Siblings can do some awfully cruel things. Take a look at some of the stories parents reported to sibling researchers Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish:
- “I can remember my own bewilderment and rage at finding the baby with two long scratches on his back and my three-year-old standing there with an evil grin on his face. What a mean, rotten kid! Why would he do it?” (Faber & Mazlish, 1998, p. 15)
- “I don’t understand what makes some of them so mean,” says another woman. “My five-year-old will pull the baby’s hair, put his fingers up her nose, in her ears, in her eyes. The little one is lucky she’s still got eyeballs.” (ibid)
- “Out of the corner of my eye I saw (my oldest son) David holding a tablespoon over the electric coil from which I had just removed a pot of boiling water. Suddenly he said to Andy, ‘Want to see how hot it gets? C’mere.’ When Andy got close, David grabbed him and pressed the hot spoon onto the bare skin of Andy’s neck.” (ibid, p. 104)
Do any of these stories resemble what has gone on in your own household? History shows that siblings have the capacity to do some mighty cruel things to one another. But while periodical acts of cruelty may be normal to sibling relationships, they also cannot be tolerated or ignored.
These situations arise because of the intense feelings siblings can provoke (see our section on Why Siblings Don’t Get Along), and need to be dealt with swiftly yet compassionately. In addition to the other principles we outline for dealing with sibling conflict, try these guidelines:
- Keep your own emotions in check. Getting angry will only add to the feelings of resentment that are driving this type of behavior.
- This is one of those situations where punishment is appropriate. Just make sure the punishment is followed up with plenty of dialogue.
- Talk a lot about empathy from BOTH sides – what they were feeling and what their siblings felt. Encourage them to apologize to the other child, but don’t force it.
- Follow the sticks with some carrots. Outline what you expect of them, and then offer some type of reward if they can play nice with their sibling for the day or for the week. Since this type of behavior is almost always related to jealousy in some way, (even if you can’t make a direct connection), the reward should be something involving one on one time with you, such as getting to stay up 10 minutes late to read a book on your lap, or taking a special trip to the park if they can be nice for the week. This way you’re sending the message that kindness is better than cruelty at earning your attention.
In some cases cruelty may be the result of an underlying emotional problem that needs to be treated with professional help. Here are some warning signs that you’ve got a more serious problem on your hands:
- One child seems to be doing the bulk of the cruelty with little or no provocation on the part of the other child.
- He or she seems to find pleasure or enjoyment in acting cruel.
- If children are sustaining physical injuries that require some sort of medical attention (such as the burn story given earlier).
- If one or more of the siblings also acts aggressively toward other children outside the family.
- If the behavior is becoming dangerous.