Sibling Conflict

Q: We have three sons, ages 10, 8 and 4. The eldest, Shloimy,* often has an “attitude problem” and becomes angered quite easily. His relationship with my husband is not the best as he does not have much patience with him. I’ve tried to point this out to my husband, but he thinks I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Our second child, Baruch,* is somewhat immature, and usually prefers playing with four-year-old Avi* rather than with his older brother. Baruch is afraid of Shloimy’s anger and general competitive nature.

For these reasons, the two younger sons usually play together (often in a more immature fashion) and exclude their older brother. In recent weeks, Shloimy has begun “play fighting” with Baruch to get attention. Initially, Baruch didn’t mind, but these tussles have been becoming real fights. I get the feeling that little Avi pits one brother against the other — but he’s not even five years old! Is this possible at such a young age?

Avi complains about the brother who is not playing with — or listening to — him. As the youngest, he has been spoiled (I’m sorry to say) and can be bossy. He used to be bossy in his kindergarten class as well, but his teacher has worked with him and his behavior there has greatly improved.

Avi can cry that an older brother “hurt” him when he just brushed by him. It is hard to know who is telling the truth. It’s my instinctive response to defend my youngest, but I’m beginning to feel that this response is not a helpful one, given my sons’ recent fighting. What is the best way to defuse this situation?

A: There is usually no right or wrong when it comes to fighting among siblings. Someone is usually “getting back” at the other for something that happened yesterday, last week, or an hour ago. It is true that, on occasion, a child can tease a sibling due to boredom. However, this is not typically the case.

As you mention that your oldest son craves the positive attention he lacks from his father, there needs to be some way of including him in his brothers’ play. You need to build upon this. Perhaps you can give your youngest son an activity geared to his age (perhaps involving pre-reading skills) that he would be proud to accomplish on his own while the two oldest play together. Another idea is for you to purchase something non-competitive that the three would enjoy doing together, which focuses less on age-abilities.

When you overhear your youngest son being overbearing, you can say to him: “Avi, can you please say that in another way?” A five-year-old can hear those words.

As you so well observed, mothers generally have the most compassion for their youngest. You are aware of the need to be more open-minded to responding in a different way to your children’s fighting. You need to attempt to be empathetic to the subjective realities of each child without deeming either as being “the truth.”

In relation to your oldest son’s anger problem, I would need more information about this issue in order to respond appropriately.