A parent writes that her 5-year-old has never recovered from the arrival of her younger brother (now 3.5 yrs). “Since he was born, she has subjected him to physical violence and verbal taunting.” She describes her daughter as bright and strong-willed, and her son as gentle, loving and forgiving. She says she has tried everything to help her daughter manage her emotions more appropriately, including psychologists, but the behavior persists no matter what she says or does. “It breaks my heart.” She believes both her children are in pain and she’s looking to Janet for advice and perhaps some strategies she hasn’t tried.
Transcript of “Sibling Strife – When Your Child Keeps Hating On Her Little Brother”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a question from a parent — she has a five-and-a-half-year-old who she says has never recovered from the arrival of her brother, who’s now three and a half. She says since he was born, she’s, “Subjected him to physical violence and verbal taunting which continues to this day.” And she often says she hates him. She’s concerned about her daughter and her son, who she feels is very hurt by this behavior. She says, “Waiting for emotional maturity and impulse control to develop does a disservice to both siblings who are looking to me to provide a compass through the storms.”
This parent is looking for some advice, strategies, anything to help.
Okay. Here’s the note I received:
Hi, Janet. I’ve been following your amazing parenting principles since my oldest daughter, now five-and-a-half was 12 months old. Your respectful parenting philosophy resonates deeply with who I am and who I want to be as a parent and you have honestly saved our family’s sanity at times not to mention our precious relationships.
My daughter is a bright, strong willed child who would not let anyone near her, but me until she was 18 months old. She had severe separation anxiety and was often dysregulated on a hair trigger. Her tantrums, several times a day would last from 45 minutes up to two hours and sometimes left her so exhausted, she would fall asleep on the floor where she had pounded her fist only a moment before.
She has never recovered from the arrival of her brother, now three-and-a-half, when she was 22 months old. Since he was born, she has subjected him to physical violence and verbal taunting, which continues to this day. She often says she hates him.
We’ve tried all your techniques and I’ve poured through all your articles and podcasts for help with this issue. She has been to two child psychologists consecutively who have tried to assist her with managing her emotions appropriately. My blocking interventions are sometimes not quick enough to stop her hands connecting with her brother’s little face or body. I try extremely hard to remain calm and not fuel the behavior saying, “I won’t let you hit, that hurts.” But the bullying behavior persists and persists no matter what I do or say.”
My partner and I have both worked from home since the kids were born, so they see us all the time and both get a lot of one on one attention, even more so now that we are homeschooling due to COVID-19. Her brother is a gentle, loving, and forgiving little boy who sometimes cries to me that, “K hurts me.” It breaks my heart. I am at a loss as this has been going on for years now, and I’m concerned this is doing damage to my son.
When an incident happens, I of course go to my son first to comfort him, but I also look at my miserable older child who is clearly distressed and does not want the mystifying negative feelings she experiences as a result of hurting her brother and upsetting her parents.
I do not believe in inauthentic forced apology, so I wait for her to calm down and then we have a cuddle while I try to reflect back her frustrations with being a big sister and explain that I understand she must feel sad and angry sometimes. We then discuss other ways she could express her anger rather than hitting and unkind words. But she often blocks her ears or runs away at these suggestions.
Both my children are in pain and I need some new strategies. Waiting for emotional maturity and impulse control to develop does a disservice to both siblings who are looking to me to provide a compass through the storms. Any additional advice you could provide would be so gratefully received. Thanks.
Okay. So I hear how hard this parent is trying to help her children get beyond this behavior. This is obviously a very committed parent.
And it also brings up for me the realization that, even with all these details that she’s provided, it is very challenging for me to really visualize how this parent looks in action, interacting with her children. And that is a struggle that I have with written notes, even with phone consultations. I’m still trying to picture what the dynamic between the parent and child actually looks and feels like.
And that’s why my favorite way of all to help parents is to do in person consultations which, of course, are not as convenient and are harder to arrange. But then I can actually see almost immediately what’s going on, and I’m able to help parents make a shift. Sometimes even a video of parents interacting with their children is helpful. And even when I’m talking to parents on the phone, sometimes their child will come and interrupt and I’ll be able to get a glimpse right there of how this parent sets boundaries and responds when their child is wanting them and the parent can’t be there for them. It can be so illuminating.
So having said all that, there are a lot of details here, and I’m going to do my best to intuit what’s going on. But as always, there’s a lot of guesswork and I may not be completely accurate.
What I’m hearing is that her daughter is, to start out with, quite sensitive, right? Strong-willed and sensitive often go together. And this parent says from the beginning, her child would not let anyone near her but this parent until she was 18 months old. She had severe separation anxiety.
So what that tells me is it sounds like this family maybe accommodated these feelings, which is of course, a normal thing to do when you have a child that little and they’re saying, “No, no, no.” I’m going to cry unless this person’s there. It’s understandable to want to make that happen for them.
But what that actually does is prevent the child from processing those feelings. It also communicates to the child that we agree with them, in a sense, that they can’t be okay with anyone else, but us. That may not be what we intend at all, but that’s what children take from it. So it makes those feelings even stronger. Maybe there’s some fear that gets attached to them. If I don’t get what I want, I’m not going to be okay. And so it makes our child even more, in this case, dependent on and needy for her parent.
What I would recommend if possible, with this or any kind of fear or feelings that a child has, is to not try to accommodate it, to continue normally. “Sometimes your other parent is going to the one to do this with you.” Maybe even: “This other caregiver or your grandparent is going to do it, and you can have strong feelings about that. We want to hear those. We’re okay with you expressing that. In fact, we want you to express it.” We’re not going to change things or try to avoid this in any way.
I’ll often hear from parents who say things like, “My child won’t let me not play with them.” Or, “My child won’t let me ever leave their side or go to the bathroom on my own or stop nursing.” And what that tells me is that the parent is not comfortable with the child having the feelings they need to have around those experiences. The feelings are the healing.
And then severe separation anxiety… So children sometimes go through a period of separation anxiety or stranger anxiety, but this isn’t to be taken as it’s going to traumatize our child if we leave. It’s a sensitivity that they have, usually during this period between around eight months to 15 months. It’s a sensitivity as they’re making steps forward and development and maybe walking and they sense some more separation between us. This other part of them wants to hold on and not let us go.
So it’s kind of a push-pull. We want to be sensitive to it, but we don’t want to accommodate it. So we’re not going to take extra long away from our child or do it more often than we need to or want to, but we still have to do it. We still have to separate and let those other people care for our child or whatever it is, or even allow them to be alone for a couple of minutes while we’re doing something.
And then this parent says that her daughter had tantrums several times a day lasting “from 45 minutes up to two hours leaving her so exhausted, she falls asleep sometimes on the floor.” And I don’t know, this is maybe the way the parent remembers it or is presenting it. But if this girl was actually spending hours a day upset, I would want to check out if there might be physical issues going on there, she might be in pain. She might have sensory issues that we would want to look at for why she’s so dysregulated. So those kinds of things… that maybe this parent did check out. Because that goes beyond the realm of typical, to have a child spending that much of her day in tantrums.
But the typical ones that a child does have, we can help by holding space for them, being a safe person around them, so we’re not getting upset ourselves. We’re seeing this as healthy venting. We’re just keeping our child safe and being the safe presence for her to pass through the storm.
And that’s an experience that’s so helpful and important for children to have. That is how they build resilience. They’re getting all these messages through us basically doing nothing but calming ourselves and being a safe presence, and trusting that it’s okay for our child to go to these places. They’re getting all these messages of: Wow, storms come and then they pass. And I’m okay not feeling good all the time. I can have really uncomfortable feelings and they pass. Those are things that children need to learn experientially.
And also these feelings could have been coming up for this child when the parent was expecting her brother. So she was sensing, even at that young age, a little bit of distancing and a little excitement around some change that she can’t really understand or put her finger on, and that’s frightening. So that may have coordinated with her having some of these tantrums. Again, healthy feelings to express and to get out of her body.
And then this baby arrives. Now, she has feelings that children have: loss, fear, betrayal, anger, and rage sometimes. And a lot of it comes down to fear of what they’ve lost in the relationship with their parent. And then that can get validated for them when they start to behave in these ways that are unpleasant for us as parents. Physical violence, as this parents says, verbal taunting, which she probably wasn’t doing at 22 months old, but maybe the physical lashing out. It’s very, very challenging for us as parents to see that for what it is, to see that as a manifestation of our child’s emotionally traumatic experience of losing their parent to this other child and feeling the shift in their relationship.
And for a child that’s intense like this little girl, that’s going to be a very, very strong experience for her. And she’s showing that through the physical acting out. She’s showing that.
So anytime behavior is continuing like this, what we can learn from it as parents is that there’s something my child needs that they aren’t getting yet. And actually what this little girl is doing that’s very, very positive is that she isn’t suppressing it. At least not all of it. She’s still putting it out there.
What we don’t want is for a child to internalize, just feel the shame and bottle the feelings away. But this girl is putting it out there. She hasn’t been frightened into hiding them. And that’s wonderful. That means this parent is handling these situations in a way that isn’t pushing her daughter away.
What I am hearing though, is that this parent is doing a very normal thing that I totally remember. I have three children. So I’ve been through this transition to another child a couple of times. Plus, I, myself am a middle child. So I have that experience as well. What I’m hearing is this parent, she’s shifting between empathizing with her daughter, especially what she says at the end about how her daughter is clearly distressed and does not want the mystifying negative feeling she experiences as a result of hurting her brother. So she’s empathizing, but at the same time, she’s slipping into judging her, which is distancing and doesn’t help us to get what we want, which is our child to stop doing this. Because it creates even more fear and discomfort when a child feels that their parent is judging — the parent is not liking them in these moments that we see her as a bully. This parent has used that word. And that she’s “subjecting him to physical violence and verbal taunting.” Subjecting him sounds very intentional, and what I want to help this parent see is: This poor girl, she’s so uncomfortable that she’s lashing out and acting in a way that she does not want to act.
It’s challenging to be able to stay on our child’s side in this situation, or any situation where they’re behaving in ways that we don’t like, and that make us feel bad about ourselves as parents. It’s invalidating for us to see that go on. It’s scary for us. But as scared as we might be, children are frightened many times over, and lost. So what they need is for us to be that safe presence, gathering them in, bringing them close to us. Maybe not physically, but through our attitude of empathy.
“Sometimes you get so mad at him, right? Just everything he does, you don’t like. But this is not okay, you know that. I’m going to stop you. I can’t let you do that stuff.” That’s the way that I would acknowledge her feelings, very in the moment like that.
And instead of saying, “I won’t let you hit, that hurts”… Yes, I would say that the first time maybe, or the first couple of times. But right now, the important thing is “I won’t let you.” I’m going to stop you whenever you do this stuff. Don’t worry. I’ve got you. I’ve got your back. You’re safe with me. That kind of subtext.
I’m not saying to say all those words, necessarily. But even this thing of “that hurts,” they don’t need to keep being reminded of that. And I was practicing saying it for some reason, “that hurts, that hurts.” It’s actually very hard to say that without being a little angry or annoyed. It’s hard to say those words like, “Oh, that hurts, I can’t let you.”
So maybe the words are even almost the same, but the attitude of this girl needs my help, she’s still stuck in this, and I want to join with her and show her that I’m there for her. And what will help both of her children is to feel more of that sense of security and self-confidence, because when children feel that, then they usually act out of the best part of themselves. When they feel accepted by us, when they feel we’ve got their back — that they are safe when they’re doing these wrong things that we don’t want them to do, we’re not judging them, we want to help them stop, we want to help them not continue this.
The way that we respond to the younger child matters a lot as well, for two reasons:
One is for that younger child to feel confident in the situation.
Number two, because the older child is witnessing and experiencing us responding to the younger child. And the way that we do that gives our older child messages.
The common thing to do is rush into rescue that younger child. That’s understandable, right? We see somebody seeming to be victimized and our heart goes out to them and we feel sorry for them, and we want to comfort them and make it all better. But that actually doesn’t help that younger child as much as us stepping it back so that we’re not projecting all of this pity and that you need to be rescued. And this is so sad what just happened.
It’s so easy to project in these situations onto both children that this person is a bully, and this one is a victim. We want to be really careful about that.
Instead, you come in, you try to stop your older daughter. So, “Oops, I can’t let you do that.”
And then you’re looking at your son and he’s looking sad or he’s looking, maybe not that sad, just a little baffled. Whatever he’s showing you, take a moment to take that in. Don’t rush over. Give him a chance to come to you, if he needs you. Staying neutral is more helpful to both children because they don’t feel judged. They don’t feel either pitied: You poor thing. You can’t handle this, and this is crushing you. And: You’re just a mean brat.
So if we see that our son is very badly hurt and it’s an emergency, that’s when I would go all the way up to him. And I still probably wouldn’t even pick him up, because we swoop into pick him up… that’s a normal thing that happens with the younger child. Then he feels helpless and the older child feels like a real rat, right? All their worst fears are being confirmed, that I’m the bad guy now and my parents eyes and love this guy better. That’s exactly where the behavior is coming from, those feelings.
When we judge, it might feel like a very small thing we’re doing, but it can have a huge impact. And that’s why so many of us as adults maybe have difficult relationships with our siblings, still. It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a lot that we can do as parents to shift this. And it’s all about judgment, actually, when we see these conflicts happening and how we treat each child around the conflict. So this is something we can do at any time. Change the messaging by working on what we’re seeing and then acting out of that perception.
This younger guy, he may be more capable than we give him credit for. You can be there with all the empathy in the world for both of them and at the same time, neutral and receptive.
Let’s go to some specifics here. This mother says, “So I wait for her to calm down and then we have a cuddle while I try to reflect back her frustrations with being a big sister and explain that I understand she must feel sad and angry sometimes.” So that’s good. Even better just to be open to it in the moment (I know that’s hard) and not to make a lesson around it, even talking too much about it.
It’s just like… she slipped. Her impulses got the better of her, and she went there. She went to that fear place, that rage place. It’s not something that we really need to go over of why that happened. It’s always better just to be open to it in the moment.
Then when this parent says, “We discuss other ways she could express her anger rather than hitting and unkind words.” She says, “She often blocks her ears or runs away these suggestions.”
So yeah, that’s always a sign that the child feels judged. I mean, I can relate to that. I don’t want to hear it. You’re going through this and it’s just making me feel worse and worse and it’s not helping bring anything. If I could have done those things, I would have. I actually know I wasn’t supposed to hit. I know I wasn’t supposed to call those names, but I did it. I slipped and I don’t want to hear you talking about it.
I can relate to that.
So that’s a sign that she’s feeling judged. You’re seeing her as somebody that just needs to hear, again, that she’s not supposed to do those things. And that’s seeing her as more mature emotionally than she is, way more mature — seeing that she can be on top of these feelings, which she just can’t right now. She’s showing you that she can’t. She needs help. Right now, she can’t make a different choice in those moments. She’s not even making a choice. It’s just coming over her.
Then I would actually let go of the thing about the words right now because — one at a time, right now. I would just focus on the physical behavior that’s harmful. Because a lot of the time, the younger child sees through those words more than we realize, sees the unhappy child saying that, sees that this is what she does. They don’t often take on those words as labels that they believe about themselves. Especially if the parents are not treating them in that way. They don’t really take those words to heart. What they see is that this person is angry. This other person that I love, my sister, is losing it.
Verbalizing the words can be a healthier way of her expressing herself and preferable to hitting and hurting him. For a child her age, over the age of three or four, words are how she’s going to do it. Finding those words that just say exactly how she feels that help her get that fear out, help her get that anger out.
It’s not like you’re going to love those words, but I would let go of that and just help her with the hitting right now, while you’re going to help do some re-messaging here.
So, I know these aren’t exactly strategies as much as perception, but that’s what matters most, the way that we see. And the way that we see will dictate the way we actually feel. So we’re not pretending that we’re okay with it. We see it for what it is, which is: Oh, that poor girl. She needs my help stopping her.
And this guy, he’s kind of gotten into this victim thing with her. And I want to empower him a little more by doing less so that he can express more and share more with me.
If he says these things like, “K hurts me…” She says, “It breaks my heart.” And that’s a little bit of her projecting here. Maybe that she’s failing in this. She’s absolutely not, in my opinion. And even though this has been going on, she can work on this and make a change very quickly.
So if he says, “It hurts me,” or if she says something about him, just take in the feelings. Respond, “Oh, that hurt. What does it feel like?” You want to know about those feelings. You want him to share those feelings instead of letting them stab you and bring you down. Those are incredible openers that children give us for connection and intimacy.
I hope some of this helps.
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Thanks again for listening. We can do this.