My son is mean to his younger sister

My six-year-old son is always picking on his four-year-old sister and sometimes he can be really cruel to her. He calls her names, teases her and even hits her. He has a really nasty streak and I spend a lot of time policing their relationship. 

I have tried being firm and using the naughty step when he does it,but he is getting too big for this now. I have also tried the nice approach, persuading him to be a good big brother, but that’s not working either. He seems to resent her and has always done so.

I thought things would improve as they got older, but they seem to be getting worse. I hate giving out to him all the time and it is affecting my relationship with him. It really saddens me that they don’t get on and it is making family life harder for all of us.

Dealing with children constantly fighting, or one child picking on another in a family, is one of the most common and disruptive family problems. Frequently, these patterns start from an early age but can be fixed over time.

In your own situation, it is possible to imagine how your son might have found the arrival of his baby sister difficult to manage. He had to move from being the centre of his parents’ universe to having to share their attention with a new rival.

It is understandable that he might feel jealous and resentful, and get into a pattern of taking this out on his sister.

Be careful of how you react to this sibling rivalry
When seeing children fighting, parents understandably want to take the side of the younger child or the one they see being picked upon.

It is a normal instinct to want to protect the child you see as a “victim” and to punish or criticise the “victimiser”.

The problem is that such an approach can make things worse.

The child who is punished usually has a different explanation for what happened and feels, on an emotional level, that the parent is punishing them because they favour or even love their sibling more.

This causes them to feel more resentful of the sibling and more insecure in the relationship with the parent and, as a result, they can be more likely to act out or pick on the sibling again.

The importance of taking both sides
The key to breaking this pattern is to reduce your criticism and punishment of your son and, instead, focus on coaching him and his sister in resolving their disputes in a constructive way.

Instead of identifying who is at fault, try to understand what happens from both child’s point of view and hold both children accountable for sorting things out.

To make this work, you need to get in early before a row has escalated or your son has gone “over a line” and hit out. Instead, when you notice a problem brewing, say something like “Let’s take a break now, you both seem unhappy,” or “Let’s sort this out together.”

If you do use a consequence or punishment, make sure it is an equal one that holds them both accountable: “Look, if we can’t agree now, then you will have to play with something else for a moment.”

The central message you are trying to communicate is that you care for them both and want to help them get on.

Coach your son in how to manage his sister
If a pattern has been going on for some time, your son probably needs some help in managing his own upset and how he handles disputes with his sister without teasing or hitting out.

A good way to do this is to read children’s books with him that describe problem social situations. It could be a story about a child wanting to play with the same toy as a friend, and ask him to come up with solutions; for example, waiting and taking turns, asking can you play together, taking a break and playing with something else, going to an adult for some help, and so on.

You want to explore with him the “win-win solutions”: in other words, the only solutions that are acceptable are the ones that leave everyone happy at the end.

Have these conversations or reading times with him on a one-to-one basis, so he gets positive attention from you, and emphasise his important role of guiding and leading his sister as the big brother.

Praise and encourage your son
It is quite likely that your son frequently gets your attention for negative behaviour. Try to turn this around to make sure he gets your attention when he makes an effort to be kind to his sister or even takes a positive interest in her.

This means closely observing their interaction and getting in early. For example, you might notice that his sister is annoying him and he is holding back – but about to hit out – and you could jump in to support and praise him by saying, for example: “It is hard being calm when your sister is bothering you, but you are doing a good job.”

This acknowledgement alone should be good enough to redirect him and show him the behaviour you want.

Support your children’s relationship
Take time to support your son and daughter’s relationship, and show them the value of getting along and being playmates together.

  • Sit down with the two of them during a structured game and support them playing with one another.
  • Praise any examples of waiting, taking turns, praising or supporting their sibling.
  • Put them on the same team in a game together, for example against Mam or Dad, so they have to work together to win.
  • Give them a task or a special chore together, whether it is simply tidying up or putting things in the laundry, and praise their team work.
  • Set up a “teamwork reward chart” with them, whereby they get a shared star for any example of “friendly behaviour” between them. When they get a certain number of stars, they can gain a shared reward such as doing a special game together.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.