Ask An Expert / Managing Disruptive Behavior

How can I stop my daughter’s violence towards me and her younger brother?

Managing sibling aggression calls for attention to triggers and responding consistently

Vasco Lopes, PsyD

How can I stop my daughter's violence towards me and her younger brother? In school she behaves well; the violence has always been directed only towards me and her sibling. There's no obvious trigger, although I suspect attention on her brother is a factor.

Sibling violence and aggression is something we hear about very often. It’s quite common and it’s a huge source of tension and difficulty at home. Tantrum behavior towards parents we can manage by either ignoring or providing consistent consequences, but you can’t ignore aggression toward siblings, because it can get dangerous and someone can get hurt.

I’m not surprised to hear that your daughter only exhibits aggression toward you and your son. It’s quite common that a child’s disruptive or aggressive behavior is situation specific — that is, she is only disruptive and acting out in one setting (at home rather than at school) or with one caregiver, and not others.

In order to prevent these aggressive episodes from occurring, we must first understand what is causing them. Although I don’t know about the specific context of your daughter’s aggression toward her brother, there are several common scenarios — all of which have to do with the reinforcement or immediate positive outcome that the aggression provides. First, a lot of children hit their siblings in order to stop annoying behavior. The fact that hitting your brother can immediately stop his pestering reinforces the aggressive behavior, so the next time your brother is annoying you, you are likely to use this behavior again to get him to stop. Children also use aggression toward siblings to get revenge over some slight. The “getting even” feeling that revenge provides can be a powerful motivator for aggression. Lastly, think of the parental attention that the child receives when getting reprimanded for aggression. Even negative attention from parents can be very reinforcing for children, especially if the child is already competing with her sibling for parental attention.

The best way to rein in your daughter’s behavior, if she’s younger than 7 or 8 years old, is with time outs. Time outs work well for fighting because you can put both children into a time out—you don’t even have to establish who was to blame — and the separation ends the squabble immediately. Also, because the children are ignored throughout the duration of the time out, they are receiving a minimal level reinforcing attention from the parent.

If a child is too old for time outs, you want to move to a system of positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior — points or tokens towards something she wants. If she goes for a whole day keeping her body safe, she gets tokens. You can also implement what we call a “response cost” — you give tokens for appropriate behavior, but take away tokens for specific behaviors that are unacceptable. Think of it as paying a fine for breaking the law. Another tool you can use to discourage this behavior is what we call a “positive punishment” — assigning her a chore she considers aversive, like cleaning her room or raking leaves.

In addition to consequences for when sibling aggression does occur, you want to be proactive and plan ahead to prevent these triggers from occurring. So, if you find that there is a specific setting in which your children are most likely to start fighting, eliminating or minimizing that situation to the extent possible is often helpful in improving the situation.

A consistent plan to incentivize and motivate your daughter to behave appropriately could be quite effective in reducing violent behavior towards you and her brother. It also teaches her what behaviors you do want to see when handling potential conflict. If it’s not effective, you might want to seek a diagnostic evaluation to better understand what is causing her aggression and consider parent training in order to learn specific techniques for responding to your daughter’s behavior.