Is This Normal?

Mean Siblings and Making Friends

You ask, experts answer!

Q: My 8-year-old son has the hardest time making and keeping friends. I’ve noticed when we have play dates, he talks a lot about himself to the other kids and he only wants to engage in activities he likes. What can I do to help him learn to “play nice” with other kids? — Kalamazoo Mom

A: It sounds like you have a confident young man who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to share how great he is. It may be beneficial to guide him in identifying important qualities he would like in a friend. Helping him identify these qualities can lead to a discussion about how to demonstrate these characteristics himself to become that ideal friend.

Building his social awareness may help him in the moment think about his actions before getting wrapped up in his usual social habits. Prior to play dates, have him think about the friend he is going to play with and what their interests may be. If he is not sure, assign him a fun project to research his friend and his or her interests. Then have him put his findings into choosing things to play that incorporate his friend’s likes. Role playing with conversations that are mutual can be a helpful tool to being more open to hearing what others have to say.

You can demonstrate how positive social interactions occur by modeling these with people in your family or your own friends. Helping him practice with you as a parent and reminding him of his newly learned social skills before play dates will allow him to have an increased ability to share the spotlight and play nice. There may also be natural positive feedback for him when more friends want to play and they have a better time together.

If you continue to be concerned about your son’s interactions with others, it may be beneficial to work with a mental health professional to enhance positive social skills.

Q: My 10-year-old son, N., is so mean to his younger brother D., who is 8. He is always putting D. down, saying he’s not smart and nitpicks everything his younger brother does. D. idolizes N. so everything his older brother says hurts D. greatly. I have talked to N. about bullying and being mean, and he’ll be okay for a couple of days, but then reverts back to the mean behavior. I’ve even resorted to punishment — taking away N.’s electronics, but that seems to make him even more covert about his mean behavior toward his brother. How do I find a constructive way to put an end to this? — Richland Dad

A: It sounds like you have a situation that is more than typical sibling rivalry. And as you said, it can be difficult to address the situation without creating additional resentment. Being an older sibling can be difficult, as can sharing attention. It can be helpful to turn being a big brother into a positive role. Providing opportunities for him to take on a teaching or mentoring role and helping him take pride in being the older brother may redirect the current interactions.

This could also be an opportunity for your younger son to practice some conflict resolution skills. Helping the younger brother learn the skills to tell his brother how he is making him feel and helping them talk through it together can teach valuable life skills.

It might also be beneficial for you to consider when the older sibling started making statements about his younger brother being “stupid” to see if the timing of that coincides with any difficulty N. may be having in an area that is making him feel as though he is not smart enough.

Lastly, try to find opportunities that are fun in which your sons have to work together to succeed to help foster their relationship. If their relationship becomes more conflictual or escalates to physical aggression, it may be time to seek a professional consultation through family therapy.

Questions answered by Nichole Holliday, MA, LLPC, LLMFT, Private Practice at Child & Family Psychological Services Portage, and Alyssa Noonan, LLMSW, Private Practice at Child & Family Psychological Services Kalamazoo

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