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The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings

by James Lehman, MSW
The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings

Q: What do the other children in the family experience when they have a brother or sister who’s hostile or acts out chronically?

It’s traumatizing when something hurtful happens to you, and you can’t control it, you can’t stop it, you can’t predict how hurtful it’s going to be, and you can’t predict when or whether it’s going to happen. Children who grow up with a chronically defiant, oppositional sibling grow up in an environment of trauma.  They don’t know when they’re going to be verbally abused.  They don’t know when their things are going to be broken.  They don’t know when there’s going to be a major breakdown in the kitchen, and someone’s going to be restrained as they’re yelling and screaming.  Often, acting out kids target their siblings as sources of power. It makes them feel powerful to say mean or abusive things or to hurt their siblings. They like that feeling of power, so they do it over and over again. 

Several things happen in the mind of a child who lives with this kind of trauma.  First, the siblings of acting out kids become used to witnessing outbursts, and it has a negative effect on them in the long run.  These are people who grow up willing to accept higher levels of abuse in their marriages and their friendships.  They become desensitized to disrespect and abuse. They become numb to how it really feels to be called a name. They tolerate higher levels of disrespect and abuse in other areas of their life once they become adults.  Their ability to be assertive also diminishes.

It’s also important to have a "safety plan." Just as families are encouraged to have a plan of action if there’s a fire (where to meet, how to get out, what to do), I have always encouraged families to sit down and talk about how they can help the acting out child.

They learn not to assert themselves.  They learn how to avoid people and situations, and it can hamper their social skills.  In our world, a certain degree of assertiveness is necessary to communicate in a way that gets your needs met, and these kids don’t learn how to do that.

I’ve worked with the siblings of kids who act out in my practice, and they are, by and large, nice kids, but they have a lot of problems asserting what the problem is with their sibling and confronting it.  They make a lot of excuses for their sibling’s behavior and abuse. They tend to defend him to outsiders, and it develops a very unhealthy social persona in them.

Q: The child with the behavior problem tends to get most, if not all of the attention in the family. What effect does this have on the other children?

My experience is that this manifests itself in two ways.  One is that the sibling becomes what is called a “lost child.”  This is a child who avoids family situations. When a family discussion starts to get a little heated, this kid disappears into his room. As things get more complex and as he gets older, he stays in his room more.  He avoids conflict and confrontation.  In emotionally charged situations such as dinnertime, the lost child will tend to avoid dinner because the acting out child uses it as a forum for his aggression.  The lost child will tend to say he’s not hungry or his stomach hurts. Anything to get away from the tension and abuse.

On the other end of the spectrum, kids will develop higher levels of attention-seeking behavior that we call “adaptive responses.”  For example, a child who’s adapted to a calamitous situation at home shows his adaptive response in school by hiding out. He doesn’t raise his hand. He doesn’t get involved in group activities.  He uses an avoidance adaptation in school that makes him stand out as if there’s something socially wrong with him, and it’s how he’s adapted at home.  Some kids will act out even more than the hostile sibling, although this is rare. 

An adaptive response to trauma means avoidance of anxiety and hyper arousal—in other words, watching out for trouble, listening very carefully to catch wind of tension, always remaining on high alert for hostility so that they can catch the pain before it comes. 

Q: What should parents do to minimize the negative effects of the acting out child on the other children in the family?

The first thing parents have to do is make every effort to make the sibling safe.  And that leads to them not holding the acting out, abusive kid accountable.  No matter what he does. 

If parents are afraid of backtalk because it makes them feel powerless, it’s very likely that they’ll tell the defiant child to stop doing it, and the child will say, “I don’t have to listen to you.”  The parent feels as though there’s nothing they can do about it, and that leads to them not hold the child accountable because they don’t want to be embarrassed and feel powerless.  Inevitably, parents stop setting the limits. The result is the other children in the family wonder who’s really in control, and they identify the acting out kid as the person in charge.  As the defiant child acquires more power, the siblings challenge him less and give in to him more. 

However, if a parent does tell a kid, “Stop that. It’s not acceptable” and turns around and walks away, and the kid says, “Screw you,” the siblings don’t see him as powerful; they see him as primitive.  That’s the important thing.  If the parent holds the child with the behavior problem accountable and takes away his “power,” the siblings see the parent as in control and see the kid as out of control.  Most important, the parent reduces the environment of trauma for the siblings. Instead of wondering when the pain and chaos will erupt next, they will know the parent is in control and nothing will erupt.

It’s also important to have a “safety plan.” Just as families are encouraged to have a plan of action if there’s a fire (where to meet, how to get out, what to do), I have always encouraged families to sit down and talk about how they can help the acting out child. Do this without the child being present. 

I have taught parents to say this: "If Johnny starts acting out, I’m going to deal with him. I’d like you go to your room for five minutes.  The best thing you can do to help Johnny when he’s acting out is to leave him alone.  Don’t feed into him. Don’t fight with him. Just let me know."  When parents set up this structure, the siblings have a plan for what to do when this kid starts to melt down.  When they know what to do, it reduces their feeling of panic and helps them to ease the trauma.

The plan should be framed as how can we help Johnny. Parents should say openly, “We’re going to help Johnny by holding him responsible for his behavior and setting limits. But Johnny doesn’t always respond to that, and sometimes it takes us a while.  The best way you can help Johnny is to stay out of it and go inside.”

Remember that trauma comes from not feeling that you have any control over the situation.  If the children have a plan for what to do, then it’s not traumatizing because they have some control. The situation may be annoying and frustrating for them, but it’s not traumatizing. 

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


This is the situation I grew up in and I want to make sure my kids don't. My oldest son is an "acting out" kid, and has been traumatizing his younger siblings. We're definitely going to put a safety plan into action. Thanks.

Comment By : Motherof3boys

Oh my this explains much of what my 13 yr old has been experiencing with his 10 yr. old sister. He has a heart of gold and she continually leaves him wishing he was anyplace but in our home. It is easier to let her sleep in that make her get up, because of the sudden outburts that cause your jaw to drop wondering where that came from this time,

Comment By : Mom of three

This is how hour family lives every day. My 13 yr. old son is the agressor. He is bigger then I am. I admit to being intimidated by him, and flat out scared. I know his 10 yr old and 9 yr old siblings are afraid. They ask why don't I do anything.

Comment By : ginamcchef

Wow, what an eye opener! Both my 11 y.o. son and I are intimidated by my 15 y.o. Your suggestion of a safety plan is tremendous. We will draft one quickly. Thank you.

Comment By : elhelaly1457

This is terrific information and extremely helpfull. Thanks!

Comment By : Ann

The safety plan is an excellent idea! I will implement that too! My daughter is better at standing up to her sister than I am. Actually now I've really realized that a prime reason for the weight loss of my daughter "the lost child" must be due to this fact. Controlling her food intake is another way of keeping some sort of control over her life. It's been really hectic in our home for a while but it seems to finally be settling down. I've got 13 year old twins and one is extremely verbally abusive to both of us. I am afraid of her sometimes too, but I do try to override that fear because I know it won't get us anywhere by holding back what is necessary to do. I'm definitely going to try this plan. Thank you.

Comment By : Dawn

It appears that everything in our house revolves around our 15 year old and her moods and outbursts. How surprised I was when I got a call from my 12 year old's guidance counselor saying that she was having suicidal thoughts and to come immediately. I took her to her sister's therapist and learned that she was jealous of the time I spent with her sister even tho most of that was negative. I now try to spend more time with her paying more attention to her needs. I never thought of a safety plan - we will try that too.

Comment By : bischmd

With my 14 yr old son out of the house visiting relatives, my 12 yr old son told me that his older brother is often physically abusive with him when we aren't watching. While we discussed the reasons why (I called it an "alpha male mentality"), I couldn't offer a solution other than to make sure he tells us right away and not end up in a big fight. The older one always blames the younger for "starting it" and they both wind up in trouble. My younger son is of similar personality and not willing to back down. I think the safety plan has potential (and I will definitely try it), but what do you do when you have two alpha males in the house who seem to take turns with the insults and physical contact?

Comment By : Irene

Practical Actions to take. Vital to families with children with ODD.

Comment By : Mrs. S.

I have an 11 year old son who is verbally abusive and a 7 year old son who gets some of that abuse. I have used James Lehmans techniques and let the younger one know his brothers behaviour is unaccpetable and that it has consequences. This has helped but my son continues to push our buttons and I am hoping at some point he will mature enough to understand his challenges and that we give him coping strategies.

Comment By : Mrs. L.

I have a 10 year old daughter who tries to control her 8 year old brother and my husband and myself. I will put these strategies into practice as soon as she wakes up in the morning!

Comment By : java4me

I have a 13 year old son, a 12 year old step-daughter and a 4 year old daughter. My son visits his father every other weekend and one day a week. While he is gone, my 4 year old is happy and tells me she doesn't want him to come home. When he is home, he is constantly abusive to her and me. He tends to leave his step sister alone but was abusive to her in the past. He has been verbally abusive to my 4 year old for 2 and a half years and will not stop. If she starts a fight with him and I try to discipline her, he interupts me and starts screaming at her. If I tell him that his behavior is unacceptable, he will continue screaming at me and/or her. I have tried to walk away from him but he follows me. My four year old was sweet and lovable before and is not angry and violent with everyone in our family. What do I do? Has anyone else had a similar problem?

Comment By : twiggy55

This is a great article, but as a previous "lost child" myself, I find it very frustrating all the comments of parents that "don't know what to do" or "we'll try this tomorrow". These are your children, and your responsibility! You are the adult, and need to take control of the situation, regardless of physical size, or intimidation. The other siblings are suffering developmentally, tremendously. I am now 40, and through counseling have found how much my older brother affected my entire life until this point. I wish someone had made me feel safe as a child and teenager. I have been a very successful adult, but have had to deal with anxiety, self esteem issues, and relationship problems. This article sums it up clearly. Don't waste your child's development.

Comment By : a lost child

We have 13yr old boy/girl twins. They are my step children whom I took on when they were 31/2 years old. The first thing I observed was that the boy bullied his sister and that she was of a far gentler spirit than her brother. I proceded to teach them both that "NO" meant stop and that they had to stop when the other said it. I also took my stepdaughter in hand and taught her how to stand up for herself and made sure that I intervened whenever. Now 10 years later, she responds to her brother's bullying by loudly naming the actions and telling him "It's not okay" to do whatever he is doing. When we hear this we know to respond immediately if needs be or we leave her to finish it. The most important thing is for children to learn not to be victims, especially girls. Their older half-brother bullied them both alot when they lived with their mother and the boy twin learnt negative things from that time as well. A good advice article once again.

Comment By : khar59

My daughter, was bright and funny, we never had issues of trantrums even the terrible twos were not terrible at all. A happy child, interested in everything very chatty. The thing is when she started school at 4/1/2 - in the first week I noticed that her teacher was quite strict, in fact in turned out that this particular teacher had a weak area of social and emotional support. She told me herself when I approached her about my daughter's feelings at the start of the school. The teacher said, "I don't have time for all that". That kind of set the tone. I was shocked and distressed to learn that my daughter was being picked on by this particular teacher, putting her down, leaving her out, ignoring her even though my daughter was polite. This had a huge effect on my daughter's emotional and social development. I do not lay blame, I look at realities. I moved her from this school, because the head teacher supported and I saw this environment and the hierarchy at it's worst. The next school she was bullied by an alpha female and her friends. My daughter went through this situation alone, I didn't know - and she was getting blamed and told off. I went in and resolved 3 separate instances of this happening, it transpired that my daughter was being blamed and it wasn't the truth. This has had an effect on my child. We went through the effects of the bullying, and at the same time, her work was suffering, she was switching off, because of fear of lunchtime. One teacher was nice the other was the same as her previous teacher. Matriachal and old style. I couldn't resolve this situation and was advised to move her. So the past couple of years have been tough, out of the ordinary and seriously difficult. My daughter is acting out and started to have tantrums and saying she doesn't care, it's partly because her development acedemically has suffered and she has been set back. She is a bright and talented child, sensitive, creative and she was always polite and lovely and kind and affectionate, just sweet and people loved her. I have a slightly different child these days and although she is showing herself as coping and coming out as average, I know she is underachieving and frustrated and angry inside. Please please feed some inforamtion through. I really need at this stage some practical support. So I will feed in to her teacher of the events and changes to-date in the hope that her teacher will see beyond the behaviour or at least understand. She is sensitive but trying to be brave and then has emotional outbursts, once it gets too much for her. I love her so much and I have done my best to resolve these outside negative influences. Unless, communication and our relationship can be strengthened I feel I am losing her and that she will become labeled and very sad. I love her too much. I am very much aware of her experiences and it breaks my heart to see her suffer like this. Any advice, for a very exhausted mother. She has the characteristics of and A G&T child, but this isn't being picked up on at school because she isn't showing real learning difficulties, but I know she is struggling. Many thanks Sarah

Comment By : Cyprus67

* Dear ‘momof2’: You’re doing the right thing. Whenever there is physical violence you need to intervene and protect the other kids. Generally it’s a good idea to help kids learn how to handle differences themselves. The exception is physical threats, bullying, and violence. Try to withhold privileges from your 15 year old until he has a problem solving conversation with you. (This information is located in Lesson 6 of the Total Transformation program.) You want to ask him what he will do differently next time he becomes angry. If you find that your son is at a place where your best efforts can’t curb his behavior, you might consider getting the help of a counselor in your area.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

When my 16 year old son is verbally agressive with his 14 year old sister and won't give her any privacy, touches her things or worse steals them to sell. She asks him to leave her room but it makes him more determined to stay and he will pick her things up or push every thing on her dresser onto the floor out of spite, this normally ends up in a scuffle. She is much smaller than him but she holds nothing back, there is normally alot of screaming and shouting and swearing, when I intervene sometimes before the incident arises if I am around at the time, there will always be something that gets broken. My son will turn his anger on putting his foot through the door or slamming it so hard that he breaks it. He has broken the lock we put on her door for privacy. I try to stay calm but it builds up and I can't take it anymore. I almost get down to my son's level then and threaten to call the police, not that they would come to a domestic incident.We have been to counselling over the years as a family and my son individually.He blames us all for his actions especially his sister. He struggles at school even though he has an special needs educator to guide him through and most of the time he does not even turn up in class. He does not seem to have any outside interests other than his freinds who get into mischief and all are well known with the Police. He smokes marajuana and says there is nothing we can do about it. We no longer give him pocket money as he spends it on cigarettes and drugs. What are we to do ?

Comment By : Michele

* Dear 'Michele': Although it sounds as though your son is the only problem in your question to us, what’s important to notice in what you wrote is that both kids have a role and responsibility in what is happening when they fight with each other. Only blaming your son will increase the chances that he points a finger at his sister--demanding that her part in the fight be noticed and reprimanded. She also is hitting and cursing. Tell both kids that they are responsible to find ways to get along with each other. Separate them and talk to them individually. Ask them what they could do differently next time and give each a consequence for not controlling themselves. As hard as it is, do your best to role model staying in emotional control and speak calmly but firmly when redirecting them. If your son damages property, he will also need to make amends for that in addition to a consequence for fighting with his sister. As far as your son’s drug use is concerned, take decisive action on this. This is very dangerous physically and mentally. He remarks that ‘You can’t do anything about it” but you can. Read this important article and call us for support when you need it. We’re here to help. Yes, Your Kid is Smoking Pot What Every Parent Needs to Know Now

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I wanted to send this comment to express how much I appreciate this article. It made it possible for me to consider the effects of living in such a household. Both parents did the best that they could in the situation as it grew more difficult. I am offering this experience to show what can happen without resources or awareness. I grew up in a household with three older brothers. I was the youngest, the only girl. When I was five, I was diagnosed with a life threatening, chronic illness. I think this is when the nightmare that followed began, although I remember a few of the old reels (remember the family footage movies that you loaded onto a projector?) where I was an infant, and there are images even there of one brother specifically who showed antagonistic behaviors. When I became ill, I think this one brother resented the diversion of attention from himself to me. I don't think he could help this reaction. From my earliest memories, this one person was aggressive, naturally. I think he may have some undiagnosed condition that affects his ability to process negative emotions such as anger or fear. Life with a sibling is fraught with challenges and competition, but this article brings to light a sharp distinction between normal give-and-take and conflict between siblings and bullying within a family where one child constantly acts out, loses control, does things that are beyond the range of safe behavior. I was beaten, tormented psychologically and emotionally, and the abuse happened in front of my parents as well. When my brother was confronted for his behavior, he became verbally abusive or cold in turns. He lied or covered up his actions when they were out of sight of my parents. The treatment that I experienced was more...what is the term...pronounced than the behavior described in this article. I have not spoken to this brother in over nine years, and I do not regret this decision. The violence that I experienced was consistent, intolerable, and grew worse. From being hit constantly to being called names that I cannot write here because they are indecent and inappropriate, to being intimidated, to having my belongings hidden or taken from me, the bullying was constant, relentless. Parents, you may think that it will stop over time, but it doesn't. If you have two children, and one of those kids insults you to your face, he or she is doing a lot worse behind your backs. I tried twice to seek protection and help from my parents. The first time, my brother was hitting me, over and over. As we were in a car traveling to another state, we stopped for gas. I told my mother that my brother was hitting me, over and over, and that my arm was hurting. I did shots in my arm because of my illness, and my brother would hit me where I had to do shots. I had to move where I did shots and not do the shots in front of my brother because he would hit me where I did the shots if he saw me do them. My mother told me to say, "These windows are dirty" every time I was hit. In the car, I said it over, and over, and over. She turned around and told my brother to stop. It didn't, and that was that. Later, when I was in high school, I had grown to the point that I would do anything to avoid my brother whenever I could. I decided to talk to my mother again. This time, I told her that my brother was constantly harassing me. Her response was to call my brother into the same room and ask him if he was. Of course, this worked out badly. By this point, I think, it was too late to really do anything about it. He worked hard to hurt me, took an avid interest in finding out any vulnerabilities. He took his cue from society; as I became a young women, he went after my weight, my appearance, my sexual identity, saying things that were horrible, even in front of my parents, who did nothing. I think my parents were embarrassed and blamed themselves for his behavior, and they avoided his abuse in the manner written in the above article. I learned to numb myself and hide any positive things that happened in my life. While most children who win recognition for something good bring this news home and share it happily with their parents and family, I learned to fear the reaction. I learned that doing positive things was something to hide because it could get me hurt. I went to school and learned to be silent there, too. I learned to watch and to never talk about what I went through at home. My brother was highly manipulative and often bullied others at school, most especially my friends. I learned that no one would protect me but myself, and I learned that people are not to be trusted with personal information or feelings. I didn't talk to people; I hid. I didn't play with other kids. I didn't talk about how I felt with anyone. I learned that people use shared emotions or vulnerabilities against you. When I was twelve, I signed off of trying to interact with others at all. I discovered drugs and took pills that I found in the medicine cabinet and brought alcohol with me everywhere. It was relief. My family was "accident prone", so we had a large resource of pain pills around the house. He didn't grow out of it. I don't know how to relate to others. I have learned and relearned to avoid conflict at all costs. I learned that trust equals pain. I learned to retaliate against torment by taking it out on myself. I abused drugs and never got caught. I hid my pain and my fear and had a perfect escape, as long as I was good enough to not say anything, it was fine. I went to college. He resented this but had less access to me. I lived in a dorm on campus. When I came home, he was there. One time, during a summer break, he broke one window of my car with his bare hands. My default reaction to people and interactions is just as is listed above: I permit poor treatment to continue and numb myself by shutting my feelings down entirely. I have been in recovery from addiction for a while now. I happened upon this article because I am in the education field. I have experienced negative behavior that I responded to in the same way as when I was still in that house, allowing it to continue, doing what I could to not be around it. I never thought I would find a resource for something that I can take with me to help others. I am supposed to be the person in charge; it is one of the most difficult things I have ever known to realize this fact and project the image of a person who deserves respect. Life has expanded beyond one of the most consistent experiences of my life. I do not want to reach the end of my life and realize that I have been ruled by an iron fist. It feel unnatural to me to open up to people, to trust others. I don't like being in social situations; I don't know what will happen. I understand that being removed in this way has a significant cost that I am no longer willing to pay. If you are a parent and are taking action, you are affecting the lives of all involved for the better, your life, your children's lives, all of your relationships. Please listen to your kids. Pay attention. I don't blame my parents or even my brother for what happened. I don't blame anyone. I no longer blame myself. I think there was something happening in my brother of a biological nature, something that could have been recognized, if only there were more resources then than there are now. All of the blame in the world will solve nothing. Shame and regret, guilt and embarrassment solve nothing. Action and calm, these things help. I work today to make positive contributions to society, and I often am the person who listens to others' experiences. I think silently, "I know what that feels like," but I never say it out loud. I think going through what can only be described as hell has made me a strong person and strengthened my ability to recognize the subtler signs and signals of hidden suffering that occurs in others. Although I have a great amount of work to do in becoming an assertive person, in removing a lifetime of walls that I have built between myself and the world, I believe it is possible now because there are people out there who are doing something to stop this from happening again. Thank you for this and for any who read this story.

Comment By : Do something

My stepdaughter is always acting out and blaming,disrespecting me,telling my husband that I hit and yell at her. She also does this to my daughter. She will put my daughter down,tell her what to do,yell,hit and scream at her. I am not sure what to do anymore? please help.

Comment By : mamaof2

* To ‘mamaof2’: It sounds like you are feeling quite frustrated by your stepdaughter’s behavior. James Lehman suggests that in blended families, it is most effective for the biological parent to take the lead in establishing rules and consequences for their own children. He also states that it’s most effective for the stepparent to take on more of a supporting role. It can be helpful to talk to your husband in private about your common goals here and see if you can come up with a solution together to address it when your stepdaughter lies or is disrespectful. You might also consider talking with your daughter to come up with a plan for when her stepsister is picking on her or hitting her—what is the proper response in these cases? How can she get out of such situations? I am including a couple articles James wrote about step-families for more information and suggestions: “My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page & “My Blended Family Won’t Blend!” Part II: What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You. We know this is hard. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My oldest son is 12 I have been struggling with him bullying his 9 year old brother. I have done all the dicipline nessacary. What ever I have done he has not learned from his mistakes he just keeps making the same one's. He allows other kids to be mean to his brother to. I feel real bad for my youngest he is such a good boy. He is respectful to everybody he usally does what he is told every time he is not perfect by any means. My youngest gets the raw end of the deal and I hate it. Please what can I do to get my oldest to quit bullying the youngest.

Comment By : Harley Mama

* To ‘Harley Mama’: It’s so hard to see your child getting mistreated constantly by his sibling. It sounds like you have been working really hard to hold your son accountable for the way he treats his brother. It’s important to be sure that you are pairing consequences with problem-solving discussions. The goal of a problem-solving discussion is to talk about what your son is trying to accomplish by being mean to his brother and what he can do differently instead. As a consequence, you might put one privilege on hold until your son can treat his little brother nicely for 24 hours. This will motivate him to practice the behavior you want to see, which is also key in learning new behaviors. Here are a couple articles for more information: Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now) & The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” We know this is hard and we wish you and your family luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

It feels good to know that other people are in the same situation that I find myself in! My 15 year old son constantly puts down his 13 year old brother and 9 year old sister. He is not physical with them, but the emotional abuse he gives is just too much. I challenge him by being on top of his foolish behavior and reprimanding him and punishing him but it only escalates the situation. By calling his brother a little baby, gay, or screaming at his sister I HATE YOU I feel major harm is being done. His fits of rage make me worry about our upcoming vacation. I can't remember a dinner where one of my children did not get their feelings hurt and my middle child never wants to eat dinner as a family. I hate it with every bit of my being. Recently when we were in the car he turned around to tell his brother that he was an embarrassment because he had the same shirt on as the day before and he felt sorry for him because everyone would know it. After punishing him for his rude behavior he then began raging through the store. I like the idea of removing the others from the harmful situation. I won't leave him alone with my other children. I have just made an appointment with a therapist and I hope to find a remedy to this. My younger children are a bit timid due to the harm that has been done. Is this a reversible situation? Please tell me there is hope for us all!

Comment By : Concerned Parent

* To “Concerned Parent”: We appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us. It can be extremely frustrating and upsetting to feel like you need to protect one sibling from another. It’s good you hold your son accountable for his behavior through consequences and also teach his siblings to leave the area when he’s having a hard time with things. One thing you might want to try is waiting until things have calmed down before giving him a consequence. Giving him consequences in the moment can escalate the situation. You might try using task-oriented consequences, for instance, you may say something to him like “When you show me you can be respectful to your brother and sister for 2 hours, then you can play video games.” This will allow your son to practice the appropriate behavior. We would also suggest helping his siblings develop coping or problem-solving skills to deal with their brother’s behavior. For example, you may teach them to say something to him such as “It’s not OK to talk to me that way” and then turn around and walk away. Unfortunately, they are going to come across other people in their lives who are not going to be nice to them and who may hurt their feelings. Helping them learn how to deal with these situations effectively is something that will benefit them in the long run. For further ideas on sibling questions be sure to check out these articles Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now) and Kids Fighting? Read This Before Summer Starts. We wish you luck as you and your family continue to address this challenging issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Wow!!! I never knew there were other people who experienced living in a hellish situation like we do. I dread coming home most days cuz I know that my teenager will argue with us about anything. This is the story of my life with my 14 year old, however we also have a 3 year old. It dawned on me the other day that my oldest enjoys making her little sister cry and just in general enjoy exerting her power over her. But then there are times that they get along so well & play together. I am wondering how we come up with a plan with our 3 year old??? My husband and I already have a plan that when things get out of control that the other parent takes our 3 year old out of the house for a walk. I wish there was a support group for parents and maybe even siblings in their own group. We could all exchange ideas and support each other. Many many years I have felt alone in this hell..not referring to my husband, just in regards to other parents and their well behaved kids. I have longed for a small piece of some sort of normal. My teenager was diagnosed w/ADHD, ODD & mild depression...and of course she refuses to take the ADHD meds now...they worked well when she took them. I think its more that she has control by not taking them. I am now taking an anti-depressant cuz our situation got so bad that I had no motivation to do anything. I realized I needed help. I didnt want to clean, cook, spend time with my 3 year old, exercise, grocery shopping, nothing. I am doing better now. Feel I am on the other side of the depression now and controlling it. Thankfully I have God & a wonderful husband to help me thru this.

Comment By : Teenager & Toddler

* To “Teenager &Toddler”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Sibling issues can be difficult to deal with, often causing parents to feel they have to choose sides between their children. In situations such as yours, where there is a sizable difference in the children’s ages, the situation can be even more challenging because issues of safety may arise. It sounds like you and your husband have a great plan for how best to look out for your youngest daughter when the situation escalates. Removing her from the situation is effective in two ways: it reduces any safety issue that may arise and it also removes the audience for your older daughter’s outbursts. There may be support groups in your area for families of children and teens with ODD or other behavioral issues. There is a great resource available that can connect you to services and supports in your area. The 211 National Helpline is available 24 hours a day and can be reached by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto We hope this has been helpful for you. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I have a 13 year old step_ son who has adhd and blames everything but himself for his actions. Weve taken him to thearapist, that didnt work, he is on focus meds for school he dont do the work or bring in school supp. ly to the classes to do the Work. He is disrespectful to me and my wife and to his two other brothers. Weve talked to him, and the answer we.get is I dont know , even encouraging him to do what he needs to do in school and he say "I am" but hes not. He lies, steals cut and destroyed things in the house for no reason. I love him but I hate what he does. we as parents tried to guide our kids in the right direction and enforce discipline and consequences for undesireable behaviors but its not working with him. I told my wife I will let life run its course and let life teach him a lesson. But I will not allow him to cuase chaos and stress to this family. When he start running off at the mouth I just turn around and walk away and tell him to go to his room. I really want him to have a bright future but he broke the bulb. We continue to guide him and show him the right way, but he dosent care. So I told him there is a time in life when things need to start clicking and u develope a sense of responsibility, if and when he graduate highschool or the age of 18 and did not graduate. If this behavior continues on this track...I told him imma flip the derailer on and he will be kicked out.of the house. You cant help someone who do not want to help themself. Life will be thier teacher then and its going to be one hell of a beat down. I just hope he will know bow to get up and knock off the dust. At this.point I do not have high expectation for him. Its the truth. Im not worried, worrying benefits me nothing, we just try our best to reduce the stress he luts on this family. We continue to guide bim and show a better way. But he has meet us half way.

Comment By : oneness

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sibling relationships, siblings fighting, traumatize, sibling rivalry, brother, sister, acting out behavior, family, disrespect, abuse, abusive behavior, sibling fight, sibling problems

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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