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Aggressive Sibling


I have a happy easy going five-year-old boy who recently started hitting and scratching his 2 ½ year-old sister and behaving much more defiant. I try not to react with anger--which it really does make me, because my siblings and I fought often and never learned to not hit, we went to school with scabs on our arms from scratching each other. Additionally it was my older siblings who started this and I felt they were never stopped by my parents, thus my younger sister and I felt afraid and unprotected. I am watchful not to overreact, shame, or yell and spank him for his hitting, although I feel I need to ensure his sister's safety and put an end to this behavior. I ask him how he can handle his anger with out hitting. He came up with some great alternatives, ones was to talk to her.

Unfortunately in a real situation, Talking to his 2 1/2 year-old sister does little good since she does not yet understand. I also don't want him to look to me to solve every conflict (which was his father's solution..." Tell mom or dad what she did instead of hitting her and we will handle her"). His sister has usually taken his toy or knocked down his building made of blocks, or pulled his hair or scratched him. I understand her behavior, I think she is lashing out at him because she doesn't have the words to tell him to stop, and he does seem to take great pleasure in aggravating her, poking her stomach nana-nana, boo-boo type stuff, but I tend to think that by age 5 he should have more tools and self control.

After an incident at his new school we were visiting, in front of his new teacher, (he punched his sister in the stomach for knocking down the blocks he built...not hard, she did not even cry, but  I still worry about where it will go unchecked, not to mention the embarrassment, and first impression he made on his teacher!!!) I don't think I handled it very well either. I just said " Jimmy you need to remember to use your words and not hit) Not in a very stern voice at all. I was worried to shame him in front of his new teacher. In retrospect maybe I should have said " we need to leave not hitting is not okay and took him by the hand and walked out". I did sit him on the bench in front of the school and calmly asked him what he thinks I should do when he forgets and hits again, he said just remind me and tell me not to do it. I said that this was not working because he seems to be doing it a lot. I asked what he thought of me taking away a quarter of his each time he forgets and hits--he did not like it and said no I just won't let you take it. I said well we need to think of something because hitting is not okay. Do you have any other suggestions.

Do you have any books on five and six year olds that might give me more insight...He seems so defiant and not his usual self that I tend to think it might be a developmental thing, ( as well as having a 2 1/2 year-old sister and 1 year-old sister...) we have tried keeping blocks and things in his room off limits to his sister, what else can we do. I think it will get a lot better once he is in school, and they are not together as much. I appreciate your  suggestions, and love Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and Positive Discipline the First Three Years.  I hope you might have another book similar to, but dealing with 5 and 6 year olds thanks!! 


I'm one of the Certified Positive Discipline Associates who answers the questions posted on the website. I am also the mother of 2 boys who are now 10 and 13. I've been using Positive Discipline in my home for the last 9 years. I remember the age 2-5 years well! Especially when it comes to sibling rivalry. It sounds like you are already following a lot of the principles and practices of PD. The fact that you did not try to shame your son in front of the teacher was a great example of this. In addition, the fact that you have involved him in the problem solving process is another way that you are using the pro-active PD  tools. And keeping blocks in his room away from his sister shows that you are willing to respect his need to have some things to himself. Good for you! 

Now let's look at what might be happening in the situation you described so you can get a glimpse of the bigger picture that might be going on. I'm going to start out by saying several things. August is generally the time that I get calls from my parent coaching clients saying " Help! My kids are driving me crazy!"  I remind them that this time of year ( end of summer) is one of the transition times that typically cause a little more excitement and anxiety in everyone. If it were a Bernstein Bear book it might be titled "Too Much Summer." We tend to get off regular schedules, which are a foundation for most kids, especially the little ones. I'm also crankier at this time because I'm a person who functions much better when I am on a routine. Other transition times to watch out for are: before and right after Christmas, the beginning of Spring, and the end of the school year. Being aware of these times can help you keep things in perspective. 

Secondly, you mention that you are feeling "angry" when he hits because " my siblings and I fought often and never learned not to hit...Additionally it was my older siblings who started this and I felt they were never stopped by my parents thus my younger sister and I felt afraid and unprotected."  

I am the 6th of 7 siblings so I too know the feelings that come with that position. This experience makes it easy for me to understand how my youngest child feels in situations with his older brother. However if I use the experience ineffectively, it can let it cloud my vision of the bigger picture and keep me from extending that understanding to my older son as well.   

When my children were little, the 3 of us came up with respectful words that could be used in a variety of situations. They were short and basic. First the child would request an action, " Please don't touch my blocks." followed by " Please respect my words." MOST of the time it was effective.   

This does not mean that they did it all on their own. For the first couple weeks I monitored as closely as I could to make sure that the agreement was being kept. This means if the code words "Please respect my words." were not  being respected, I would either make a physical appearance without saying anything, or I would say " Please respect your brother's words." This was sometimes followed by "Do you need time to cool off?" "Do you want me to go with you?"   

Once they got through that initial 2 weeks, if they called for my help I would simply say, "You guys need to work it out." And they got very good at it until one point in time when my older son had a big growth spurt. He became enamored with going back to being physical with his little brother because of the excitement of his new found strength. So one day the younger one calls out to me to help settle one of their fights and I stated my usual "You guys work it out." Then he yells back " I don't know how to anymore cause he's a lot bigger than me!" Sure enough his brother, having the physical advantage, had him in some sort of leg lock.    

So we had another pow-wow to explain to them both that physical combat is not acceptable in our family and let them come up with new words of respect. In addition, to give recognition to my older son's new Samson-like status, I made sure to ask him to help with household tasks that required more strength so that he would have an appropriate place to flex those growing muscles.   

I hope this story reflects several points that I think might give you some insight. One of those is that it's important to not make one child feel like the "bad" one and the other the "good" one. They both play a part in creating the situation. It empowers children when we help them learn how to handle these situations no matter what their age or position is. And while it's important to involve them in the problem solving process we can't forget that they may need help from time to time keeping the age appropriate agreements that are made. In addition, we need to take into account the developmental stages of growth that are going on for both children and help them to express those newfound characteristics in positive ways.   

Now let's look at little more closely at what might be going on in your family. The first clue that you give is in how you feel when your son hits, "Angry." If you look at the "Mistaken Goals Chart" in your PD book, you'll see that children sometimes choose "negative" behaviors in order to feel belonging and significance in their family. One of the ways we determine which path they have chosen is by how the parent feels. In your case it's, angry. This would indicate that the Mistaken Goal is "Power". In addition, his developmental stage requires him to develop his autonomy and power. Those 2 factors right there can create a really strong urge to find or create power in any way he can. If he is not being given the chance to find it in "positive" ways, he will try through the alternative. He seems to be accomplishing this very effectively with his behavior! Wow! He's giving it all he's got to develop the things he needs to at this time in his life. He's doing his job.     

The part most parents get confused about is how to do your job in response.

Let's look at that.  Your job is to support his developmental growth ( in this case it's for autonomy and power) in positive ways and to help him to learn how to respect and be respected by his siblings.


By what you wrote, it sounds like your feelings from your own experiences with siblings may be distorting your view of the situation and not allowing you to fully do that job. You may need to trust that, with your help, he and your daughter are capable of learning to use words instead of fists. Setting up agreements in advance is only one part of that process. They will both need more hands on from you to follow through on the agreement.    

You may also want to find ways to celebrate his strength and give him opportunities to be powerful in positive ways. "Because he's 5 now", what tasks can he do to contribute to the household chores? Does he get an extra 15 minutes to stay up at bedtime?   

Also, you may want to set up "special time" for you and he alone as well as time for your 2 1/2 yr- old and you alone. This can be 10-15 minutes a day. Use a timer and let the child choose the activity. You could also make a "Special Skills Chart" for both of them. Using craft paper, trace each child's body and let them color themselves in. Then each night before they go to bed, ask "What do you do really well ?" or, "What new thing did you learn today?" Write this on the chart. Encourage him to tell you things he sees in his sister, that can be added to her chart. Read over all of his "special skills " each day to remind him how much he's growing each day. 

Both of your children need to learn how to be respectful to each other. Continue to set up boundaries so that your son has some toys, times or areas to play that are off limits to his little sisters. (When they are napping?)  If there is a situation where they forget to keep the agreement, make sure to include both of them in a reminder of the agreement and use "re-direction" to help the 21/2 yr.- old find other things to do. "Big brother needs to play alone right now. When big brother plays with his blocks you can play with your dolls." You might even spend a few minutes helping your son re-set his blocks while using empathy for him. "Sometimes it' shard to have little sisters who don't understand that you don't want your blocks knocked down." When either of them does follow the agreement, be sure to give them specific encouragement." Wow. You are following the agreement and respecting your brother!" "Look how patient you were with your little sister. You even helped her to find something else to play with. Let's put "patient" on your chart tonight because that's a very important skill!"    

Of course by now school may have started and you are already seeing some of these situations subside. If so, keep this in mind for other transition times.   

I hope that this has "given birth to your insight". Remember that you are growing along with your children! Keep being open to these opportunities for learning. Trust that your children are moving through all the ages and stages of life as they should. Most importantly trust in your ability to guide them through life by believing in yourself and continuing to develop the mother you really want to be.

With light and love,
Debi Sementelli
Certified Positive Discipline Associate 

Positive Discipline for Preschoolers
Positive Discipline for Preschoolers
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