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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Vicious Sibling Rivalry

Q. I have a son, 34 months old, who is having some serious sibling rivalry problems. His new brother is now 4 months old and he also has an older sister, 9 years old. He is hitting both siblings and especially trys to hurt the infant. It has gone further than that though, he tries to hurt everyone. He has a 1 year old cousin he always kicks and hits. He can't even go to the park anymore because he misbehaves. The neighbor's boy (4 years old) doesn't even want to play with him because of the hitting. It is always totally unprovoked. He can be sweet with his brother but then out of the blue he will slap or hit him.

Is this child insane? Do I need to seek therapy for him? He is not very verbal so I wonder if this would even work. We have tried time outs, looking at his baby book and talking about why we never hurt a baby. Everytime after he does it he says I won't do it anymore. It just continues. His doctor said give it a couple of months but it has been 4 months and only getting worse. I am very tired of trying to protect my 4 month old. I can't leave them alone for a second. We have tried everything.

A. This is clearly a very disturbing situation for you and your family. While I can't offer a diagnosis, there's no reason to assume that your son is insane, or suffering from a serious disorder. However, further evaluation by a mental health professional is definitely in order. Dr. Diane Toby, a psychologist with extensive experience working with children, offered the following (paraphrased) comments on this type of situation.

However, not all of them may apply to your son: Some aggression around the time of a newborn is considered to be normal for siblings. However, if a child looks like he is about to hit, the parent needs to intervene immediately--by holding the child's arm and saying, gently but firmly, "I am not going to let you hit." That should happen every time. Along with that intervention, there should be a behavior modification system in place, so that the child can earn privileges, such as going to the park, by showing that he can be with his siblings (and others) safely without hitting.

The child , in other words, has to earn his way back into interacting with others. The parents should seek help from a child behavioral specialist who can help them set up such a system. Time outs are not sufficient when it comes to physical aggression. Finally, the aggressive child needs to learn to put some words to his anger, so that he can start to talk about his feelings. A therapist can help with this, or parents can help, by showing the child pictures of facial expressions and teaching the child the words "sad," "angry" etc. [end comments from Dr. Toby].

I would add to this the need for a thorough pediatric neurological evaluation, to make sure that there is not some underlying medical explanation for this pattern of behavior. Your pediatrician should be in a position to arrange this. I hope things work out soon for you and your family.

February 2001

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