My Son Is Awful to His Younger Sister. What Can I Do?

Filed under: Siblings, Expert Advice: Big Kids, Social & Emotional Growth: Tweens, Expert Advice: Tweens

Dear AdviceMama,

My 13-year-old son responds negatively to his 10-year-old sister. Since he was little, he has criticized her, whispered sarcastic remarks and even shoved her. We have tried to praise him when he's positive toward her, and have taken away privileges but he continues to bully my daughter. What else can we do to end this?

Signed,
Out of Options


Dear Options,

Imagine how you'd feel if your husband brought home a new wife and tried to convince you that he still loved you the same, and that he was sure that this new woman would add to the happiness of your family. Picture him trying to convince you that in time you'd come to love his new wife with all your heart. Chances are, you'd have a whole lot of resentment toward this new lady -- and your husband would have a whole lot of explaining to do!

As much as we want our children to adore their siblings, mutual affection doesn't always happen on its own. Some kids are quite welcoming toward a new brother or sister, but others require our concerted effort to forge a loving connection between them.

I'm glad you want to address the problem now; studies suggest that a sibling's negative behavior can impact a child as much or even more than that of a parent's, because a brother or sister represents that all-important peer approval (or disapproval), which has such a profound effect on a child's self-esteem.

Here's my advice:

Allow your son to express his emotions, without censoring him or giving him what I call an Act II, where you try to explain why he should feel differently about your daughter. Chances are, he's been "leaking out" his anger toward his sister with mean jabs and shoves because he hasn't been allowed to voice his negative feelings without being scolded.

Make comments that you think he'll say "Yes" to, so he feels you hear and understand his frustration: "Sometimes your sister really annoys you, and it's tempting to say something mean to hurt her ..." or "It's hard to resist putting your sister down when you get so mad ..."

Offer him safe and acceptable outlets for his anger; hand him a plastic baseball bat and let him hit a pile of crumpled newspapers, or give him a piece of big-sized bubble wrap that he can stomp on to get his feelings out. The more you make it okay for your son to be upset, the less his bottled up emotions will spill over onto his sister.

Do make sure you're giving each of your children the chance to feel special in your eyes by spending one-on-one time with them, and by generously acknowledging the unique ways that they light up your world. The more your son feels seen and appreciated by you, the less his jealousy will fuel his misbehavior.

While your son may not fully appreciate his sister's presence now, if you take these steps, there's a good chance they'll eventually become lifelong friends. Don't give up! Someday, they'll both thank you for the effort you make to help them create a healthy relationship.


Yours in parenting support,
AdviceMama

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.