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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Related Content:
When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”
My Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!

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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (11)
  • TESS
    I really want to share this article to facebook right now. I know if I do my abuser whom I just recently started talking to again will see it and darn it I would like her to see it but then she will put on her defensive act.. and IMore will be the bad guy to the rest of my dysfunctional family who all turn a blind eye to her abuse. She is in denial that she ever did anything to hurt me and altho Ive never called her a narcissist I believe that she may be. All of the things you wrote about she did to me. Beatings, name calling and treating me like I was worthless in front of peers at school. I was raised by my grandparents as I was abandoned on their doorstep by my mother so shes not my sister shes my aunt who is only four years older than me. I went through a lot of abuse by my alcoholic histrionic narcissistic mother and then on top of that I had to go through the sibling abuse and also cultural abuse because of racism against my color skin in the environment I had to love in so Ive been through the ringer. Now today, I isolate, cant bring myself to go to family functions to the point I almost didnt go to my own grandmothers funeral. I also married a narcissist who got up at my grandfathers funeral and cracked jokes about me and our marriage. ( my own diagnosis of them all). I have been diagnosed with PTSD, severe depression, anxiety, social anxiety, and panic attacks. When I try to say anything about any of this to people I get back a blank stare and I feel like Im the crazy one. Just once Id like any one of these so called people to say they acknowledge what they did and say their sorry. I have even been undermined by these people to the point that two out of my three sons hate me and all I ever did was my best under the circumstances of being surrounded by abusers and being who I am because of it. I wasnt supposed to be born and this is how people treat mistakes. Recently my aunt posted a comment that I know was about me when she said. Some people dont love their parents but I loved mine. So I wrote and told her why I dont love my parents and it was about the sexual abuse and death threats, abandonment, and typical narc behaviour and I didvit because Im not taking any baloney from anyone anymore. She deleted the whole post then today she posted a meme that said what shes responsible for and what shes not so when I found this article I sorely wanted to post it so she could then see what shes responsible for in black and white but Im afraid to post it cause it will cause a ton of crud. Ill never have closure at this rate and Ill die feeling like a lost soul cause no one cares.
    • JJ
      Just wanted to say sorry you’re going through that and how I feel like a lost soul too due to growing up with an abusive sibling. I’m in my 40’s and just learning she has lied, manipulated, gaslit and stole from me my entire life. I was the one whoMore always got in trouble for it cause she would do things and cause me to react so I got in trouble. She still does it go this day and I can’t believe I’m just learning this. I’m also just learning I’ve been in an abusive relationship for over 12 years now but thought it was somewhat normal cause I grew up in it. This is all so crazy to me and I just am exhausted and don’t even know how to go on most days. It’s like my whole life was a lie and I have no one now. People look at me like I’m crazy if I say anything too. It’s enough to make me feel like I’m actually going crazy! I wish you the best.
  • Candice
    I have a stepson aged 16 years old who bullies my 3 year old son. This 3 year old is too young to understand what this sibling does. The elder brother teaches the younger brother to swear, to fight with people and to act aggressively so much that the teacherMore is complaining of his destructive behaviour. What do I do? How do I approach the situation as it is my husbands child?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      It can be so upsetting when one sibling bullies another, and it can be even more difficult when it occurs within a stepfamily. A good first step in this situation is to get on the same page as your husband. During a calm time, you can talkMore with your husband privately about your concerns, and develop a plan for how to address it moving forward. It’s also going to be important to work with your son on developing more appropriate skills, so he has strategies to handle situations aside from aggression or destruction. You might find some helpful tips in Hitting, Biting and Kicking: How to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Young Children. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • AJ
    Just reading this article has helped enormously. I have a chronically defiant and explosive six year old whose behaviour is now amplified whilst Dad is working away. I am often close to tears with him and only recently realized the impact he is having on his older brother. I knowMore feel that I have some new actions to implement to support my older child. Thanks!
  • Cbd

    Hi my 20 year old grandaughter bullies her younger 17 year old sister constantly. Yesterday it was over a bottle of water . The younger one did try to walk away but the older followed with punching and pinching until the younger one was conered and could not get away . I tried to intervene but these children has been ta

    ught not to value my opinion. After 15min the Father stepped in and continued the abuse on the younger one for another 15min . At this stage the older sister quietly walked away and phoned her mom. The younger one is becoming aggressive and moody as a defence mechanism , but the parents sees this as anti social and will side with the older sister all the time .I spend most of my time at home and witness this daily. It can be the remote for the TV the seating the food . How can I make the parnets see this for what it is , or how can I assist with the younger one . Please help .

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Cbd I’m so sorry to hear about this situation with your granddaughters.  I can only imagine how difficult it must be to witness these bullying behaviors, and feel powerless to do anything about it.  Unfortunately, you cannot make the parents see what is happening from your perspective, or behave differentlyMore when it happens.  You can only control yourself, your own actions, and how you choose to respond when you see this occurring.  At this point, it might be helpful to talk privately with your younger granddaughter and develop a safety plan with her as described in the article above.  You might also consider reaching out to local resources, such as a counselor, who can help you to develop a plan moving forward.  If this is something you might be interested in, you might reach out to local supports, such as your doctor or faith community leader, for referrals.  I wish you and your family all the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • Sarah
    My 12 year old step son has behavioral problems. He has been seeing a therapist for several years now, but the problems just seem to be progressing. He is set off by small requests and becomes violent. He has been violent to all of his parents, his peers, his teachers,More any one who tries to help or guide him, or just disagrees with him. he as called cps on his parents several times now with false allegations that have all been unfounded. i understand and agree with the approaches advised in this article, but what do i do when none of this works and the siblings are too young to understand the situation? i remove them from the scene when things escalate, but they still hear the yelling and see the violence and see the effects on their parents. i don't know what to do any more. i have talked to many professionals and it seems as though no one has an answer except keep them safe. i feel that it is to the point where the only way they will be safe is if either he is not at our house or we leave, but i don't want to abandon my husband or step son. Any advice is welcomed and greatly appreciated. thank you.
  • Hazelstew
    There is help out their.  It is difficult to find out what works for your child.  I am sure you have tried everything, and whatever you have tried with him doesn't work.  My son has been aggressive, violent and defiant since 2 years of age.  He is now going onMore 7 and we are finally seeing significant changes.  Because of his violence he has been offered a medicine but a lot of times the defiance can be controlled with behaviour therapy.  There are programs like Emotional Regulation, Reward programs etc., There is also a program in Ontario called Dinosaur school offered to children under 6 years of age, at the same time the child is in class the parents attend a parenting class.  These children are often born leaders, and great athletes just a little difficult to manage.  Good luck!
  • Lisdenimjeans
    I am at a complete loss with my four year old son. He is abusive to everyone in the house and ignores or does the opposite of what he is told. His two year old sister loves him to death even though she takes the brunt of much of hisMore abuse. We are expecting in April and I'm terrified of what this will mean for the new child as well. We also have two older children who are teens. Everyone suffers because of the four year old. We can't go anywhere for fear of his behavior. I have asked our pediatrician for help but apparently there is no help for this. Please please help us.
    • Sarah
      Lisdenimjeans the only advice i have to offer is to get him into therapy as soon as possible. that's the only thing any professional i have asked about my similar situation tells me. i wish you the best of luck and hope that he gets the help he needs toMore get better before it escalates as he gets older. i wish i had more to offer, but i'm lost in this situation along with you.
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