister to 1. I raised my siblings including my older brother. I changed diapers, put them to bed etc. Everything my very absent parents should have been doing. I’ve always been naturally bossy in a way but I very distinctly remember why I felt as though I had to be the parent. It was because I feared that without me my brothers and sisters wouldn’t have anyone to care for them. When my mother would point out that I should be the sister and friend instead of the parent it only made me feel as though I needed to be even more in charge. As if her knowing that I was the parent figure reaffirmed my belief that I had to take charge. In my situation I truly had to be the adult and parent because of my parents absence but reading your article and concern makes me believe that you are an active caring mother. What I needed as a child to change my behavior was to see my mother in her proper parent role. Almost like I was a DHS worker waiting to see a change in behavior before I laid off. My advice to you is to beat your daughter to the punch line. When you can tell she’s going to correct your son’s behavior beat her too it. She feels for some reason that she needs control which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but you have to show her that she can be the child. Don’t try to verbally correct her, it will only push her more and make her feel like her naturally strong personality is wrong. Which is something you definitely don’t want her taking into adulthood.

    • Catrice July 8, 2015 at 6:57 am

      Hi Megan,

      I am an eldest sibling also. What you have described was my exact experience. The advice you gave is terrific and I concur. My parents divorced. Though they had assistance from Great aunts and grandparents at a certain point I was relied upon heavily and told that I had to accept that role of caregiver and dole out directives to siblings that were not being disciplined or directed by our own parents. I was told to explain the rules to them in my mom’s absence when she put me in charge to babysit. I was also told that anything my siblings did wrong, if they did not comply with her rules while she was away she would then hold me fully accountable for their behavior. I was indeed gel accountable, demeaned, and she was cruel despite the fact that I was highly responsible and a trusted kid in the greater community helping other families successfully and respectfully. That parenting was usually draining on myself and other familial adults because the children were not as disciplined and somewhat unruly since no parent truly took responsibility for discipline consistently. She would often be extremely inconsistent with discipline and follow -through. I was told by her directly each time I was left with my younger siblings that it was my job to remind my siblings of the rules of the house and I would be repeatedly punished if rules were not followed and not my 3 younger siblings. They would rebel and she would tell them they did not need to listen. Nevertheless, they were unruly and I would ultimately be held responsible for their behaviors. My mom would reason that this was right because “I was the eldest”. On the occasions my younger siblings were punished for their behaviors, I was punished also for being perceived as incapable of inspiring the siblings to comply with “House Rules”.
      I felt very put upon having to be expected to manage a parent like role at such a young age and manage house chores, cooking cleaning and children. It was unfair and selfish of my parents.

      The disciine is solely a parent’s job and so is reinforcing rules of the house. Children who are natural leaders see the gaps and try to fill it in order to help. They try to help the parents and grow in many ways. It is the parent’s responsibility to step up to the plate and look at those gaps. If follow through is missing, then be the parent and focus on follow through.

      Trying to break the spirit, and will of a natural leader to whom in many cases parents are placing the eldest in a leadership or charge role in the first place is hypocritical and inconsistent parenting. It is also in my opinion, poor parenting. It is an effort to break a child than build what is good and special in that child productively. Generally situations like this are of the parent’s own making due to a bit of oversight regarding ignoring the gaps in their own parenting at the time that can be quickly remedied. If a parent leaves a child with their sibling to “watch over them” the child knows they have been given responsibility and are trying their best to model leadership and help the parent’s that they love and help keep balance. In some way be it subtle or overt, the parent (s) have inadvertently or due to absence and neglect modeled that this child’s leadership —- help —is needed.

      It is the parent’s job to see what they are not fulfilling as parents. Be a parent. Have follow through with directives and handle situations as they arise. If their is a gap, the mini-leader in a parent’s charge who they are raising will see it and try to help.

      A parent has a growing leader in their charge. Instead of breaking that child’s spirit, be the appropriate role model and demonstrate leadership.
      See the gap as Megan mentioned and deliver the directives quickly before the inner instinct of the growing leader kicks in. Demonstrate proper parenting and jump in and make decisions about whatever needs redress. Model that throngs are not haywire but under your charge by taking charge of the situation.

      That allows the child to rest as a child, lessens their burden and not feel that they need to step up to the plate because they have been expected to do so in the past in subtle or overt ways by their own parent. Most importantly, be consistent with parenting as the parent in charge. Inconsistency is a problem.

    • Alexia August 5, 2015 at 11:29 am

      I feel the observations and advice from Kate and Larry are very good ideas. I have an almost 4 year old, 2.5 year old and 5 month old. I hear my oldest often giving rule commands to the middle child or tattling to me about what he has done wrong. I think its a great idea to guide him to teaching rather than scolding or telling on his brother. I also often remind him that he is the oldest and has had more time to learn and understand the rules; Therefore he is best able to help his brother by leading by example. I ask him to use big brother judgment if either or both of them are starting a behavior which is not allowed and to be wise to try and stop beforehand. Now they are both toddlers so this rarely stops and life is often chaos.

      I do think he tends to scold and tell on his brother often because he is projecting his feelings onto his brother. The oldest doesn’t like to be punished and gets really upset when he realizes he broke a rule. I think in some part of it he doesn’t want to be alone in getting caught. The younger brother doesn’t always get as much consequence (particularly their timeout times are assigned by age so older brother has to server another minute). Or if the older brother was the leader in the behavior he may have to do an extra step such as clean up the toys since he is more aware of breaking the rule and the younger brother would not have done it if he wasn’t coping his big brother. At least with his tone and attitude I get the impression he is non verbally saying “I paid my dues, now its your turn”.

      On a positive note I have talked with him about behaviors where he would be a great help with his brother. Such as potty training. The oldest just figured it out and I explained he can help to show his brother how to use the big potty and remember to try to use the potty often. Now every time he wants to use the potty he tells his brother and will say “See how you use the potty, I can help teach you”. He wants to be involved and wants to be like his parents so as the little one copies the older ones, so the older one copies the parents.

    • Marie April 28, 2016 at 5:18 am

      This happens mostly when an older sibling has been taught limits the younger sibling has not I think. It’s true that most parents are more lax with second and after children. It’s a lot of just that they are older but also it is responsibilities that may have unwittingly been placed on an older sibling with things like “listen to your older sibling”, “watch you younger sibling”, “protect your younger sibling”, these are regular tools used by parents with more then one child, any older sibling can tell you. And you are unwittingly giving that child responsibilities and authority that they will expect to have to keep up with even when you may be present. If you want them to stop playing parent you have to explain why the younger sibling may have different limits and be careful not to expect him to be responsible for his sibling. I hope this helps.

    • Abby Hunt May 17, 2018 at 2:28 am

      Megan, thanks for this perspective! Although I am a very engaged homeschool mom, I and my husband are both far more laid back that our spunky 5-yr-old mini-mom! As I read your comments and think about the times and tones that I most often hear my daughter bossing her 2-yr-old brother, I can see that, in her mind, it might seem like I’m either not aware or not properly handling her energetic brothers antics. She does have pretty good humour, so it often works if I teasingly say, “hey! Are you trying to take over my job?” She will laugh and let me handle it, but I can see she is still stressed. I will try stepping up my game a bit and finding a medium spot that will help her see that I can handle my job as mom without squashing my little guy’s desire to explore!

  7. Leanne Strong January 10, 2016 at 11:59 pm

    I’m the oldest child in my immediate family (my parents only had 2 children, so technically I’m the older child). I also have Asperger Symdrome (High-Functioning Autism). For some children, it’s just a part of their personality, and can’t really be changed or stopped. I wouldn’t say that I was ever exactly what you would call controlling, but I have always had pretty high expectations for people, and would sometimes decide I didn’t like someone if they didn’t follow the rules and codes of behavior the exact way I understood them. My brother (who is only 2 years younger than me and doesn’t have any disabilities) has always seemed happy to just hang out and be a buddy. He didn’t seem to make a big deal if someone said, “I WANT SOME MORE JUICE,” rather than, “can I have some more juice please?”

    I think a lot of kids emulate their parents’ attitudes towards their behavior. If parents reprimand or correct their kids for even the smallest misbehavior, kids might be more likely to correct their siblings or peers for even the smallest misbehavior. If the parents’ attitude towards their kids’ misbehavior is something like, “well, as long as nobody is being unsafe or making anybody else feel uncomfortable, it’s ok,” this is the attitude kids are more likely to show when interacting with siblings and peers.

    With the oldest child(ren), parents tend to reprimand or correct their children for even the smallest deviation from the exact rules and codes of behavior. With every child after that, as long as nobody is doing anything unsafe or making anyone uncomfortable, anything will fly.

    I’d say that the fact that I always held people to such high standards is a testament not only to the fact that I’m an oldest child, but also to the fact that I have Asperger Syndrome. A lot of people on the Autism Spectrum are very rigid in their understanding of rules and behavior.

    • Amy January 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

      This is a great perspective, Leanne. I definitely see a lot of my “corrections” as a first-time parent showing up in how my daughter deals with her little brother. With the second child, it’s as you mentioned – it doesn’t concern me as much unless it’s dangerous or destructive. It’d be great if we were born with the “first child” hindsight already built in!

      • Leanne Strong January 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

        Thank you, Amy! In addition to being the oldest child in my immediate family, I also have Asperger Syndrome (I think it’s called High-Functioning Autism or Social Communication Disorder now). A lot of people on the Autism Spectrum (whether they are High-Functioning, like Aspergers, or non-verbal) have a rather rigid understsnding of rules, routines, and codes of behavior, and I think this might be in part because we understand pragmatic language (the difference between what other people say and what they actually mean).

        It might also be that girls in general (but not always) are more controlling and dominant by nature than guys are.

        Here’s something that might help. Do some things to teach your kids about different ways to do things. One way might be that each time you make a sandwich for your kids, you cut it a different way. Maybe one time you cut it in half down the middle, one time you cut it in half on a diagonal, one time you cut it in quarters down the middle (so it looks like a present), one time you cut it in quarters on a diagonal (so it looks like an X), one time you leave it whole-you don’t cut it at all, and so on and so forth. This might teach a kid that there can be more than one right way to do things. And sometimes there really is no clear right or wrong, it all depends on what you feel comfortable with.

        Another way you can teach your kids about different ways of doing things is have them study all different kinds of cultures to learn about how people do things in different parts of the world. I love traveling, and I loved studying different countries and cultures when I was younger, so this would have been a good tool for me. This might teach a kid that different people do things differently.

        • Amy January 11, 2016 at 4:12 pm

          Great ideas! Thanks so much for sharing, Leanne. And you’re absolutely right – I think it’s a girl gene in my family that makes them more controlling. Haha!

  8. Leanne Strong January 22, 2016 at 12:33 pm


    Just another suggestion. Have you had your daughter tested for Autism Spectrum Disorders or pragmatic language difficulties? I have heard that a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum or who have pragmatic language difficulties are very rigid in their ways or understanding and enforcing rules and codes of behavior. In addition to being my parents’ oldest child (my parents only had my brother and me, so I’m technically the older child) I’m also on the high-functioning end of the Autism Spectrum (it used to be called Asperger Syndrome, and my verbal and cognitive skills are within normal limits). Because of that, I used to be very rigid in my understanding of rules and codes of behavior, and in my ways of enforcing them. I would not make any exceptions no matter what. I was 17 almost 18 when the school speech therapist talked to me about bending the rules, and what it means. That is when I realized that sometimes the rules don’t need to be followed.

    Also, have you had your daughter tested for sensory integration sensitivities (this is also common among people on the Autism Spectrum, but can occur even in people who aren’t)? I heard that sometimes sensory issues can lead to controlling behavior. I have always had some sensory sensitivities (but I had occupational therapy at school until I was in 11th grade, so I’m not sure if that was a major cause of my behavior).

  9. Carol Cummings August 11, 2017 at 9:55 am

    I have 2 granddaughters (14 and 8) the oldest one has been mothering the youngest one since she was born. At lunch yesterday they 14 year old constantly pointed out what she was doing good wrong. Eating too loud ,eating with her mouth open,talking to loud just being rude. I asked her over and over to just let it be. The youngest one was in tears wanting get to be left alone. How do you end this. Besides the point the oldest one is left to babysit the youngest all summer.

  10. Floyd Glenn December 25, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    All these words in the article are good – imho.
    But IN-mho, the Answer to the problem is that the parents of the child who is bossing, and/or acting in any way like a parent to the younger sib, is that the parent needs to be more stern with the older sib.

    I have experienced and witnessed this type situation SO many times I could not count the times. If the older child is being bossy – then you must correct them in a very plain and straightforward way – and if they do not listen to you – then it’s time to get a bit more stern about it.

    1. It is THE PARENTS job to manage and parent ALL their children. 2. It is NOT the job of the OLDER child to parent the younger ones.
    3. And they need to learn to FIRST keep their minds on THEIR OWN BUSINESS – and NOT on the business of YOUNGER child or the Parent as “parenting” is going on. Parenting, managing, and training is the job of the PARent – and NOT the job of the child.

    Lastly – and again, I have SO much experience at this – 40 years of making mistakes, learning from my mistakes, and having both successes and failures. I KNOW what I am talking about.

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