Does your child ever hit, kick, throw things at their sibling?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to offer a kind response in some situations than others. For instance, it’s much easier to show empathy when your child has fallen over than when they’ve hit their brother for the 10th time that day.

But does a kind, understanding approach work in these situations too? Yes! It helps your child’s behavioural responses, and the sibling relationship. Read on to find out why…

Let’s think about why your child has hit their sibling…chances are there is a very good emotional reason. They might have been jealous because you were paying all your attention to their brother or sister in that moment. They might have been angry that they took their favourite toy. They might just be feeling left out. There will be a reason, even if you can’t find it in that moment.

Is hitting the answer to any of this? No, of course not. Your child doesn’t think it is either. It’s not that logical. What happens is they have a behavioural response to a feeling inside. Jealousy, anger and frustration are all valid feelings. Underneath many of them is fear, perhaps of losing mum or dads affection, or of causing you to be angry.

Conventional parenting says this is the moment to tell them off, use a time out, or remove a privilege. Traditionally, this behaviour is seen as being “naughty”. We now know it comes from a lack of self-regulation and developmental immaturity. The way to change that behavioural response is by helping children learn to self-regulate, learn how to communicate their feelings appropriately and learn how to ask for help when they need it.

And that’s the first reason why telling them off doesn’t work. If we want them to learn to ask for help in these tricky moments, we need to make sure they know they’re going to get a kind and calm response from us. If they don’t, why would they ask for help? To start with, we need them to be open with us when they’ve done something wrong. In time, they’ll learn to come to us before it goes wrong. But only if they can be sure of that kind calm response.

Secondly, in the moment the child is upset, angry and distressed, the last thing we want to do is to increase these emotions. This won’t lead to better behaviour. If anything, it’ll lead to worse behaviour. When a child feels not ok inside, their behaviour reflects this.

It also won’t lead to learning. When we tell a child off or punish them, we increase their stress levels, and their brain shuts down to learning. To learn, a brain needs to be relaxed and happy.

When we respond to children with empathy and understanding, we help their brain to calm down. This not only helps them to feel calmer in the moment (and more able to problem solve and work through what has done wrong) but crucially it also helps them learn how to handle things better in the future too. We are literally wiring their brain to handle things more calmly in the future. If we get cross, we are just reinforcing a cycle of anger.

We also want to show children empathy in these moments so they can learn it. We don’t learn empathy by being told to show it. We learn it when other people show it to us. If a child does something wrong and we show them empathy, we are helping them to be more empathetic in the future.

Finally – bear in mind we want to improve the relationship between the children. If one child keeps hitting out at the other – whether it’s because of jealousy or just the fact their toys keep getting taken – and then get into trouble they will feel badly about themselves and will probably blame their sibling too. It’s far more helpful to their relationship to validate, empathise and role model mediation and conflict resolution.