Bullying/Sibling Rivalry

Dear Miss Faith,
I am looking for suggestions to help with some fairly severe sibling rivalry. This is a preschool-aged old boy towards his young-toddler sister, in a family which I visit with regularly and care about deeply. Thank you, M.
Dear M,
How frustrating for you to see two children you care about being unkind! Kudos to you for looking to take some action to help this family. When you are with the children, are the parents present or not present? Are they at your house, or are you at their house? These things will all come into play. One book I like a lot is “Siblings Without Rivalry” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Is it possible for mom (and/or you) to spend some time with each child alone every few days or at least each week?
For short-term strategy, here are some ideas; you can announce one day that there is a new rule in your house: everyone must touch with gentle hands. Show everyone what touching with gentle hands means (at Rainbow Bridge it means kind of stroking your friends on the arm), and have everyone practice. “Yes, that’s it! Now you know how to touch with gentle hands!” Notice out loud anytime you see someone touching someone else gently. And if anyone forgets to touch with gentle hands, show sadness that they forgot, and send them immediately to get the Healing Stone (or the Healing Cloth, or an ice pack, or whatever you wish; keep it in a special place that only comes out when someone gets hurt), and touch it to the child who is hurt. Then find some good work for those hands: tidying some blocks, wiping the table, etc. You do this “good work” with him, then thank him for his help, give him a hug, and he can go play again. It’s not a punishment, it’s just helping him learn what is appropriate to do with his hands.

In long-term strategy, you want to be calling out the archetype of the Knight in this little boy: someone who is strong and good, and who helps those who are weaker than he is. You might start telling a story about a boy who wants to be a knight when he grows up, but nobody thinks he could be. But he knows he can do it. He starts exploring what a knight is like, and doing all the things a knight does. First he works to become very strong, then he starts to rescue people and animals who needed help, and finally he starts to help all those who are smaller and weaker than he is. Everyone starts to wonder at the changes that have come. Maybe he could become a knight after all! Then one day when he’s helping someone, the King happens to see it, and he calls the boy to him and honors him, and makes him into a Knight-in-Training. You could either do this as one story that you tell again and again, or you could make it an ongoing story, that starts out the same way each time (introducing the boy and his desires) and telling a different “adventure” each time of how he helps someone, and this could go on for several months before the King ever notices him.
In the meantime, start asking more from this little boy, and call out the best in him. Ask him to help you with things, then ask him to do tasks for you while your hands are full but you’re watching, and finally start asking him to help other children when the children ask you for help. Notice how strong he is, how helpful he is, and start appreciating those traits in him. If he starts having a new image to live into, he might be able to start moving away from being the Bad Big Brother who everyone is angry at all the time.
It can be so hard to turn things around when we get stuck in negative patterns, so be patient and tenacious. And good luck!


  1. What wonderful advice! I am curious though as to how the situation would be handled if it was name calling as opposed to hitting?

  2. Miss Faith says

    In lots of ways, name-calling is harder than hitting, because you can't prevent it just by keeping space between the two children. Changing the way a child speaks can be a challenge. My suggestion is to diffuse and distract. I'll often start off like this: Boy: "you're such a poopy-head." You: "Silly boy! That's not a name we use in this house. What are some better names we could use? Her name is Cindy, but she has some nicknames. what nicknames does she have?" (wait for an answer, then go on) "Sometimes we call her Cin-Cin, or Cindy-pie. What are some nicknames for you?" Go on from there, going through everyone's names and nicknames. This is effective because name-calling only works if someone gets upset, and this takes all the 'zing' out of it.

    The next time it happens, you might say, "I prefer that people call each other friendly names here in my house. What's something friendly that you did today?" (pause). "I know! When you helped me set the table for lunch, that was friendly! What else did you do that was friendly?" Again, you're letting him know that it's not appropriate, and then you're taking the attention away from it onto a more preferable subject.

    Usually, you will only have to do this for two or three days, and then they stop, or the other sibling is able to let it pass without giving him a rise. If it doesn't stop, then you might take more drastic measures, depending on the age (if he's at least three). "Cindy and I prefer to be around people who speak in a more friendly way. We'll go into the livingroom now. When you're ready to speak with friendly words, you can join me there." Then when he follows you, you can ask, "Are you ready to use friendly words? Oh, I'm so glad. Here, let's read a book together." The trick is to be disappointed when he forgets, but not to get mad. Easier said than done, I know!

  3. herbwifemama says

    This is AWESOME. I have a 5yo Big Sister here, and I'm stuck in those negative patterns. She usually gets a stern "NO!" or "That is NOT how we do it here!" With the angry eyebrows, which usually leads to her going "Lalalalalala!" Which is a button of mine, because how can she learn if she won't even listen to me? Blargh. I think I can make that story about a princess. Do you have a better female archetype? 🙂 I love the idea of raising her up to where I know she can be, instead of making her feel bad for her mistakes. Thank you!

  4. Miss Faith says

    I would suggest the archetype of Queen, because the archetypal Queen really has the best interests of others at heart. Then the little girl in the story can become a princess, which is a queen-in-training.

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