I have a 12 year old daughter who is terrible to her younger brother and sister, putting them down, humiliating them around friends, and making fun of everything from their voice to their clothes. She calls them “Stupid, Loser, and Idiot.” I see the hurt in their eyes, especially in the younger daughter who is starting to feel very insecure. I know middle school has been a hard adjustment for her, but how can I stop the meanness? Or should I let them work things out on their own? How do you know when something is normal sibling rivalry and when it crosses a line?

Teasing and sparring between siblings is normal. In fact, it is one of the ways that children build a thicker skin; through the tussle and tumble of life with brothers and sisters. But there is normal sibling rivalry—fussing over who gets to sit by the window or takes the last piece of cake—and there is behavior that is deliberately cruel. 

Look at the intention behind your older daughter’s unkind behavior. If it appears that she is intending to harm her siblings physically or emotionally, it is time to intervene.

When a child is delivering unkind treatment toward others, it can often be a masked cry for help. I would not look the other way and leave your children to work things out on their own. It is our job to create a home for our children that feels safe to everyone—physically and emotionally. 

I would caution you to avoid using punishment as a solution. As tempting as it may be to threaten to take away your older daughter’s phone or deny her time with friends, I am a firm believer in addressing problems at their root.  

When children are consistently behaving unkindly, they are hurting. While the younger siblings may be annoying her, it’s likely that the intensity of her unkindness toward them is being fueled something else. 

 It could be that she’s struggling in school—academically or socially. It may be that hormones are making her feel a discomfort in her own skin that she’s taking it out on the younger kids. Or it could be something else altogether.Spending one on one time with her in a relaxed way where she is free to talk openly without you scolding or giving unwanted advice may help you get to the bottom of what is going on. 

Make sure you also spend time with the younger children so they can offload what it’s been like to be on the receiving end of their sister’s behavior. Let them share their sadness and disappointment with you; simply bearing witness to what’s going on can be a relief to a child who is internalizing a sibling’s mean behavior. Then, reassure them that you are going to work on bringing that behavior to a stop.

I would also urge you to host a family meeting. In your weekly meeting, start by having each person acknowledge and appreciate every other member of the family. Create space for grievances to be aired. Share what your family values are so that guidelines are in place for the kind of communications that do and do not fit in with the climate you want to establish in your home. 

You may even want to write out a Mission Statement for your family as a group activity that solidifies your commitment to creating a safe haven for everyone in your home. “We use words that lift up, rather than put down.” “When we’re frustrated with each other, we talk about behavior rather than using labels like ‘Loser’.” 

Normal sibling rivalry is a fact of life and in fact, a wonderful hotbed for children to learn how to negotiate, share, and advocate for themselves. Teasing and bickering are to be expected, and are no cause for parents to intervene. But when that line is crossed and there is a deliberate attempt to harm a brother or sister’s body or spirit, it is time to step in.

For support handling your children’s sibling conflict, especially during this challenging time, check out my master class with Dr. Laura Markham on Helping Siblings Get Along.

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