Q: What do you do when a 9-year-old acts more like a parent than a child?
My daughter constantly tells her younger sister what to do as if she was her mother.
Is there anything I should do about this?
-- Diane Ortiz,
! Philadelphia, Pa.
A: This is an age-old problem that has everything to do with age and being older. When you're 9 years old, age means power if you have a chance to lord it over a smaller child.
A certain amount of bossing of younger siblings by older children can be expected, and whether a parent should intervene depends on the degree of bossiness and why the child might be doing it.
"A lot of this just comes with the territory when you have an age gap of three or more years," says Hillary Sanders, a mother of four from Phoenix, Ariz.
"I think a lot of it you just have to ignore and let the kids work it out on their own," Mrs. Sanders suggests.
Besides the power issue, several other reasons influence why a 9-year-old may tend to act like a little mother. That may be the way she sees herself.
"One of the main ways kids figure out what's entailed with growing up and what adults do is by identifying with their parents," says Michael Silver, a child psychiatrist and associate medical director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center.
"Girls are more likely to identify with their mothers, who are more likely to be in care-taking roles," says Dr. Silver, a contributor to the center's new book, "Your Child's Emotional Health: The Middle Years" (Macmillan, $9.95).
If the child's motivation is simply a natural quest to be more grown-up than her younger siblings, Dr. Silver says it may help if parents acknowledge the child's desire to take on more responsibility and look for other ways to satisfy that need.
"Also, monitor how the younger kids are feeling," Dr. Silver says. "If they're feeling mistreated, it's time to intervene."
One thing parents do need to watch out for is whether they are inadvertently fueling the problem by expecting the oldest child to "take care of" siblings, even if it is only for short periods.
"I had this problem, too," says Stephanie Cutters, a mother from Dallas, Texas, who eventually realized: "Why wouldn't my daughter think she could mother the younger ones when I was always asking her where her little sister was or could she please take her baby brother for a minute."
Some of these expectations are normal and expected in families, but parents need to be aware of the hidden messages they may be sending.
"A temporary delegation of responsibility," Dr. Silver notes, "is different from a situation where an older sibling is functioning as an auxiliary parent consistently," he explains.
"There's nothing wrong with asking a 9-year-old to help out a little, but it should not be interfering with her ability to play or do things by herself."
No matter how temporary the care-taking assignment is, Dr. Silver says, it should be understood that the parent is still the person in charge.
"Make it clear where the parent is and that the siblings are not the child's sole responsibility," he advises.
Several parents who called Child Life wonder if the 9-year-old has enough opportunities to spend time with her peers so that age difference would not be as great a factor.
"Get your daughter involved in after-school activities like Girl Scouts," says Jennifer Rogers, a mother from Charlotte, N.C.
"Make sure she has enough outside interests, and maybe she won't be so focused on needing to be so bossy," she adds.
Finally, Dr. Silver suggests, it's a good idea to point out the situation to the child.
"It's important to talk with her about it," he advises, "but don't make it too big a deal," he adds. "Just point it out to her as something you've noticed and see how she feels about it."
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 6. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 4-year-old daughter.
CAN YOU HELP?
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* Late-night conversation: "My 4 1/2 -year-old daughter talks in her sleep, sitting up in bed with her eyes open," says Julie Gibbs of Chicago, Ill. "At first we thought she was awake. This can go on for five minutes, and sometimes she gets pretty agitated. Last night she got up and started walking around. Is this normal? Should we do anything?"
* Tattletale: "My 6-year-old has started to tattletale all the time," 00 says D.D. of Raleigh, N.C. "He's still young enough that I want to know about what's going on, but constant tattling is annoying. How should I handle this?"