Between the constant sibling rivalry for attention and young children's experimentation with lying, blaming a younger sibling for bad behavior is completely normal. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says you can help your child move through this phase and learn how to get his needs met in more positive ways.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
June 10, 2021
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An illustration of a sister and brother.
Credit: Illustration: Emma Darvick.

You and your husband are each correct: this is a developmentally normal phase your son will likely grow out of and you can use strategies to help him move through it more quickly, while ensuring he simultaneously gains important skills. The first step is looking at the why of these new behaviors, and then shifting how you may be responding.

Kids Are Experts at Getting Their Needs Met

Children are notoriously skilled for knowing how to get their needs met, in the most creative and exasperating ways. I stay away from the word "manipulative" because this gives children a calculating motivation that does not fit developmentally. Also, if we feel like we are being manipulated, this sets us up to respond more punitively (and less effectively). Instead, we can see these young brains as experts at getting our attention when they need it (yes, I know, that can feel like all the time).

Think about what needs your son may be attempting to meet. By blaming his little sister for bad behaviors, he not only likely hopes to avoid getting in trouble, but he may also aim to shift negative attention to her, especially if he feels like he gets in trouble more than she does (a burden often carried by the first-born).

The Attention Competition

Your situation does not surprise me at all, as most 2-year-old children require a great deal of attention from their parents by design. As a much more self-sufficient 6-year-old, your son may feel like he's not getting his fair share. (Any parent of siblings knows everything is always not fair!) I have not discovered any magic trick to avoid these sibling tensions and rivalries, which often are inspired by this attention competition, but targeting the other behaviors may help fulfill the need for attention in more constructive ways.

Lying and Child Development

If his emotional need may be wishing for more positive attention, we could conceptualize blaming his sister as a lying behavior to help meet his needs. Parents are often concerned that lying is a sign of a criminal future, but it's almost a necessary cognitive and social experiment by young brains as part of development.

Your son's 6-year-old brain is developmentally on the cusp between clumsy and skillful lying, so he may simply be testing how it works, but his age also falls at the beginning of self-concept development. As early school-age children start to develop their own self-concept, the experience of being viewed as "good" or "bad" becomes powerful, so they may lie to avoid feeling like a "bad kid."

How To Respond to Your Child

Hopefully, this developmental context gives you some reassurance that your son's behavior in itself is not abnormal. Next comes what to do to respond most effectively. First and foremost, research shows that punishing lying behavior can increase it because children will want to avoid the punishment instead of learning not to lie. Since lying in children can also be a response to feeling shame, embarrassment, or guilt, how you and his father respond can make all the difference in not only changing his behavior but in how he feels about himself.

Examine how you and his father react to his misbehavior and your son's response to the discipline. With different temperaments and personalities, one child can internalize shame whereas another barely registers the scolding. How does he react to the different methods of discipline, and what could he be trying to avoid? Shame can be a powerful emotion for young children, and they do not have skills to deal with it, so they use ineffective coping strategies.

From what we know about effective discipline, including a well-researched parenting approach called autonomy-supportive parenting, here are some tried and true tips for handling the situation with your son in a way that increases your connection with him and shifts negative interactions to positive learning opportunities:

Strategies:

  1. Stay as calm as possible as you respond to his misbehavior and/or lying. I have learned through my own trial and error how my child is able to stick with me through a behavior correction the calmer I am. When we as parents become dysregulated, our response amps up their emotions, which interferes with learning or processing the message we are trying impart in that moment.
  2. Use empathy before correcting the behavior, and take his perspective. To be clear, showing empathy and using perspective-taking does not communicate you are okay with the behavior; it helps your child feel understood and then more receptive to learning. For example, "I wonder if you blamed your sister because you felt scared about getting in trouble. I feel badly when I make mistakes too."
  3. Give reasonable rationale for rules so he can have his own buy-in. Since he is avoiding getting in trouble for sneaking snacks, for example, review the reason for your snack rules. Instead of a "don't sneak junk snacks" directive, you can explain, "we have 'always' snacks and 'sometimes snacks;' our bodies work better when we eat enough of the 'always' food." You can leverage positive motivation by focusing on what matters for him. As an example, my son prides himself on being a "super fast" runner, so we remind him that nutritious foods help him have energy to run faster.
  4. Find choices to help him build a greater sense of involvement, shifting from "don't do this behavior" to "you have a part in solving the problem." For example, he can make a list with you of "always" snacks and "sometimes" snacks, and then choose from those lists instead of sneaking food. This increases his sense of competence and confidence that his ideas matter.

The Bottom Line

By using these strategies to help his young brain think through his sister-blaming behaviors and the behaviors he's trying to cover up you are doing so much more than rushing him through a frustrating phase. You are working with him as his guide to help him get through this part of development with an even better grasp of how to navigate relationships, making choices, and his own sense of self.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.