When an older sibling picks on a younger sibling, parents typically believe the older child is to blame.
Parents believe older siblings should be more understanding and better able to control themselves than their younger siblings. Parents often wonder why the older child is aggressive and what they can do to stop the child’s negative behavior.
Below are some common phrases parents use that put the older child into a negative role as the “bully” and thus make sibling conflicts worse. In addition to increasing sibling conflict, blaming the older child ultimately harms the sibling relationship.
“Why are you picking on your sister?”
“You should know better because you’re older.”
“Your brother is just trying to play with you. He loves you.”
“Just because she hits you doesn’t mean you can hit her back.”
“I rely on you to be the mature one.”
“Why can’t you get along?”
As you read this, please know that the fact that you’ve thought or said things that feel hurtful to your child doesn’t make you a bad parent.
As parents, we do what we’ve learned, and we can always learn a new approach. That’s it. No guilt or shame allowed. Just a pat on the back because we’re making positive shifts in our family dynamics that will lead to greater happiness.
I was the youngest of three kids and the only girl in my family. What I remember most from my childhood is saying, “Mommy, Peter’s picking on me.” One time, I got so angry with my older brother that I chased him with a pair of scissors and stabbed his bedroom door as he slammed it in my face. Not my finest moment.
My family while growing up didn’t know how to model a positive approach to solving conflicts. To ensure that this scenario doesn’t happen in your family, follow these three guidelines.
- Don’t set yourself up as the judge in charge of determining who’s right and who’s wrong and setting the sentence. You’ll know you’re doing this when you see part of a sibling altercation and jump in to scold one of the kids or when one comes tattling on the other and you automatically believe the tattler. Responding in this way ensures that one of the siblings will always feel you’re being unfair, which leads to more resentment. Perhaps you didn’t see that the younger child instigated the older one by getting upset very slyly. You’ll end up with the older child saying, “You always think I’m wrong. You never listen to my side of the story,” or even, “I hate you. You’re so unfair.” You’ll end up feeling confused and hurt because you were only trying to resolve the situation, but instead, you added a new negative dimension to the conflict.
- Instead of thinking, ’How do I stop conflict when it’s happening?’ think, ‘How am I contributing to this problem?’ It’s important to use the Think-Feel-Do Cycle Process to evaluate what you’re saying and doing and how it’s impacting your older child’s feelings about herself and you. The example phrases above hurt your child’s self-esteem and can lead them to take out their negative feelings on their younger sibling because they have more power over their sibling than they do over you. If you watch carefully after you’ve scolded your child, you will often see the older child hurting the younger one because they feel unable to get back at you directly.
- Confront sibling conflicts proactively by learning how to facilitate the collaborative problem-solving process with your kids before conflict happens. Rather than being a Director who takes ownership of the problem and judges, use the Collaborator Parenting Role to approach sibling conflicts as family problems to be solved together. Your children usually have the same conflicts over and over, so when everyone is calm, set aside some time to discuss each conflict individually and develop solutions together.
Confronting sibling conflict as a family problem takes you out of the controlling role and teaches children responsibility for their own actions and for finding solutions.
When approaching sibling conflict, try to avoid judgmental and hurtful words in the moment. Take some quiet time to reflect on your part of the problem and remember to not guilt yourself. Instead, pat yourself on the back for creating greater family harmony by making positive changes and teaching your children the valuable life skills of taking responsibility and solving problems together.
©2018 Cynthia Klein, Bridges 2 Understanding, has been a Certified Parenting Educator since 1994. She works with parents and organizations who want more cooperation, mutual respect and understanding between adults and children. Cynthia presents her expertise through speaking, private parenting coaching sessions, and her book, Ally Parenting: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Transform Conflict Into Cooperation. She works with parents of 5 – 25 year-old children.
To learn how Cynthia can help you solve your specific challenges, contact Cynthia at bridges2understa.wpstagecoach.com, [email protected], or 650. 679.8138 to have a complementary 45-minute discovery session. Why keep suffering? It’s time to change!