What to Do When Sibling Rivalry Leads to Hitting

February 11th, 2013

by Katrina Brooke

I am a concerned grandmother of a beautiful 3½-year-old boy, Dean who hits others. His parents use timeouts and deprive him of toys when he does act out.

There is a baby sister, now 14 months old. I am told that her brother pushes her—although he does play with her and kiss her, as he will do with other children. But he will suddenly just hit or push or throw something.

I think my son and daughter-in-law are at their wits’ end, and I am worried about all of them. They recently moved to a new home in another state and stayed with relatives until their furniture arrived. I was told my grandson behaved appallingly, hitting his older cousins and misbehaving.

I think this behavior started when his baby sister was born. Can you advise?

How would Dean’s mother like it if her husband brought home a younger, prettier new wife? This is what your beautiful Dean must face when he sees that baby sister day after day. She is delicious for everyone around her. Except him. In addition, at 14 months the baby is probably starting to walk, grabbing all of his toys and all the attention, and now taking up more space than ever!

Your grandon’s hitting and throwing might well have started as a response to losing his status in the family as the only child and—by default, of course—the favored one. With each of the baby’s exciting new accomplishments and the parental admiration she garners for them, Dean is bound to resent her even more. Now his aggressive behavior is triggered whenever he is overwhelmed, and by other children. Inevitably they too make demands on him to share, take turns, and compromise—a challenge for any child his age.

To make matters worse, his mean parents have moved to a new house, in a new state. Precious belongings, familiar surroundings, family, and friends are now far away. Of course this little boy is starting to fall apart all over again. His older cousins are lucky he’s not even more aggressive! His whole world has been turned upside down.

At this age, what can Dean do but hit and misbehave to show how much he is suffering? How can he understand what has happened and why, and what will happen next? He’s likely to expect his parents to announce another baby or another move, every time he sees them.

And he couldn’t possibly have the language skills or the ability to understand himself to be able to let his parents know how he is feeling or what he is worried about. This is why, when children this age are upset, their feelings come out in “bad behavior” rather than words.

In spite of his aggressive behavior, Dean sounds like a lovely little boy. He can play with the little sister tenderly and kiss her even though she has wrecked his life. He can enjoy her as an individual even if he’s jealous of her. He’s trying, isn’t he?

His parents can help him talk out some of these feelings in simple terms that make sense to him: “It’s so annoying to have a baby sister who comes and wrecks all your stuff!” They can offer him chances to play out these feelings by giving him a pillow to punch or dolls or puppets that can fight and beat each other up. But he’ll also find it helpful to have a toy to love and cuddle when he’s about to get upset. The goal is to help him find ways to control himself before he loses control. When he succeeds, let him know it: “You got yourself under control all by yourself!”

Another maneuver for his parents would be to find another hitter for him to play with and make him a friend. If he hits this friend, the other child will hit him back. They will both realize hitting hurts, and they will begin to control themselves.

One last suggestion: Be sure each parent makes a special date alone with Dean each week. Talk about it all week. “I can’t wait for our special time together this week! You’ll always be special to me, and we will celebrate it each week on a date with just you and me.”

In our book Understanding Sibling Rivalry (da Capo 2004), you can find more about this major adjustment for a big brother—and about how parents can help.


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