Most likely, this is a normal expression of anger toward a sib

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 29, 2011 06:00 AM

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[This letter has been condensed -- Ed.]

I have an 8 year old son, and 3 year old daughter. Both children are considered by others (teachers included) to be very well-behaved and polite. My daughter is a bit more active than my son was at 3, and doesn't listen quite as well to directions and house rules. However, she is definitely age-appropriate. I know my son gets frustrated with my daughter at times. When the kids aren't getting along, I try to address each of their concerns, but often don't know who started what, and sometimes they both simply state that they are just playing.

The other day we were out at a restaurant and the two children were seated next to each other. The younger child kept poking the older under the table. The older child drew a picture on a napkin. The picture contained a stick figure of my daughter lying on the ground with crosses as eyes (her name was written above the figure), and there was another stick figure of a boy holding a gun. Dotted lines were coming out of the gun and hitting the stick figure. It was when we saw the completed art work that we understood what was going on (the poking was under the table). When my son was questioned about the picture, he stated that it wasn't a gun but a 'poking machine.' I didn't quite believe his answer.

We have limited video games and TV, two hours per week total). We have some Lego Wii games that are a bit more on the shooting theme than I thought they should be when I purchased them (Star Wars).

Our personal approach to misbehaivor is a progression from re-direction, to tim-outs, to consequences with age. However, we aren't certain how to address this picture with our son. I did tell him that I was disappointed about the picture and talked with him about how important siblings are to each other, and have a zero tolerance policy about teasing/name calling. I also want to cut out the video games.

My question is whether the drawing is a normal 8 year old behavior, or should we be concerned? I didn't like the lie about the poking machine, but didn't know quite how to address that one either. Any advice?

From: Curious, Lancaster, PA

Dear Curious,

Anger and frustration are normal feelings for sibs to have toward each other, especially for an older to feel toward a much younger. It doesn't mean he doesn't love her! It means he's most likely responding to a typical 3-year-old who, let's be honest, does not have many boundaries. As an 8-year-old, he is typically at a stage where he sees the world as black or white. If he sees her behavior as unfair, in his eyes, It's really unfair.

So what does this mean in terms of your response?

First of all, it seems like you are parents who are pretty much on top of things so it sounds like it might be safe to assume that this is the first time he's expressed anger so tinged with violence.

I'd go back at this with him: "Remember the other day, when we were at the restaurant? I've been thinking about it. I know that sometimes your sister can be a pain in the neck. She's just a little girl, and she doesn't understand that she's being annoying. I can understand that you might feel frustrated some times."

He'll probably find it a relief to have you validate h is feelings, and say something simple, like, "Yeah....."

"I just want you to know, it's OK to have those feelings. You're entitled to how you feel, and you can tell us any time you're feeling angry or frustrated. That's OK, that won't make us angry. What's not OK is being mean to your sister. What made me angry that day was how you chose to express your anger."

I wouldn't over-do this conversation. (Don't get into a discussion about whether he was lying about the poking machine.) Just get the message out that you can tolerate his frustration. Period.

In the meantime, pay attention to his artwork and keep an eye out for behavior that looks violent. If you see more, and especially if you see a pattern, get a professional consultation.

I wouldn't eliminate the video games; that can have the opposite effect of making them even more desirable. Instead, play together. That way you can monitor his play and help him interpret whatever violence there is. (I do recommend setting a limit on how much time is spent playing the games, and when they can be played. Not before bed would be a good rule. I would even vote for not on a school night.) Violence is a huge part of the popular culture these days. Banning it doesn't give kids the coping skills they need to keep it in perspective.


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3 comments so far...
  1. My first reponse to this is that your 3 year old should be sitting next to you in a restaurant, not her 8 year old brother.

    I like Barbara's advice. I think your expectations for your 8 year old are a little high, which I think is probably related to the fact that you are comparing him to a 3 year old (which I think is normal/common when you have a larger gap between sibs). I think you are also confusing being a sibling with being a friend. This is a huge age gap maturity-wise and developmentally. Would you expect your son to have a playmate who was 3? Once they cross over into age 4 or 5, its easier for the older one to relate to the younger one. A 3 year old is barely out of toddlerhood. My children are 3 years apart, both girls, and the ages of 3 and 6 where probably the biggest gap we face.

    If he had anger management issues, this would not be the only way he would express it, so I think this uis a normal expression of sibling hostilities.

    Posted by ash November 29, 11 08:33 AM
  1. This seems definitely within the realm of normal. Boys seem especially prone to violent ways of expressing anger or frustration, even when they know it's wrong.

    Advice sounds quite good. Our first is also a number of years older than our second. Sometimes it a good thing--less physical fighting--but getting them to relate and understand each other is more challenging.

    You shouldn't get rid of video games entirely. Sometimes it's the only way my son relates to others at school (not his choice, it's just boys don't seem to have many other interests these days), so taking that away would make him something of a social oddity. We just limit them, and also require that he spend some of his free time outdoors and active, reading books, and doing chores.

    Posted by momof2 December 1, 11 12:15 PM
  1. The LW's son showed a remarkable amount of restraint considering that the poking was happening in a public place. Most boys would have hit back...drawing a picture was very mature for 8 years old.

    This oldest child is old enough for his mom to explain to him that his sister will sometimes do bad things on purpose to get attention. Let the boy and his mom agree on a code word like "slimeworms" to let him tell her that he is being pursued by his little sister.

    The little monkey also needs to find out that her brother can and will blow the whistle on her without a fight...she will stop that pestering just as soon as she finds out that there is parental notice of her bad behavior.

    Posted by Irene December 2, 11 10:29 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. My first reponse to this is that your 3 year old should be sitting next to you in a restaurant, not her 8 year old brother.

    I like Barbara's advice. I think your expectations for your 8 year old are a little high, which I think is probably related to the fact that you are comparing him to a 3 year old (which I think is normal/common when you have a larger gap between sibs). I think you are also confusing being a sibling with being a friend. This is a huge age gap maturity-wise and developmentally. Would you expect your son to have a playmate who was 3? Once they cross over into age 4 or 5, its easier for the older one to relate to the younger one. A 3 year old is barely out of toddlerhood. My children are 3 years apart, both girls, and the ages of 3 and 6 where probably the biggest gap we face.

    If he had anger management issues, this would not be the only way he would express it, so I think this uis a normal expression of sibling hostilities.

    Posted by ash November 29, 11 08:33 AM
  1. This seems definitely within the realm of normal. Boys seem especially prone to violent ways of expressing anger or frustration, even when they know it's wrong.

    Advice sounds quite good. Our first is also a number of years older than our second. Sometimes it a good thing--less physical fighting--but getting them to relate and understand each other is more challenging.

    You shouldn't get rid of video games entirely. Sometimes it's the only way my son relates to others at school (not his choice, it's just boys don't seem to have many other interests these days), so taking that away would make him something of a social oddity. We just limit them, and also require that he spend some of his free time outdoors and active, reading books, and doing chores.

    Posted by momof2 December 1, 11 12:15 PM
  1. The LW's son showed a remarkable amount of restraint considering that the poking was happening in a public place. Most boys would have hit back...drawing a picture was very mature for 8 years old.

    This oldest child is old enough for his mom to explain to him that his sister will sometimes do bad things on purpose to get attention. Let the boy and his mom agree on a code word like "slimeworms" to let him tell her that he is being pursued by his little sister.

    The little monkey also needs to find out that her brother can and will blow the whistle on her without a fight...she will stop that pestering just as soon as she finds out that there is parental notice of her bad behavior.

    Posted by Irene December 2, 11 10:29 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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