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Unusual Sibling Rivalry

Unusual Sibling Rivalry

Help! Our 7-year-old son is constantly picking fights with his younger sister.


We have five children between the ages of 8 and 1½. All of them are girls except our second child, age 7.

The relationships between them seem to be normal with the usual sibling rivalry - but not beyond. This is all true except for the relationship between our 7-year-old son and his next-in-line sister, age 5. He seems to be overly preoccupied with her and is constantly putting her down verbally and even hitting her. On the occasional times when they do get along, their games tend to be very wild.

He is not like this with any of his other siblings, with whom he plays very nicely. In every other way, he plays nicely and is a very responsible and sensitive child.

Please advise us regarding how to deal with this. We find that the more we tell him to leave her alone, the more he is at her. We're at our wits' end!

The wild play you observe, at times, between your son and his next youngest sister is an excellent illustration of the very healthy phenomenon called sublimation. What is sublimation?

Children, like adults, experience a wide range of emotions. These can be classified into two basic categories: positive and negative. Positive emotions are the feelings we enjoy and make us feel good, such as affection, appreciation, pride, happiness, and love. Negative emotions are the feelings we do not like and try to avoid, such as annoyance, irritation, anger, jealousy, sadness, and hate.

Daily living and interactions with others trigger a wide range of both positive and negative emotions. We cannot choose to experience only positive feelings. Whether we like it or not, therefore, we must deal with negative emotions on a regular basis.

Whenever we experience negative emotions, such as anger, we often feel the urge to act in a manner that is improper. For example, we might feel like breaking something. Our Sages have taught, however, that, "Whoever rends his garment in anger or breaks his vessels in anger or discards his money in anger should be considered as one who worships idols" (Shabbos lO5b).

If, on the other hand, one channels these negative emotions into acceptable behavior, the feelings are discharged without negative consequences. That is referred to as sublimation. For example, one might channel these feelings into the performance of a mitzvah such as kri'ah, when the mourner rends his or her garment as the immediate first expression of grief.

The rough play represents a healthy sublimation of your son's jealous, resentful feelings toward his sister.

The Rambam wrote, "The purpose of the mitzvah of kri'ah is that through it he [the mouner] cools off and his emotions are settled" (Commentary on Mishnayos, Shabbos Ch. 13).

Coming back to your children, the rough play you described represents a healthy sublimation of your son's jealous, competitive and even resentful feelings toward his sister. By discharging his emotions in this more acceptable fashion, it enables him - at least temporarily - to restrain himself from verbally or physically attacking her. Your role here is to understand how important this unruly play is in helping your son deal with his intense feelings of sibling rivalry.

When they do not get along, apparently the majority of the time, you must understand that your son feels very threatened by his next youngest sister. The 8-year-old is older, and presumably larger, than he is. She is, therefore, in a completely separate category. The 1½ year-old is a baby and, therefore, not much of threat to his standing in the pecking order. That leaves the 5-year-old and the one under her. As the 5-year-old is the closest in age to your son, he has targeted her as his primary nemesis.

Related Article: Battling Sibling Rivalry

Don’t Take Sides

When you "tell him to leave her alone," you naturally assume that you are being a good parent by protecting your daughter from her bullying big brother. You are obviously unaware as to why your protecting her should provoke him to increase his attacks. You are actually planting the seeds for his next assault every time you rally to her defense.

All children who have siblings are universally plagued by doubts regarding which child is more favored in the eyes of their parents. Since parents wield the power to withhold or dispense attention, affection, and privileges, getting on a parent's good side and jockeying for more advantageous positions become obsessive preoccupations of all children.

If a conflict breaks out - which it always does - between any two siblings, the response of the parents becomes absolutely critical. If the parents will side with, defend or justify either child, then the other child will take that as a sign that he or she is now in a weaker, more vulnerable, and more insecure position in the family.

This will automatically trigger two reactions in the child who was scolded. First, it will provoke intense feelings of resentment toward the sibling who was favored by the parental intervention. If not for him/her, the child thinks to himself/herself, I would not be receiving this unpleasant rebuke from my parents. (S)he is all that stands in the way of my having a warm, close and loving relationship with my parents. If only (s)he were out of the picture, then everything would be blissful.

Avoid arbitrating sibling conflicts as much as possible.

The second reaction set off in the child who was reprimanded for attacking a sibling is that this child will now feel more insecure. Do my parents still love me, (s)he asks herself/himself. In order to reassure herself/himself, therefore, (s)he must set up a test in which the parents will be forced to choose between the same two children. If my parents side with me, (s)he thinks to herself/himself, then I'm not as spurned as I thought. The child then seeks another opportunity to attack her/his sibling. And so the vicious cycle continues and intensifies exactly as you described.

The solution to all of this is to avoid arbitrating sibling conflicts as much as possible. Often a disclaimer of, "I'm sorry. I didn't see what just happened," is sufficient. Once you refuse to accept your children's testimony as if it were concrete evidence, you can dislodge yourself from the impossible position you currently occupy between your son and daughter. Over time, if you are consistent with this approach, shalom bayis, domestic peace will eventually return to your home.

Excerpted from Partners in Parenting by Dr. Meir Wikler, Artscroll publications.

August 27, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 20

(17) shira, September 6, 2011 3:29 PM

seems to be missing the second half

The first half of the article gives tremendous insight into what is happening on a deeper level for the older son. I am missing the answer to the question though because there is a child being physically and emotionally hurt whom I'm responsible for as well.I hear what to do for the older chld, but not for the younger one. I would love to hear the full answer.

(16) Anonymous, August 30, 2011 1:44 PM

I had a similar thing with my older brother

I actually agree with what was expressed in the article. In my family, my brother, the second child, took his anger out/bullied me, the next in line. I sometimes think that my parents made things worse by interfering. They weren't usually there in the same room and didn't really know exactly what had happened, so either way, they were taking sides. I think the best way to handle it is to try to catch the son being good, try to look for ways to give positive attention and ways to praise him. I do think that letting them work things out for themselves is a good idea. Although, since he is outnumbered with so many sisters and the only boy, I think that finding him male playdates would be a really good idea. I was severly scarred from years of being bullied, and I think it would have been helpful had I had someone to talk to about it. You may want to consider play -therapy, as your children are still quite young. Don't think that it is just a phase and will pass. It could get much worse, as with me and my brother. Get both of them some help in this matter. Good luck.

(15) Anonymous, August 30, 2011 5:00 AM

very disappointed

"He seems to be overly preoccupied with her and is constantly putting her down verbally and even hitting her" I'm very disappointed with this article. I don't see how its good parenting practice to avoid conflicts between siblings. In this situation it sounds like the younger child is being bullied. What choice has the younger sibling got if the parent's say they saw nothing and won't get involved? Should she hit back or simply take a hit to her self esteem that no one will stand up for her? I remember learning a lesson about not tying a stronger animal to a weaker one. The home is a confined space, the younger sibling cannot escape the older one. As I said I'm very disappointed with the advice in this article.

(14) Miriam, August 29, 2011 1:28 PM

I thoroughly disagree with this article.

On the contrary, when a boy who is bullying his sister is reprimanded and seriously punished, the sister learns to protect herself; she learns that she is worthy of being protected. And the boy learns that you don't hurt other people in any way, especially your sister. This is what I call a healthy family.

Deborah Bach, August 29, 2011 5:39 PM

disagree with Miriam

Miriam, On the contrary, if the boy is seriously punished he is likely to seriously take his anger out on his sister when he thinks that he can get away with it. She will learn to expect to be protected and will not have the opportunity to develop her own ways of protecting herself. Yes, parents should speak of the value of Shalom and think of ways to encourage the children to play peacefully with each other, but no, in the long run punishing is way too likely to backfire,

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