Ask the Expert: My son is picking on his little sister
Coach your children in how to resolve their disputes themselves. Photograph: Getty Images
Q 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.
A 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
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
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.