Q: I am an only child, so I do not understand this sibling thing. My two kids (a boy, 7, and a girl, 5) are friends, but they argue and pester each other. Mostly, in my opinion, Little Sister pesters Older Brother. She will say something she knows is going to upset him or just disagree with him for the sake of disagreeing and starting an argument. There are times when I want to punish her (timeout, scolding) for being . . . annoying. However, my husband is the youngest of three boys, and he thinks her behavior is perfectly acceptable. I respect his perspective. What is the best way to handle a pesky younger sister? Tell the big brother to just ignore her (and allow her to continue to pester him) or tell her to stop pestering him?
A: Sibling squabbles are common. Although most siblings have minor issues throughout childhood, it is not hard to find adults who harbor serious resentments and anger from sibling drama. Most of these resentments involve how their parents did or did not protect the children, how their parents created more competition among siblings or how the parents chose obvious favorites.
Luckily, you are ahead of the game because you are already thoughtful about what is happening here.
First, you understand the dynamic: little sister pestering older brother. Second, you understand that you are slightly (but only slightly) compromised in understanding sibling relationships and, third, you recognize that you want to punish what may or may not be normal behavior.
Your husband is on one side of the issue (that it’s perfectly acceptable) and you are on the other (“I must stop this behavior”).
Bring it to the middle.
First of all, your husband is right — sort of. Siblings annoy one another. There are many theories of why children appear to torture their brother or sister. One reason siblings fight, say people who study them, is because it is “safer” to bug, bother and generally torment your sister than, say, your friends at school. Your sibling will be there, day after day, and there is safety in that.
There is also just the normal friction that occurs among humans living together. Whether your children are similar or different in temperament, different or same gender, close or far apart in age, living together is difficult.
Additionally, with the pace that many families keep these days, I see many kids who are fighting for attention, and sometimes that means fighting a sibling. Chasing parents around the house, picking fights, teasing and creating mischief are among the many ways that children will unconsciously try to drag eyes to themselves.
Can sibling fighting turn ugly? Absolutely. When it is utterly one-sided, when the fighting is gleefully brutal, when one child is showing signs of anxiety or a child is becoming withdrawn, you have a full-blown bullying problem.
Here, there is a 5-year-old who is really bugging her big brother, and there are two main ways we can tackle this: prevention and repair.
Prevention requires us to understand why the 5-year-old is bothering her brother so much. Does she need more positive attention, away from her brother and the tiffs? Are you waiting for her to control her own behavior when that is not developmentally appropriate? Is her brother also (stealthily) annoying her? Is it always occurring when she’s hungry or tired? Start going through the list and see what clicks. Simply answering these questions will begin to lead you to answers.
Prevention also looks like parental intervention before the fighting becomes problematic. As soon as you hear your daughter beginning the fight, get in there. Be in charge. Take her by the hand and say, “Oh, Annie! I forgot, I am going to teach you to water the tomatoes now.” She may not want to; that doesn’t matter. You are going to move her along, away from her brother and away from the impending drama. The bad news? You may have to do this a lot. It is an exhausting time to parent, but don’t let that dissuade you. Intervening is far less tiring than trying to break up the fight.
But for the times that you cannot prevent, and the fight is full tilt, we need some repairing.
Because your son is working hard to not attack or tease his sister back, he undoubtedly is annoyed and frustrated. Go ahead and say, “Geez, Annie is really getting on your nerves! It is frustrating when she keeps mimicking/poking/arguing/disagreeing with you, isn’t it?” Create an outlet in which your son can express his feelings. Many parents worry that this will make a situation worse, but allowing children to have their feelings never makes anything worse. It lets your son know that you care, are listening and are interested in his reaction. It also lets him know that you, the parent, are not afraid of his big emotions. You can handle it.
So: sibling fighting. Normal? Yes. Can you do something about it? Yes. Good luck!
8 Send questions about parenting to email@example.com.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for July 29.