Sibling Aggression: When Your Kids Don’t Get Along

Posted June 15, 2015 by

A bloodcurdling, gut-wrenching scream interrupted the serenity of the afternoon. Moments later I saw my 11-year-old son, Ben, sprinting toward me with a look of terror on his face.

An assailant was at his heels, visibly filled with rage.

Despite the chaos, I stood unwavering, prepared for a confrontation. I knew the culprit well; this wasn’t our first encounter. Ben took shelter, crouching out of reach behind me, shrieking, “Mommy, Josh punched me!” Josh, my 7-year-old son, defiantly declared, “I did not!”

Mediating squabbles between Ben and Josh had become a recurring burden. At face value, the scene was comical: my fifth-grader running in fear from the much smaller first-grader. But any semblance of humor left long ago, replaced by aggravation and angst.

My Josh’s personality is like a pendulum. His moods vacillate wildly. Depending upon the audience, his attitude can warm a soul or frost a heart. Josh’s adoration for me is limitless, and he smothers me with affection daily. His 9 year-old brother, Peter, is his idol. Josh emulates his every move in a quest for Peter’s recognition and approval. Most of Josh’s hostility is directed at Ben. Time-outs and consequences have had little impact on Josh’s behavior. Punitive measures merely serve as band-aids.

Later that evening, in the stillness of the night, I quietly reflected on the fury and frustration of the day. A feeling of defeat flooded my body. What was I doing wrong? How could I calm the unrest festering in my home?

Ben has Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). My husband and I had made the decision not to disclose this to the boys until we felt Ben was ready to fully comprehend and process the nuances and ramifications of Autism. So, I imagine that growing up with Ben is stressful and confusing. Behaviors associated with ASD are often difficult for adults to comprehend. How could a 7-year-old be expected to understand the complexities of Ben’s personality?

Ben is structured and ritualistic. For all of us, it has become habit to yield to his desires. Ben often dictates the television programs the boys watch and which games they should play. Peter dutifully acquiesces, out of a mixture of custom and a desire to appease Ben.

Josh is less compliant. He doesn’t share Peter’s blind allegiance to Ben. He’s willful, wanting to live life following his own agenda, not Ben’s. Ironically, Josh has received three character awards for his devotion to his differently-abled classmates in kindergarten. Yet he doesn’t show the same empathy for his sibling. I wondered, would their relationship improve if Josh identified some of Ben’s unique attributes?

I began to examine their relationship from Josh’s 7-year-old perspective, watching as he interacted with Ben. I eavesdropped on their conversations and studied Josh’s body language. I questioned the boys separately, attempting to understand each son’s perspective of their relationship.

Josh, who spends hours inventing original adventures for his toys and stuffed animals, explained that he doesn’t like to play with “Ben’s imagination.” He also sheepishly disclosed that Ben “annoys me and blames me for stuff.” And Josh was right; often times, Ben will accuse him of “ruining everything.” Josh merely suggesting an alternate movie selection will immediately provoke a blaming response from Ben. I would be exasperated too, if I was repeatedly berated for simply voicing my opinion.

Armed with a better understanding of the sentiments fueling Josh’s behavior gave me hope that harmony could return to our household. Weighing my words carefully, I briefed Josh on Ben’s sensitivities and in-flexibilities, urging him to consult me when he begins to feel agitated or persecuted by his brother. I also explained to Ben that everyone is entitled to be heard, reminding him that relationships, familial or otherwise, need to be nurtured.

Most importantly, I encouraged Josh and Ben to engage in activities they both enjoy. Luckily, Mother Nature has been my ally. With the arrival of warm sunny days, the pool beckons to both of them. Peter’s lack of interest in the pool affords his brothers hours of uninterrupted time together.

Progress has been slow and steady. The household dynamic is transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. Josh has orchestrated our weekly movie night without overt grumbling from Ben. In turn, I’ve witnessed Ben, stuffed animal in hand, make a concerted effort to engage in Josh’s creative fantasies. Josh’s aggressive outbursts have decreased.

Of course life isn’t perfect, but it’s better. Sibling rivalry is impossible to eradicate. Ben said it best, philosophically declaring, “It’s in our nature. Brothers and sisters have been fighting since the dawn of time.”

I may not have the power to fully dispel a tradition so deeply ingrained in history, but I have made gains. Who knows what the future brings? Children are unpredictable. But for today, I’ll claim one small victory for motherhood.

About

Josephine Tierney is a working mother raising three sons, one of whom has an autism spectrum disorder. She is a professional in the criminal justice field, specializing in matters pertaining to law enforcement and legal services. You may follow her journey as she juggles the responsibilities of parent and administrator, at www.mytitleisparent.com

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  1. Michelle Report

    We have a sibling issue in our home that begs the question that this author wrote “How do I calm the unrest that is festering in my home?” Our two youngest boys, the only remaining children at home,  have a large gap in age (17 and 7). They behave with such hatred of each other, my main mode of coping is separating them. This is not a solution, it is a Band-Aid. I am also seeing that the aggression between them is being transferred to me and my husband.

    We had hoped it would get better when the older boy was working and away from home more. They just seem to turn up the fighting when they are together.
    About 60% of the time, it begins when the 7-year-old pesters his brother in some way because he wants his attention. That almost always ends badly. It seems that when the 7-year-old is playing quietly, his older brother almost always finds a way to pester him. Pester probably is a tame word- They call each other “jerk,” “idiot,” etc…  Going anywhere with them in the same vehicle is nearly impossible. We rarely get down the street before one of them shouts that the other touched them or hit them or called them a name. That person always claims they didn’t do anything….Then, I am treated to a litany of ” yes you did!” No, I didn’t,” comments.   If I ignore–it gets worse and degrades to hitting. Yes, yes,  I have pulled the car over many times…. There is no way to prove who did what or who is lying.I often get the ” You never punish him.” Or “If you would make him behave….” comments from the teen.

    No matter what the consequences (taking the Kindle away for a week, no computer, no tv…No friends over,  etc…) it never gets better. Essentially, they are BOTH demonstrating differing types/levels of defiance and disrespect for each other AND for  Mom and Dad and our rules. I just don’t know what to do about it. 

    This past weekend, we went to a museum for a Maker Faire, which we thought the whole family would enjoy. The bickering started, as expected, in the car ride when the 7-year-old was reading his jokes “too loud” to us. Then, one accused the other of hitting him on the arm….then it was back and forth and Mom and Dad were all upset. Things went well for the first hour at the museum, then it seemed that the boys couldn’t stop bothering each other. One  would stand too close the other. Or the 7-year-old would try to hug his big brother, who would say, “get off of me.”  I went into separation mode, and took the youngest with me to wander among some robotics exhibits that interested him…Every time I turn around, our teenager was literally on our heels,shoulder-to-shoulder with me…He’d wander away from Dad, who was busy asking questions or reading displays. Somehow, the boys  are at each others throats in minutes. I separate again–and magically, the teenager reappears and their is discord again! “He stepped on my toes” He won’t stop hanging on me.” “Get away from me, you jerk.” I put my foot down and said they would both be grounded if there was one more altercation.So, they end up reflecting their unhappiness on Mom and Dad. 

    While in line for an exhibit, the little one stuck his tongue out at me, then nudged me, with his elbow twice so that Dad couldn’t see, then snuck in a kick to my leg! I got down to his level and looked him in the eye and said, “You do NOT hit or kick anyone. That is not acceptable.” And I told him he is losing his Kindle for three days. He proceeded to call ME a jerk. I left the line and ended up in tears.  
    Then, the teenager began whining incessantly that he wanted to go home. He’s seen enough. “Can’t we just go home? I’m tired…” He got the 7-year-old to chime in  and said things like, “Don’t you want to go home and go swimming… My intention as to have a nice, family day together. We all ended up miserable.
    We ogre parents pointed out to them that we have NEVER called one another a name, nor hit one another, nor lashed out at each other like they do. We also never called our parents “jerks,” or hit or kicked them. We know that there is something we are doing or not doing that is making this worse, but we don’t know WHAT.

    Reply
    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      GwenKnight
      I hear you. Sibling issues aren’t always easy to address.
      One thing you may find helpful is utilizing task oriented consequences, as
      explained in the article http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Give-Kids-Consequences-That-Work.php. An example of a task oriented
      consequence for the situations you describe would be loss of a privilege until
      they can go for a specific amount of time without fighting with each other. It
      would also be beneficial to begin having problem solving conversations with
      each of your sons that focus on what they can do differently the next time
      their brother is irritating him. You want to pick a calm time to have these
      conversations. It will also be more effective to have the conversations with
      each of them separately. Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner offer this, as
      well as other practical tips for addressing sibling conflict in their article http://www.empoweringparents.com/sibling-fighting-5-ways-to-teach-your-kids-to-work-it-out.php#ixzz3hDSX0w9m. I hope you find this
      information useful. Be sure to check back if you have any further questions.
      Take care.

      Reply
  2. ChildrenOfAmerica (Edit) Report

    My brother Nate has ASD but he wasn’t diagnosed until recently. We are 15 years apart so I always figured that his need to have things “his way” was just him being a little brother.

    Reply
  3. bobman (Edit) Report

    I have a situation where my finacee and i each have 2 children – all boys. Since divorce, my relationship with my older boys has gone back to what it was but we experience problems with my fiancee’s children who are 14.5 and 10. The youngest has soem quite serious anger issues and is on medication for this. He can be quite a handful at times as he is also ADHD. The anger issues are currently being dealt with but we are still to start the ADHD treatment. This is a progra m by a recognised child Psychiatrist. The main issue here is that the 14 year old is abusive to his brother, both verbally and physically and although the 10 year old does cause some problems, the 14 year old is mostly the agressor, telling his brother he ‘f’ing hates him” that he is fat and that he wishes his brother was nevr born etc etc. The 14 year old os also extremely belligerent and when caught out and reprimanded or handed out consequences for his behaviour, he either becomes even more rude or he starts lying and manipulating the situation to get out of things – he can never accept that he has done wrong and move on. He is rude to both his mother and I in our house and does not follow any guidelines. He seems to have very poor social skills and hangs around mostly with girls of a similar age where he is always showing off to impress them. He spends half the time with us and the other half with his father, who rather than being active in the process, just defends the boy and undermines any consequences that are dealt out. The father also behaves in a similar manner and continuously attempts to verbally and emotionally bully his ex wife. he also makes little or no financial contribution to the welfare of the children and I mostly support his children. 
    We have been living together for about 2 years and plan to marry early next year, but would love to resolve these issues before we do. Nothing that we do will get the father to agree that there is a problem and agree to therapy. He always deflects from the issue and blames the situation on our parenting style. The younger boys are being parented in the same manner as I parented my older boys and they are great kids. They have in fact had to make severe compromises for the 2 younger boys, and are accepting of this. The 14 year old just acts as is he is the most important person and behaves badly when he does not get his way, and makes things unpleasant for all of us. 
    Anyone have any suggestions as to what course of action to take? My boys are at their wits end with the lack of respect that the 14 year old shows for anyone, and particularly me in my own home.

    Reply
    • Empowering Parents Coach Marissa Stephens, 1-on-1 Coach Report

      @bobman 

      We hear from families on our Coaching Line all the time who
      are dealing with similar behaviors to the ones you have described, so know you
      are not alone with your concerns. It will be important to remember that you
      can’t control what your son’s biological father does or says, so going forward,
      it will be helpful to keep your expectations and consequences focused on what
      you can control in your own home. We recommend having clear rules or limits for
      how you expect your son (or any of the kids) to behave or treat others,
      including their http://www.empoweringparents.com/siblings-at-war-in-your-home.php.
      Set a clear limit and define what constitutes verbal abuse in your home
      (usually name calling, cursing, put-downs, threats) and when that rule is
      broken, a consequence is given, such as a loss of a meaningful privilege until
      your son can show you for a short period of time that he can follow the
      rules.  Once the situation has calmed down, you can have a http://www.empoweringparents.com/making-child-behavior-changes-that-last.php with him about how he can handle the situation better
      in the future. Janet Lehman offers some additional tips in her article, http://www.empoweringparents.com/8-steps-to-anger-management-for-kids.php. Best of luck to you and your family as
      you continue to work on this behavior with your son.

      Reply
  4. Red (Edit) Report

    Oof!  You just described the battles between our 8 year old and 13 year old (who has Asperger’s).  They clash constantly, it stresses me out (aside from the normal stress of having to parent our oldest five times more than I do our youngest two put together) and it makes for awful times.  I’d love to move from the dictatorship to democracy phase, move oldest son from trying to control everyone (especially his youngest brother).  Peace, I just want peace!

    Reply

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