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Sibling Rivalry: How Can I Make the Fighting Stop?

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My older son has been awful to his little brother. He punches and teases him and it makes me furious. I have tried explaining how much he hurts his brother's feelings and I have tried punishing him, but nothing works. How can I get him to stop?

It's natural that the mother lion in you roars when someone hurts one of your children, even if the offender is another one of your kids. But unless you address the underlying cause of your son's torments, things aren't likely to improve. Here are some tips for getting to the root of the problem and offering your older son better options for handling his feelings of frustration.

• Set the stage for a heart to heart talk. Create a climate of connection with your older son that helps him let down his guard so you can explore what's fueling his aggressive behavior. Take him out for lunch, go for a bike ride, or play a game of cards to create a sense of closeness. When kids feel that we enjoy their company, they are much more willing to share deeper feelings with us. You may find that he's struggling academically or being teased at school and unleashing his frustrations out on his little brother.

• Invite your son to offload with the promise that you will simply listen. He may be suspicious of your ability to listen to his complaints about his younger brother, expecting that you'll interrupt, scold or lecture. Surprise him by asking questions to gain a better understanding of what his brother does that pushes his buttons so he feels genuinely heard and understood.

• Teach your son how to know when he's "heating up." Many children lash out impulsively when they get mad. Help your son learn the physical symptoms of anger, including a faster heartbeat or a tight feeling in his belly. By noticing that he's about to go into attack mode, he can come to you to get help in cooling down, instead of taking matters into his own hands.

• Challenge yourself to see the situation from your older son's point of view. If you were in his shoes, why would it make sense to pick on your younger brother? Write down whatever reasons you come up with. These might include: He constantly gets into my stuff. He bugs me when I have friends over. He comes into my room without knocking. This list will make it easier to acknowledge your older boy's feelings, helping him feel that you understand what it's like for him to have an annoying kid brother.

• Consider whether your son's aggressive tendencies have been learned from one of his parents. The apple often doesn't fall far from the tree. If a parent falls into a rage when things don't go his or her way, it's likely that a child will model that behavior. Rather than shouting or threatening when your kids don't do what you ask, show them what it looks like to handle frustration in a healthy way. "I'm really mad that the dishes are still piled up in the sink after you all had agreed to tidy up before I got home. I'm going to cool off in the back yard; I'll be back in a minute or so."

• Provide him with acceptable alternatives for offloading stress and disappointment. Let your son know that you are going to help him find ways to vent his feelings that don't hurt anyone. Some kids love hitting a pillow as hard as they can. Others like to shoot hoops to cool down. And some children find that telling a caring adult what's going on -- without being told that their feelings are wrong -- helps that adrenalin rush of anger subside.

• Address ways your younger son is contributing to the problem. Your older son probably has legitimate gripes with his younger brother. Make sure your younger boy asks permission before using his older brother's things, or doesn't intrude when his big brother's friends are around. He may need to offload his own feelings of disappointment when he feels rejected by his big brother, but don't allow him to taunt your older son in retaliation.

It's not uncommon for siblings to take their frustrations out on one another, and normal for your older son to find his little brother annoying now and then. But both boys need to know that you can be the captain of the ship, ensuring their physical and emotional safety. Rather than trying to control your older boy with threats and punishments, help him offload angry feelings and learn healthier ways of managing his upsets. If the problem continues, you may want to set up a few sessions with a good family counselor to get resentments out in the open so they no longer fuel aggression.