A Teen and Her Five Year Old Brother

Q: My question is about sibling conflict between my 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. They are constantly fighting! And they are basically just rude and disrespectful towards each other so much of the time. I have read articles that say to let them work it out, but the hard part for me is the age gap between them. I feel frustrated when my 13-year-old gets rude to my five-year-old because I feel like she should know better and she should teach him better.

At the same time, my son gets extremely ugly in his behavior towards her, which also frustrates me because he’s not like that with other people. I feel like he’s still learning and she should already know not to say or do certain things to a little kid. The truth is she does. She is great with everybody else’s kids. She’s super-sweet and patient and loving. But to her brother, she’s not at all. She’s quick to get angry with him, and super dramatic about everything that he does. He will just go up and do certain things to her like grab something from her, and he’s even lied to get her in trouble.

Like I said, I know the articles say that I need to let them work it out, but there just seems to be so much tension between them and the age difference is what makes it really hard for me to know what to do. How do you suggest handling conflict of all types between children who are so far apart in age and development? A teenager and a preschool age child are so far apart!

A: I know how much this must hurt your mommy heart! But don’t despair—this can be turned around. A few things come to mind to help this situation.

  1. For now, don’t expect your teen to babysit her younger brother. I know, we rejoiced when our oldest hit 13 and we could leave her in charge of her three younger siblings and didn’t have to pay a sitter. But the dynamic here has gotten out of whack, so stop leaving her in charge (if you did before) until things resolve into more pleasantness between them.
  2. Be careful you’re not asking the teen to do too much to help her brother. Sometimes, we slip into the habit of relying on the older sib to help the younger one, and we do it too often—that can breed resentment and contempt on the part of the older sib.
  3. Separate them as much as possible for a while. In other words, they should interact as few times as possible while you help them work on a reset to their relationship.
  4. Make sure you’re spending one-on-one time with each of them, talking about the child in front of you, not the child at home. Kids act out when they don’t feel a connection with their parents. We take turns taking our kids to breakfast, for example.
  5. Take each one aside (not during your one-on-one special time) to check in with them about the sibling. Ask what’s going on, that you’ve noticed their relationship is frayed. Don’t accuse the child of doing something—your goal is fact-finding. Listen more than you talk. Empathize with the older one that her little brother can be annoying, and with the younger one that his sister can be snarky to him. Don’t try to fix it, don’t tell them what to do, just listen to get the tenor of what’s going on. Do this a few times over a week or so.

6.Then ask each one separately what would make their relationship better. Again, don’t jump in and defend one child to another, or don’t immediately dismiss the solution. Then ask the child/teen what they could do to make the relationship better.

  1. Call a family meeting. Say that you’ve noticed how each of them treat the other (they should be less likely to jump in defensive since you’ve already talked to them separately) and that’s not the way families act. Say the new rule is that for every put down, name calling, rude or disrespectful thing they say about the other sibling, they have to say at least three things they like or appreciate about that sibling. Tell them they each have to do at least two nice things for that sibling (like make lunch or hang up their coat, or bring them a pen because they asked for one and the cat is on their lap) each day before dinner, and that you’ll ask them at dinner what those things are.
  2. Do things together as a family, play games, read a book, start with small increments of time (like 15 minutes) so that you can end on a happy, rather than fighting, note.
  3. And don’t expect too much of your young teen. Sure, she should know better, but in many ways, she’s just a kid too.

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