Siblings: Retaliation or Sadistic Pleasure

Sibling Rivalry, brothers and sisters

The matter of siblings is complicated.  In family life they are our first peers.  Consequently, we learn many of our problem solving skills and intimate social relating from these interactions and how our parents mediate them.  There are millions of conflicts a week: Johnny breaks Suzie’s toy, Suzie calls Johnny a name, Johnny doesn’t want to go so Suzie has to miss her dance class etc.  What we hope gets learned is that we are unique individuals with feelings and needs and have to be considerate of others.  When there are conflicts each party must manage their emotions well enough to eventually apologize and repair.  Developmentally children need to be able to name their feelings and calm down.  Next children need to learn to acknowledge how their behaviors hurt the other and make some efforts to repair. Empathy and building problem-solving skills are essential components of successfully managing conflicts. In the absence of these skills children are at risk of employing less socially adaptive responses of retaliation and or sadistic bating in response to their unresolved hurt.

Teaching our children to be accountable for their behavior and be considerate of others provides a valuable life skill.  This is a two-step process: 1) Take responsibility for one’s behavior and how it affects the other. This requires both awareness of one’s own feelings and those of another without making excuses or blaming 2) Make efforts to repair, fix or make amends.  In this step the child can be experience responsible guilt and a constructive resolution.  An example of this is when Johnny has to apologize to Suzie for his behavior and give voice to the fact that his feelings/actions caused her distress.  In this way he is taking responsibility for his behavior.  Next Johnny has to make reparation to his sister by paying to replace Suzie’s broken toy out of his allowance.  By implementing these two steps, Suzie feels like her feelings were heard and rights acknowledged.   Similarly, when Suzie does something to Johnny the same type of repair process is repeated and Johnny feels his rights were acknowledged and his feelings were heard. Ultimately repetition of this process embeds the qualities of accountability and consideration into how the child manages conflicts in relationships in the future.

Unfortunately, there are circumstances when this process doesn’t work and result in retaliation and/or sadistic bating. Sometimes the challenges stem from how a parent learned about sibling relationships in their childhood.  One such challenge may arise from a parent having a strong empathic response for a particular child due to birth order. For example, if a parent was the baby in the family and always felt inadequate or put down they may not see why when Suzie insists on tagging along with Johnny, Johnny might be resentful and retaliate later.  Similarly, if the parent as the eldest child felt that the younger child got all the breaks, the parent may not see the hurt Suzie feels from Johnny’s resentful comments leading Suzie to take matters into her own hands as she bates her brother to get him in trouble.  Finally, some parents get overwhelmed by their children’s strong feelings and respond by sending both children to their rooms.  Without a good road map on how to navigate sibling conflicts children may take matters into their own hands with less constructive results.

Another factor that may feed the sadistic and retaliatory behavior between siblings is when one of the siblings is very impulsive, demanding and intense and/or provocative.  If one of the children, Johnny or Suzie, has difficulty managing their feelings and calming down, conflict management is significantly hampered.  Similarly, if Suzie or Johnny can’t understand that the other person has rights and feelings, repair is also challenged.  Finally, if a parent has the perspective that the hurtful behavior was “deserved” (ie: Suzie deserved to have her toy broken because she “annoying” her brother or Johnny deserved to be called a name because he was cussing) the parents are inadvertently teaching that retaliation and sadistic pleasure are condoned ways of dealing with others who hurt our feelings or violate our rights. Clearly in these types of situations it is important for the parent to address Suzie or Johnny’s provocative behavior so the siblings does not take matters into their own hands.

The scope of this problem is not small.  With the exponential increase in the incidence of autistic spectrum disorder, we have many children who have difficulty regulating their emotions, seeing the impact of their behavior on others and recognizing the feelings and rights of others.  Similarly, children with ADHD can be very impulsive, have difficulty managing their emotional reactivity and have difficulty seeing the cause and effect relationship between their reactions and the consequences.  Other diagnosis such as Bipolar disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder and Anxiety Disorder to name a few are clinical conditions that are also associated with difficult behaviors.  If a child has a clinical condition, the demand on parents to manage the sibling relationship is much more challenged.

Parenting children who struggle with a clinical condition requires additional parenting skills.  First, it is important for the parents to have a clear sense of their children’s capacity to manage their impulsivity and/or emotional reactivity. Furthermore, understanding the child’s triggers can help with minimizing the factors that provoke disturbing behavior.  For example, if Suzie who has ADHD, gets irritable at 2pm and begins calling her brother names for even the slightest infraction because lunch was at 11:30am, having snack ready in the car can minimize this behavior. Another trigger for some children is managing ambiguous responses.  If you are not sure how you feel about responding to Suzie’s request for sushi for dinner, saying maybe now and no later can be a trigger. It is also important to minimizing situations that invite impulsive behavior (ie: taking your child who wants to buy everything they see into store).  Additionally, some respect of Suzie or Johnny’s sensitivities may be appropriate.  For example, if Johnny who is on the autistics spectrum, gets upset by loud noises and Jane knows this, she can make a choice to keep her loud toy in her room or play with it when Johnny is not around. Similarly if Johnny looses his appetite if his Jane starts describing bugs or injuries at the dinner table, an expectation can be established that these topics are not acceptable at meal times.  Therefore, having a clear sense of the triggers for your child can be very helpful in decreasing the frequency and/or intensity of their reactivity making a more peaceful and considerate home for all the children

While some accommodation is needed and appropriate, the needs of one child should not be the “tail that wags the dog”.  Suzie and Johnny can not be allowed to impinge on Dick and Jane such that they don’t feel safe and relaxed in their own home.  So, in addition to minimizing unnecessary triggers, it is important that Johnny or Suzie learn to manage demands associated with family life such as getting up in the morning in time for school, taking a shower, doing homework, staying at the dinner table etc.  These expectations need to be developmentally reasonable, and implemented in a manner that is not be too harsh or quick to minimize resistance and reactivity.  If the demands are implemented with out such considerations, Johnny or Suzie is at risk of being a lightning rod for all the problems in the family. While emotional upsets associated with implementing these expectations are likely, it is helpful to let the other child(ren) Dick and/or Jane, know that you as the parent are managing it.  During this process all siblings need empathy and to be reassured you as the parent are in control.  Suzie or Johnny needs to know you understand their distress but still expect them to comply.  This demonstrates to the Dick and/or Jane that they can rely on you to be empathic and have confidence that you are managing the behavior.

When parenting Suzie and/or Johnny’s challenging behavior, a time should be made to debrief the Dick and/or Jane.  At these times it is important to be empathic with Dick and/or Jane letting them know you understand how scary it is when the Suzie and/or Johnny say “I hate you”, “your stupid” or make other hostile statements.  Dick and Jane may have many feelings such as resentment, frustration, and embarrassment that their family has these struggles.  Letting them know that it is your job as the parent to keep them safe and to help Johnny or Suzie learn to manage their feelings relieves the sibling of the feeling that they are alone and must resort to retaliation and/or sadistically provoking their annoying sibling.

Ultimately, it is our job as parents to help our children learn to be accountability for their behavior and demonstrate consideration for others when managing conflicts   These skills get modeled at home with how sibling conflicts are mediated. The unique history of the parents and the reactivity of the child(ren) are significant variables in how this process unfolds in each family.  Sometimes the challenges are beyond our experience and require therapeutic assistance to learn to navigate.  Ultimately, parenting that focuses on minimizing unnecessary triggers, regards individual differences between siblings and has clear expectations of repair, decreases the risk that siblings will take matters into their own hands and employ sadistic and retaliatory methods to deal with their hurt feelings in the family and in their futures.

About the Author

Debra Kessler, Psy.D. Debra Kessler, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the care of children and their families. Dr. Kessler was awarded her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, graduating Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University. While working as an RN in Pediatric Intensive Care, she pursued a Masters Degree in Pediatrics from UCLA to further her skills in caring for children. After a career in nursing that included bedside nursing, Kessler chose to focus her attention on addressing the emotional needs of children and their families by obtaining a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at California School of Professional Psychology. Her post-doctorate work was done with Child Development Institute treating autistic and developmentally challenged preschool and young children and at Reiss-Davis Child Study center addressing the needs of school children, adolescents and their families. She has contributed to Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice (Lillas &Turnbull 2009). Dr. Kessler has an active practice in Montrose, California. In a family centered manner, she treats a range of developmental and emotional issues including adoption/attachment difficulties, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, autism/Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, learning challenges, regulatory difficulties and other issues that interfere with children reaching their potential.

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