Snappy Siblings


I just read what Dyan wrote on this site, via the email- loved it – and I have a question and need help!

What should we do with our eleven-year-old son who is continuously being “snappy” and short tempered (yelling, being crabby) with his eight-year-old sister?  He complains that she is annoying; and while that might be the case in some instances, certainly not all – this has gone on for over a year (during which, Dad was serving in Iraq).  Dad is back now, and neither of us know what to do.

Our family went away for an overnight, and the 2 kids actually had FUN having a pillow fight in the hotel room!  This made me want to cry, as that is about the only time they weren’t squabbling in such a long time.

Judy, WI

The question is:  How to get my son to “love” (or at least, be nice to) his sister?


It’s inevitable that kids will fight. If we can try and think of every squabble as a great opportunity for teaching our children about negotiation and problem-solving skills (tactics they will need as adults) then we might have a better appreciation for helping them to deal with conflict. I know better said than done! Sometimes the fighting is just too much and when they are not being “nice” to one another, it’s hard not to get emotionally involved ourselves.

I offer some strategies you might want to employ to help with your children’s sibling rivalry:

  • Try and discern what is at the root of the problem: Is your son jealous of his younger sister? (Is she more athletic; does she get more “physical” attention because of an illness or a learning disorder; is she smarter; does she have more friends.) There could be any number of reasons why he might be envious of her. The key is to find out if he is and provide him opportunities where his strengths and differences shine and are not overshadowed by her talents. For instance, if he is a whiz at chess – find a chess club in your area. Try and involve them in individual activities that highlight their differences and varying interests and not boast about one more than the other (we don’t do this on purpose, but sometimes just talking about what so and so did that was so great and not mention the sibling, is interpreted by the sibling that he is less than/not as loved as much/that his parents favor his sister etc; etc.)
  • He’s three years older, and that should come with some privileges: such as having a later bedtime, taking on more responsibilities (yes that is a privilege!), perhaps attending functions or groups where there is a minimum age requirement (11-13 year olds), watching movies or reading books that are ok for his age but not appropriate for hers; so that he feels a sense of some entitlement — not to lord over his sister, but to help him feel that he doesn’t always have to “be” and “play” with an eight year old. He’s coming into pre-adolescence and his hormones and thought processes are changing at a rapid rate (which also includes moodiness and intolerance). So when he has some time “away” that he can act and be 11 he may start to appreciate the time he does spend with his sister because he has had a reprieve somewhere in the middle of living with her.
  • When you say she is annoying – how is she annoying? Is she going into his room uninvited? Taking his stuff? He should be allowed to have some possessions that he doesn’t have to share. As adults, we don’t always share with our neighbors or our own children either. So tell him to tag some items that are strictly his and she needs to learn to respect that they do not belong to her. And likewise of course. He shouldn’t be taking her stuff or going into her room without her permission either.
  • Because of the age difference, especially with him at 11 and her 8 (it will level off again when their developmental needs are more aligned) try engaging them in activities together that will appeal to both ages.  It’s hard during this spread to find activities that interest them both and they can get along doing. You will probably find your son fluctuates between being a “teenager” who is only into music and skateboards and friends and then on the turn of a dime he is being carefree and having a pillow fight. Cards is usually one that holds an interest for all ages – teach them euchre, or cribbage that you can play as a family. Fuse ball or cranium; anything that will be fun for “all” ages and you and your husband do it with them. When you do things that appeal to both, the age and developmental gap will be less prominent during their interactions.
  • Try and foster independence in your children and get them to work it out as much as possible where you don’t have to be involved. Teach them to negotiate and problem solve. For example: “The two of you need to work out a schedule for the TV and if you are not able to do that, I will have to intervene and you may not like what I come up with.” They may surprise you and come up with something brilliant and amicable. This also teaches them that they can’t rely on other people to always fix their problems or intervene on their behalf when they are confronted by conflict.
  • Have consequences you can follow through on for when they are name calling or physically lashing out at one another. I like to use restitution. Whenever one of my boys emotionally or physically hurts another, I have them make amends by giving their brother a “good deed”. Sometimes they write letters of apology, or clean their brother’s room, or take on their brother’s chores for a day, or give their brother some worthy possession (that usually happens when there’s a need for a big apology). I don’t believe in just having them say “sorry”. They often just end up being words. But when they have to make amends and be thoughtful about it, that’s when you really see and hear the apology.
  • Teach your children to verbalize how teasing and snappiness from one another makes them feel. Get your daughter to tell him how it hurts her feelings so he can understand and appreciate the impact of his actions (it is the development of empathy). Tell your son to describe how her being annoying bothers him. When we give our children a “feelings vocabulary” they are more able to factor in all sides of an argument by listening to how other people feel. Feeling words have dramatic meaning and help to trigger emotions where empathy resides.
  • Don’t always assume it is your son being nasty for no reason. He just may be more vocal and loud in his response to your daughter instigating. Another words, he gets caught and she doesn’t. This may not be the case but bear with me… If you didn’t see the precipitating event, I wouldn’t rely on what either of them says about it. And not because I am suggesting they would lie, but the truth is in the eye of the beholder. People tell “their” truth based on their perception of what happened. And usually everyone has a different perception. Try and get them to voice their feelings about an incident as opposed to finding out what happened. You will never get the whole truth so be solution focused instead of re-hashing the problem. Re-hashing the problem doesn’t fix it – finding a solution to the problem will.
  • Concentrate on when the kids are getting along and make sure you let them know how much you enjoy watching that. For instance “I really appreciated how well the two of you got along on that trip; it was an enjoyable family outing!” Be realistic though, you can’t expect them to get along all of the time and insisting that they do is too high a bar for them to reach.
  • This started when dad was serving in Iraq – your son may have become a little “parentified” thinking he was the man of the house. He may have felt it was necessary to “keep his sister in line” so to speak; and being immature, he wouldn’t know the first thing about how to “raise” an eight year old except to boss her around.  He may have some unresolved fear issues about his dad being in Iraq and it manifested in his hostility toward his sister. He may still feel angry for dad leaving him for a period of time. You might want to explore these issues more. It sounds like he is only behaving this way to his sister and no one else. How is he toward you? Dad? Have there been problems with peers (fighting, bullying) or at school with teachers? If the anger is happening elsewhere you may want to explore some ways that he can work that out (perhaps counseling for him and dad).

Out of the Mouths of Babes-Parenting from a Child's PerspectiveAnswer by Dyan Eybergen, author of Out of the Mouths of Babes: Parenting from a Child’s Perspective. Dyan, a pediatric psychiatric nurse, has more than ten years experience working as a therapist and parent educator.

Dyan and her family were guests on the cable television show “For Kids Sake”, along with parenting expert Barbara Coloroso. Eybergen resides in St. Albert, Alberta, with her husband and three sons.



  1. ElizabethInDallas says:

    I am surprised that the mother let it continue this long. Bottom line, that is not an acceptable way to behave, regardless of the situation, and that is the first thing that must be dealt with.

    It amazes me how many children I see in my child’s school who have not been taught how to behave… i.e., how you may address peers, teachers, adults, etc., and how you may NOT. Letting your child get away with that is NOT loving them. Ultimately it will harm them and your entire family.

    To say they’re just little kids and don’t know any better is a ridiculous cop out. I am not a drill sergeant or extreme disciplinarian. However, I laid down the law (one of very few, actually) at an early age that unless the ‘rules of engagement’ were followed, there would be adverse consequences.

    For example, my son knows that if he asks my permission (or for a toy) and the answer is “no”, arguing will positively seal the deal. He knows that, by principle, I cannot reward arguing or nagging, since my boss is God, and it is my job to raise my son to ultimately become a successful adult. Adults (at least the real ones) do not argue to get their way or nag when they haven’t gotten what they want in the desired time frame.

    Most often, if my answer is no, I will give him a reason if he wants one. Because I pick my battles and prefer he make many of his decisions for himself, now, he will normally accept it. If he feels strongly, he will ask me, “Are you open to discussing your decision on X?” It is far less emotionally charged and less impulsive. On occasion, I do change my mind when he is able to show me he has thought about my reasons for saying no in the first place and can provide thought out, responsible reasoning. This took years to develop and evolve… but arguing and nagging has NEVER worked.

    When I hear children addressing each other (or worse yet adults) inappropriately, it makes me wonder what the parent is doing besides parenting. Manicures? Bunco groups? Or just trying to hard to be their buddy instead of their PARENT?!?

    It’s not about just soaking in and borderline worshipping our kids. We are the adults… the life instructors.. and we have a serious responsibility to teach them how to grow into decent human beings… not little tyrants. It sounds like the mother is letting her little boy run the house, and that she feels helpless. How old is she?? Time to grow up and step to the plate. Only when we are in the FULL parent role can children feel safe to relax and be kids. No kid can parent himself, even partially, until we’ve taught them FIRST. That needs to be taught by example, and with constant, participative involvement.

  2. Andrea Campbell says:

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU! There were a lot of specific ideas and solutions in this answer. I deal with almost the exact same thing with my five and nine year old daughters. Thank you for having some realistic, useful suggestions.

  3. HI I am just wondering if anyone has any ideas to help children with visual memory and short term memory.
    Helping to increase their reading and writing.


  4. How does onehandle the same situation of disrespect and squabbling in older teen siblings..15 and 18!

    • Like Anita, I would VERY much appreciate some help with handling disrespect between older teens! My teens are actually my 17 year old nephew and 15 year old neice that we became guardians for when both of their parents died 3 years ago. I know they behaved this before we got them. Help!