Release my sippee cup NOW, or you die, Sister!
December 14, 2005 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Advice for how to stop a 2.5 year old boy from annihilating his 1 year old sister.

My son, whom I’ve recently nicknamed “unnecessary roughness”, cannot resist pushing, pulling, smacking, or kicking his sister, who is now mobile enough to always find him, but never fast enough to get away.

Violence ensues when she touches his toys, or has anything interesting in her hands. Other factors that could precipitate an incident include her merely looking at him, or her toddling in a direction that may take her within several feet of his stuff.

My son is generally very sweet, calm, and other than with his sister, rarely impulsive. Some other background info: my wife stays at home with both kids during the day and she keeps them busy with both indoor and outdoor activities, and ever since she was born last year, we've given him plenty of attention, hoping that he would take a liking to her and not see her as a threat. Our household is rather calm and definitely not abusive, and I cannot think of any environmental stressor or bad examples in his life that might be influencing him, television or otherwise. He does have contact with other kids his age, mostly cousins, and lately I have noticed that he gets rather aggressive with even the older ones. One cousin in particular (aged 2), used to smack him, but now my son seems more dominant. Could slaps and scuffles from this particular cousin a year ago have formed such a strong impression that now he has become this two-and-a-half year old WWF wannabe?

When it happens, which is daily if not hourly, he will get this look of fury on his face, and then he just snaps. We’ve tried timeouts, spanking, forfeiture of favorite toys, and varied attempts at verbal reasoning, but they just do not work. He’ll say “I will NOT do it again,” but then he does do it again – sometimes immediately. His maternal Grandparents tell us that they had a nephew who had a similar temperament, so perhaps it’s a biological trait. (That nephew just so happens to be the single most competitive individual I have ever met.)

Certainly within a year or so, his sister will be able to fight back, and, I suppose, he may just grow out of it. In the mean time, I am interested to hear if any of you have had similar experiences with children and siblings, and more importantly, have you had any success in dealing with this sort of insanity? Please, anything at all.
posted by brheavy to Human Relations (18 answers total)
Full disclosure : I teach pre-school.

I don't think your son has anything going on in the way of environmental stressors or emotional trauma in the way of his cousins. He sounds like he's just being a normal toddler and learning his limits.

What he needs to get over this is discipline and structure. Find a method of punishment that works best (though please, not corporal punishment or with-holding of food - I discipline my kids in class by making them sit and think about themselves, which works if done consistently) and KEEP AT IT. It may take a while to notice progress, but if you apply the same consequences (and it is very important that they are always THE SAME - if you go mixing up discipling styles, the child will just become confused and won't get the hint) every single time you catch him at the behavior, eventually he will learn. This requires a lot of patience on your part because after repetition #4,000, you will want to say "You know what? I never liked your sister that much anyway. Go ahead." I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of structure and consistency it takes for children to become properly social creatures.

In the meantime, take heart in the fact that children are resilient and his chances of actually annhilating his sister are slim. ;)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:02 PM on December 14, 2005

A two year old does not yet understand what "I will not do it again" means. He'll say it, because he knows that's what you want to hear, but he does not understand the action that is involved. This is not because he is rude or mean, he is just two. It is best not to ask him to tell those things. (It is the same with lying: they do not understand lying, they just tell what they think you'll want to hear).

You are certainly right that he will grow out of it. I think you are already doing the right thing by keeping both children busy and also giving him plenty of attention alone. It is important that he feels validated, part of the family, but remember, he is still very small himself, even though he looks so big now.

Have you tried making him feel more important by letting him 'help'? He could get the diapers for his little brother, get napkins, those kind of things.

Set up some places for him to play where his sister cannot come (he can sit at the table, for example. Maybe he has his own room?). Maybe let him have some toys that are really his, that he can put in a special container that his sister cannot open.

Give him some better ways to deal with angry feelings, like teaching him to stamp on the floor. I do not recommend spanking him, it will give him the impression that spanking is an okay thing to do if you are angry with someone (so from that point of view it is totally normal that he spanks his sister).

From what I have heard, this is totally normal (yet upsetting) behaviour. It is hard to be two, and even harder when there is a sibling that also wants attention and your stuff. I would not punish the behaviour, I think that will only make it worse in the end. Prevent the hitting (yeah, that means that you or your wife need to be on top of it a lot of the time, but this is temporary. You do not want to give your daughter the idea that it is okay to be smacked by her big brother) and remove him from the situation.

A book that is often recommended is Siblings without Rivalry.
posted by davar at 3:09 PM on December 14, 2005

My brother and I beat the crap out of each other pretty much from the moment he was able to walk. (I'm older, but he's stronger.) When the hitting stopped, the verbal nastiness began. To this day we are less than close, though we are trying to remedy that somewhat. My dad could get us to settle down because he only raised his voice when he meant it, but my mother couldn't because the only thing she ever did was yell. As a result, we never listened to a single thing she said because we could't take her seriously. (Spaghetti sauce spilled on a white tee shirt involved just as much screaming and yelling as an attempt by my brother to crush my skull with a large wooden telephone toy. I still have the scar.)

I'm not a parent, but all the nanny shows I've watched emphasized rewards for good behavior in addition to discussion (explaining why the behavior is bad) + short timeout for bad behavior. Spanking just teaches the kid that it's ok to hit "when it's really deserved." In HIS mind, his sister deserves to get her ass kicked for invading his territory. Because you've already spanked him, you are going to have a slightly tougher time because he's going to wonder why it was ok for you to spank him but not for him to punch his sister.

I remember I was always obsessed with fairness. My dad would see me hit my brother back, but he'd miss the kick in the face that I'd received, and I'd get in trouble because I was older and he'd seen me commit the crime. So I learned to kick his ass only when they weren't looking, and I'd goad him into beating me up when they were. I really don't envy parents. Kids are wiley little creatures. :) Good luck.
posted by xyzzy at 3:17 PM on December 14, 2005

Sit him down for a good stern reading of Lamentations of the Father (possibly modified for the striking of sisters).
posted by jacobsee at 3:36 PM on December 14, 2005

I'm almost four years older than my brother, and this was our relationship from day 1. I was, of course, the aggressor. My parents tried pretty much everything in all the books, but to no avail -- when he bit me or destroyed something of mine (or, heck, blew on me or looked at me funny), I was going to give him as good as I got.

However, I am female. As we grew, and continued to whack each other around, I saw fit to transition away from hitting in earnest and towards hitting to goof off. This was definitely a smart idea, as he's now 6'4" and a football player while I am 5'8" and not.

Our relationship was touch-and-go for awhile there, but we get along very well now. He tries to trip me to welcome me home on vacations, I mess up his hair when I walk by -- you get the picture. We make fun of each other a lot.

Even if you can't find a solution right away, or can't find one at all (my parents couldn't, and I don't know what I could do if faced with my younger self), this does not necessarily spell the end of their relationship, or a miserable lifetime for all involved. Good luck.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:07 PM on December 14, 2005

Not an answer, but my older brother was a complete c*nt to me from day one, and even though we're in our thirties now I still resent the hell out of it. I can trace lifelong self-esteem issues directly to his abuse, which ceased to be physical early on, became verbal/mental and barely ever let up. I'm not playing the victim here but I don't believe such behaviour is a natural part of childhood growth. I think that's what my parents thought, and they were dead wrong. Kids might be resilient, but they're also extremely impressionable. I hope you can break this habit asap.
posted by BorgLove at 4:30 PM on December 14, 2005

I had three toddlers at one time (oldest was 2 1/2 when youngest was born, no twins.) We didn't have that.

Sorry, but I think a swat to the tushy is in order. Some think this teaches violence-I simply think it teaches actions have consequences. At any rate this child needs to learn that the behavior is unacceptable, by any means possible.

I also do second the suggestion that he have some space/toys that she is not allowed to touch, as having a little sister has to be incredibly frustrating to him at the moment.

Now they are 21, 19, and 18, all productive citizens who get along just fine.
posted by konolia at 4:45 PM on December 14, 2005

Our kids (3 & 5, both boys) went through the same thing, and things have settled down with time. In our case, around the time the older one stopped beating on his brother, the relatively larger three-year-old decided that hitting is a good way to deal with issues; the 5 year-old never expects to have to defend himself, which is a bad idea when his brother comes by with a large toy and gives him one upside the head.

I know this sounds like mayhem, but the frequency of incidents has gone down drastically over the last 18 months, and we've realized that a certain amount of fighting, as long as people aren't getting hurt, is normal and will pass as they grow. Now we're working on getting the little one to smarten up, and so far so good.

On the other hand, they don't seem to bear grudges, and they do spend a lot of time playing happily together.

I probably took a lot of this stuff too seriously at first, and I've learned to worry about it less as time goes by. Like Davar says above, a lot of this is normal and will pass as they expand into their lives.
posted by sneebler at 5:06 PM on December 14, 2005

We’ve tried timeouts, spanking, forfeiture of favorite toys, and varied attempts at verbal reasoning, but they just do not work.

We've got a 2-year-old and a 3.5-year-old. We use the discipline method described in the book 1-2-3 Magic: you give the child two clear warnings before giving a timeout.

I start warning before it gets to actual violence--if the older child does something that looks threatening, I tell him not to do it. If he does it again, that's one warning (maybe he didn't get it the first time). Again is a clear act of defiance/testing the limits: second warning. Once more, timeout.

If there's actual violence, we don't bother with the warnings, we give an immediate timeout.

To make this work, you need to pay pretty close attention to the kids, to anticipate what's likely to happen next and defuse the situation before it gets to violence.

You may also find the books How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk and Siblings Without Rivalry to be helpful. (What I remember from How To Talk: keep it short, your kids will tune out long explanations.)
posted by russilwvong at 5:33 PM on December 14, 2005

I have two kids, now 6 & 3, both boys. Violence of any kind is dealt with and always has been by an immediate timeout and often loss of privileges such as Playstation or the toy they were quarreling about or dessert. No excuses.

The flipside of this is that you give them coping strategies. They know that if they have a problem with the other kid they can't solve, they go get an adult or scream loud enough that an adult knows there's a big problem (eg he's hitting me on the head with a hammer).

I've also taught the older one to use his 'big voice' with the younger one to stop him doing stuff that's wrong, rather than whacking him (it really works).

Basically -- you have to watch them like a hawk and intervene immediately with consequences. Consistency is everything. They eventually get the idea.

Reasoning doesn't work with kids younger than about four or five, so forget it. Corporal punishment is totally counter productive in my experience.

This is going to sound awful, but my wife is an animal behaviourist, and books on dog training are *incredibly* helpful in dealing with this kind of thing. I really recommend going to the library and reading through 'The Perfect Puppy' or something similar. No bullshit.
posted by unSane at 5:48 PM on December 14, 2005

My family was pure agression as well...a brother 4 years older than I, and a sister two years younger. My brother would beat the hell out of me, and I would take it out on my sister with no/little provocation (as in "come here so I can tell you a secret"...AND PUNCH YOU IN THE EYE). What it really came down to was absentee parenting, with the only punishment being violence from my father (spanking, wooden spoons, belt, coat hangers) and threats from my mother.

Seriously, don't resort to spanking except in absolutely extreme circumstances, and only when the kid is able to comprehend the reasons (which, ideally, should be when you don't need to resort to spanking anyway). Timeouts are ideal, as is talking them for extended periods. Boredom is a kid's worst enemy and that's exactly what you're punishing them with. Do not send them to their room as punishment, as that's supposed to be a positive place...otherwise you'll end up with sleeping problems.

Good luck!
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:16 PM on December 14, 2005

Oh...and my brother, sister and I have never developed a decent relationship because of what we learned or didn't learn from our parents. We speak perhaps once a decade. Solve this before it gets to that.
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:18 PM on December 14, 2005

Boredom is a kid's worst enemy and that's exactly what you're punishing them with. Do not send them to their room as punishment, as that's supposed to be a positive place...otherwise you'll end up with sleeping problems.

Exactly! Boredom is the winner every time. They will actually listen to you when they are bored.

I am not so strict about sending to the room... the room is a positive place when they *want* to be there and a negative place when they *don't* want to be there. If I send my kid to his room and he finds something to do up there (eg playing with trains, lego) then that's a bonus and the problem is usually solved... it doesn't change the fact that he hates being sent to this room when he wants to do something else.
posted by unSane at 7:40 PM on December 14, 2005

I have a boy and a girl of twin age (2yrs old) and I totally feel your pain. The boy is seemingly more aggressive and possessive and will bite or kick or slap (now we have that too!) his sister. Otherwise, he is a sweet and considerate boy (he helps me with the laundry, for crissakes).

However, it is the girl that instigates this behavior. She will grab his toys, will refuse to share with him and in general she will be interfering with his play. Obviously his behavior is not acceptable just because he is provoked, but we often try to resolve the issues rather than punish him. So rather than aggressive, I think he is more emotional. He is like that with some other kids too (but I do usually see the provocation).
posted by carmina at 8:05 PM on December 14, 2005

It's all about the Supernanny, Jo Frost and her advice to consistently use the NaughtyChair technique.

Seriously. The wife is a special education teacher and says ignore the reality television spin -- the techniques used on the show are rock-solid advice.
posted by frogan at 8:06 PM on December 14, 2005

He sounds like he's just being a normal toddler

I really recommend going to the library and reading through 'The Perfect Puppy' or something similar.

I have not yet gone through what you're going through (nor what your children are). I just wanted to comment that this sort of aggression in siblings is cross-species; our kittens fought one another all day every day for their first six months.

my older brother was a complete c*nt to me from day one, and even though we're in our thirties now I still resent the hell out of it. ... I don't believe such behaviour is a natural part of childhood growth.

Or, being too close to your siblings is unnatural (increasing the danger of inbreeding, in particular). While I of course agree that such behavior should be reduced as much as one can, it might still be, unfortunately, natural.
posted by Aknaton at 8:28 PM on December 14, 2005

The worst thing you could do, in our view (two kids, and watched/watching several others grow up), is give him his own place to play or special toys his sister can't touch. The way to deal with his behaviour is not to work around it.

Send him to nursery. He needs to be somewhere where there's 25 kids and a big pile of toys, none of which belong to him. If you do this, be prepared for a massive leap in his social skills.
posted by Leon at 12:40 AM on December 15, 2005

BorgLove: I don't believe such behaviour is a natural part of childhood growth.
Not sure if this is a reply to what I said, but let me clarify what I meant: the behaviour is natural for the boy, but that does not mean it is acceptable. To give another dog training reference: it is totally natural for a young puppy to run into every stranger, and want to play with him, but that's not acceptable either. Parents have to make sure that children are safe when they grow up, especially when there is such a power difference between the children.

Leon:The worst thing you could do, in our view (two kids, and watched/watching several others grow up), is give him his own place to play or special toys his sister can't touch. The way to deal with his behaviour is not to work around it.
Children are people too. I need my space too, not all the time, but there are times I want to read the newspaper, and I totally hate it when my husband would grab it away. I think, if he would do this often enough, I would resent it if he even looked at me when I read the paper. After a busy day with the kids, I need some time alone, when I just do not want to play and do stuff. This does not mean I am an asocial person, or that I am not able to share.

I also do not think time outs are a good idea, and I think two warnings are too much for a two year old, especially if that means the little girl gets hit two times. A great general book for parents (that explains why time outs are a bad idea) is Hold on to Your Kids.
posted by davar at 2:35 AM on December 15, 2005

« Older What do you do with works of art that you like?   |   Multiple Monitors, Remote Desktop Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.