Sibling Rivalry - the Middle Years

This week brings us Lisa's second question from a couple of weeks ago. We are dealing with a completely different age group in this scenario. I don't have kids this age, so I turned to my BRILLIANT cousin, Heather. I frequently turn to Heather for parenting advice (as she will attest) and it has never failed me. Enjoy.

“12 year old boy waits until any moment when his parents' attention is turned and then does something to bug his 9 year old sister until she screams. Granted, she'll scream at very little provocation, but sometimes what he's doing is pinched hard or yanking her hair.”

Ok, so let’s pretend this is J and B. First of all I deal with them separately. To B (9yo) I say “suck it up”. J (12yo) is only doing this to get a reaction. Take away the reaction, and the ornery behavior will likely go away as well. Yes, I know it hurts when J pinches you or pulls your hair. Suck it up…you’ll live to tell the tale. A hard pinch does not a national emergency make. I’ve also noticed that you do a lot of screaming. And a lot of the screaming is happening for not particularly good reasons. Ever heard of the story The Boy Who Cried Wolf? Mom and Dad aren’t sure when something is really wrong anymore because every time you scream it’s as if your arm has been ripped off.

Here’s the thing…I think you scream because you think Mom or Dad will swoop in and solve your problem with your brother or sister for you. And that was a reasonable assumption…we’ve done that up until now. We’re not going to anymore. You are a smart boy and you are more than capable of resolving your own problems with your siblings. Remember that we are going to be with our families forever, so we have to figure out how to get along with them while we are here on earth. And remember that no matter how much you might not like your brother or sister at the moment, that you do love them, and they love you.

And ask yourself if whatever it is you are fighting about is really more important than your relationship with them. I know that you can do this. This will be a hard habit to break, so for the first few days Mom will help you remember that you need to work it out yourself. I’ll do that by saying, whenever I hear you screaming, “Work it out.” That’s your cue. (I’ve actually had this talk with each of my kids at different points.)

Now, on to J. Did you pinch your brother? How would you like it if your brother pinched you? Would that be fun, or would it hurt. (If she fails to take this part of the conversation seriously I would very likely either pinch or pull her hair and ask if that was fun or if it hurt…that has never failed to get their attention and get them serious about the situation in a hurry) We need to treat others the way we want to be treated…not the way they treat us…the way we want to be treated. Big difference. Unless you want to be pinched and/or have your hair pulled, you shouldn’t be going around doing it to others. Knock it off. Knock it off now, or there will be consequences. And here’s what they’ll be…

Here’s where it just depends on the “that which makes them wail” (I love this!) and/or “that which forces them to stop reacting to me and start actually evaluating their own behavior and how it affects others” factors that I like to apply in my parenting. For each kiddo it’s different. We’ve had kiddos write sentences (i.e. I will treat my family with respect, etc), write essays (i.e. What about my behavior towards my sister was unacceptable? Why is it unacceptable? What can I do remedy the situation? How will I hand the situation differently next time?), climb stairs to the point of exhaustion, create flashcards with relevant scriptures, etc. It just really depends on the kiddo. I’d probably have J write an essay and have B look up scriptures and memorize them.

So now that I’ve said how I’d probably handle it with the kiddos, let’s talk about what we’d do next as parents. We’d probably try to figure out if there are underlying issues going on. Are the kiddos getting enough attention? Do we only pay attention to the 12yo when we are putting out behavioral fires? If so, we’re asking for bad behavior. I know that sounds like the traditional “blame the parents not the kid”, but you know I’m not THAT parent. But it can be a relevant issue in that you have to be absolutely sure you are rewarding the kinds of behavior you want to continue. If attention is what the kiddo wants, the last thing you want is to reward them with that attention for bad behavior. One on one time with a kiddo can work miracles for both the relationship with the parent and the relationships with the siblings. I know this from experience.

Also, do the kiddos have enough time to just hang out and play together? If not, part of this might be a big brother who wants to play with his little sister, but isn’t sure how. We dealt with some of that with J this summer. She really wanted to play with her younger brother and sisters, but didn’t know how. She has so disengaged from the kiddos since getting her own room, that they are not accustomed to including her in their play. When she tried to join in there was quite a bit of push back from the younger kids and J’s feelings were hurt. Well, to a large degree it was her own doing. We encouraged her to close her door less often, read a book on the living room couch instead of holing herself up in her room all day (that way if the kiddos start doing something she is visible and they may think to invite her to join in), offer to read a book out loud to them, ask them to play a game, etc. She was going to have to engage with them and be patient as they grew more comfortable playing with her. It was a tough lesson to learn, but a good one, and the situation improved markedly during the last 3 or 4 weeks of the summer.

I also feel like a lot of this, at least with regard to the 12yo, can be boiled down to treating others kindly. We’re actually dealing with some “kindness” issues at our house currently as well. We did a couple of FHE (Family Home Evening - in the LDS Church, Monday nights are set aside for family night) lessons on it over the last month or so and are putting skittles into a kindness jar when we notice the kiddos treating one another kindly. Somewhere along the line our kids primarily associated kindness with service or “doing kind things”. Well that’s all fine and dandy, but who cares if you made their bed for them if you talk to them like they’re an idiot?

We decided on a cue of STA (pronounced stay)…Stop what you’re saying/doing right this instant…Think about what you were saying/doing and determine what was wrong about it…Apologize sincerely for your unkind words/tone/deed… So when we hear them being ornery to one another we just say STA. I like the cue we came up with because it gives the kids a concrete process to work through. That has actually worked pretty well to diffuse situations. Ideally we’d be talking about kindness each night at dinner and splitting the skittles up for dessert. In practice, we forget, and honestly, there just aren’t many skittles there. There has been some movement, but not as much as we’d like. We briefly discussed it at FHE tonight and resolved to double our efforts.

I hope that this helps some of you out there that are struggling with the pre-teen age group! I am sure that I will turn to Heather frequently for advice in the Parenting Club as she has "been there, done that" for almost 13 years.


  1. I meant to comment sooner on last week's post -- I liked the emphasis on showing empathy first. That hadn't occurred to me, but I think it's a very good idea because, it obviously hadn't occurred to the kid, either! Empathy is a learned response.

    I also like the idea of putting the disputed item in "time-out" up on the fridge, as opposed to putting the kids in time out over and over and over.

    For this week, I think you're dead-on in suggesting that the younger kid is getting too much attention for wailing. The idea of just letting them work it out is a little worrisome because the 12 year old is a boy, and much much bigger than his 9 year old sister. He could really inflict some damage if he tried. :( I think maybe if the parents had started some of these ideas sooner, it would have been good. But it's never too late to start, right?

  2. Heather, I can hear your voice in this post. Wonderful counsel. I remember a time when A and T were teenagers and in a row with each other. We just let them go at it until they worked it out. It was hard to step back, but we knew they had to resolve it because, eventually, we would be out of the picture and they'd have to deal with each other! Problem-solving skills and personal relationship skills are among the very hardest to teach.