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Stop Hitting Your Sister!

Stop Hitting Your Sister!

By Amalah

Hi Amalah,

I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible 🙂 (This story could go on for hours).

I met my boyfriend about 2.5 years ago. At that time he had joint custody with his then 5 and 6 year old girls (14 months apart). However the ex-wife and kids moved, and then moved again, the last move being 6 hours away. Needless to say they’ve been through a lot of change.

Right after the most recent move there was some complicated drama and the ex-wife had some medical issues, so we took the kids. As in, sorry kids, you’re not going to your first day of school tomorrow, you’re enrolling in our school system for the year.

Things were relatively fine for a while (i.e. they miss their mom, etc). They are around each other a LOT. Our house isn’t super small, but when you fit me, Boyfriend, Kid 1, Kid 2, my toddler, and 3 dogs- it’s not realllly meant for all those people full time, but it’s fine.

But one aspect of their relationship seems to be changing. To preface, my general philosophy on rough-housing is: eh, whatever, kids will be kids. Don’t really hurt each other.

However with them, it is ALWAYS the older (8 going on 18) kid roughing the younger (happy being 7) one. The younger one is nothing but sweet and we’ve had multiple incidents now of the older one punching/kicking/shoving the younger. And the older one regrets it/cries afterwards, but it’s still happening.

I feel like at this point we could either A) tell the younger one to hit back (I don’t like this idea, nor is this her disposition) or B) try to get the older one to stop (we’ve tried to tell her take deep breaths, count back from 10, etc). I don’t know what else to tell her to get her to stop.

Again I wouldn’t be as concerned if it went both ways; but it’s always older to younger. Am I overreacting?


No, you are not overreacting, given 1) her age, and 2) all the big life changes/upheaval/drama she’s been through. TYPICALLY, a 8 year old should have better impulse control than what you’re describing — which would be more “normal” behavior coming from say, a 3 or 4 year old who is still struggling with expressing big, tough emotions with words and in non-physical ways. Sure, a little rough-housing is one thing, but the one-sided nature of it, followed by immediate tears of regret and frustration, is something else.  And given everything this little girl has been through recently, I’m not necessary surprised or overly alarmed that she’s regressed in this particular fashion.

DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, encourage the younger sibling to hit or fight back. That is…sooooo not the solution here, and will 100% create even more problems. The goal here is to HELP the older child control these impulses by getting to where, emotionally and mentally, they are coming from. And I’m sure you can quickly rattle off a few things in her life that might be to blame.

She’s watched her parents divorce. She’s moved. A lot. There’s been drama and medical issues with her mom, which I’m sure she was/is aware of on some level, which probably scared her or further eroded her sense of stability. She’s now in a “new” family dynamic with a step-mom-type figure with a toddler, away from her “real” mother and existing friends at school. There’s probably been some unspoken pressure on her to be outwardly “fine” and “okay” with all of this (possibly to please her dad/you; possibly to put on a “brave face” for her little sister) so she hasn’t been able to express how it’s all REALLY making her feel. So she’s mashing down all these complicated feelings and then impulsively unleashing them at the ONE PERSON who has been there with her and for her throughout all of it: Her sister.

It’s actually really normal for little kids who are “experimenting” with aggression and rejection to target someone super “safe,” like a parent. Someone who they KNOW loves them unconditionally, so they decide to start testing their limits with that person. What will happen if I do X? Will they still love me if I say Y and then do Z? Probably something similar happening here, mixed with a little girl full of super big feelings about a lot of big things.

I would highly, HIGHLY recommend you find her a counselor or family therapist to talk to, if you haven’t already at some point. Someone who specializes in divorce and young children. That can become her “safe space” to work through and talk about her feelings, rather than raging at her sister. And they, in turn, will probably be the most helpful resource for YOU on how to react and deal with both the surface behavior AND the emotions tied to it underneath. Lots of positive attention, one-on-one outings and interactions, and praise when she controls her impulses. Reacting to a punch/kick/push by giving your attention immediately and fully to the injured sibling, rather than yelling/scolding/punishing the negative behavior first, etc. Ask her pediatrician or a guidance counselor/psychologist at her school for recommendations.

And make sure you frame it to her that she’s seeing this person because you love and understand what she’s going through, NOT because she’s been “bad” and needs to be “fixed.” Don’t just announce in front of her that she’s there because of hitting; she’s there because she’s been through a lot and naturally needs help adjusting to it all. Let her know it’s okay to feel angry and scared and sad — everybody feels those things, even grown-ups! A therapist is someone who loves children, is a friend to children, and simply wants to help them with their angry/scared/sad feelings and how to talk about those feelings. Divorce is hard, being away from your mom is hard, adapting to a new house/family/school is SUPER hard. Get her talking to someone who understands all that and can connect with her, and then move all of you towards solutions and family harmony.

Photo source: Depositphotos/olly18


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About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • kefi18

    April 17, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    I second Amy’s advice to find a therapist! Therapy worked wonders for the kiddos I used to nanny; a LOT had happened to those kids in their short lives before being adopted out of foster care, and seeing a family therapist helped everyone identify and manage their emotions, and create a dialogue that helped a lot at home. Maybe look into some kid-friendly yoga poses you can do together to help relieve tension when you can see that she’s getting worked up and upset, to use as a preventative measure. Their therapist’s recommended dialogue helped a lot, too: “I love you very much, and I can see that you’re really angry/stressed/overwhelmed/sad/etc., and that’s okay, but we don’t hit/scream at people/slam doors”, followed by a time-out or yoga (depending on the situation), a conversation, an apology, a hug and another “I love you”. Good luck!

  • Vicki

    April 17, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    We have the exact problem at our house (8 year old sister with her 5 year old younger sister). Except the major difference is there has been no trauma involved. From what I can tell, it is mainly that my eldest is very jealous of the younger one. I don’t know if this is something we’ve created unknowingly. We try to be fair and not favor either of our daughters. But it seems that even special outings with my eldest, 1-1 time, encouragement seems to be getting nowhere. She lashes out on her younger sister, later regrets it, and then does it all over again the next day. Have others experienced this and fixed it?

    • Caroline Bowman

      April 18, 2017 at 4:48 am

      In these scenarios, when being fair and constructive has not really worked, then a consequence would be the next step. Find something she likes a lot and explain when everyone is calm, rested and not hungry, that if X happens, Y will result (nothing too desperately harsh, just ”no swimming for people who beat up their sisters today” for example). You have tried carrot – and carry on doing that totally, keep assuring her of her place in your affections, keep consistent – but now metaphorical stick is warranted. It’s not okay, and it’s not okay for her sister to see that big sister can abuse her and get taken out for special time as a consequence. Consequences are important. Fair consistent ones.

    • tadpoledrain

      April 18, 2017 at 4:15 pm

      @Vicki, please see my other comment about Ross Greene. It sounds like your oldest (through no fault of yours, necessarily!) has emotional needs that aren’t being met and struggles with self-regulation. I think using his strategies could help you a lot. I would also encourage you to look into (play) therapy for her, which could help her develop her ability to self-regulate and also help her fill some of that emotional need.

  • Caroline Bowman

    April 18, 2017 at 4:44 am

    Definitely get a bit of suitable counselling, but also… get a time when she is calm and not hungry or tired and in a very, very definitive way explain to her that hurting her sister again will absolutely result in the removal of something she values. I completely see the poor kid – both poor kids – have been through a lot and I do NOT mean being vicious or cruel, but there does need to be a measured consequence of vile behaviour beyond ”let’s have a cuddle and chat”. 8 is old enough to know better, and if it had only happened a couple of times, I would cut the kid some slack, but this is unacceptable, regardless of why. I suppose it makes me think of situations where children are being terrorised at school by a bully, but the BULLY gets love, understanding and help, and the kid being beaten is told ”Bobby is really sad and now he’s being helped”. Um. No. Consequences. Counselling is excellent and not even remotely a punishment of course, and I’d say both girls could do with it, but a separate and additional thing would be a very strictly enforced boundary around ”if you do X, Y will totally happen. You can cry and have a sad, but it will happen. The end”.

    With luck. some counselling and a space for her to air her frustrations and understandable turmoil will reduce or eliminate the problem, but a very strong boundary is needed, because it is not even remotely okay. There is no excuse for what she is doing.

    • kefi18

      April 18, 2017 at 11:35 am

      I agree! I should’ve mentioned in my comment that my nanny kids were younger (5 and 3) so the time-out-or-yoga to calm down thing was totally age appropriate, but by age 8…yeah, loss of privilege (paired with some calming techniques) sounds like the way to go.

  • tadpoledrain

    April 18, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    I would get therapy for the younger sister as well. Even though she’s not acting out in the same way, she’s experienced the same traumas as her big sister. And the fact that she doesn’t ever hit back (not sure to what extent/how she reacts otherwise) could be its own Thing. I would look for an agency that 1, has good play therapists (both girls are really kind of young for what adults think of when we think about therapy, the whole talking-about-your-feelings kind) and could try to fit both kids in at the same time-ish ro make your life easier, and 2, also does some parent coaching for you and your bf.
    I would also read The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene (it’s a fast read), and/or just Google him and visit his Lives in the Balance website, which has a ton of free resources. Basically, his ideath is that children who have behavioral problems like this are missing certain skills, and his goal is to help you repair those skill deficits so the child doesn’t need to act out in the same way anymore. It also just helps the child feel heard and have a sense of control, which the older daughter definitely sounds like she’s missing! (Ross Greene has done a lot of work in jails and now schools, but everything he does is really applicable to all kids.)

  • BMom

    April 18, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    Kids who’ve experienced trauma don’t always respond the same way to behavior interventions as other kids- talking to a counselor with experience around trauma is really the next best step. You also don’t mention a lot about how the girls dad interacts, but fingers crossed you’re on the same page!

  • Meg Murry-ish

    April 20, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    In addition to all the other good advice you’ve received, since you mention the house being small, I wonder if the 8 year old and 7 year old are sharing a room. Does the 8 year old needs a space to go to by herself when she feels like her temper is creeping up or she just needs some alone time? I know my older son sometimes gets really mad at his younger brother just because the big kid is in a bad mood and the littler one’s chipperness makes him even madder – and the little one knows it and thinks it’s funny to provoke his brother. Could you help each kid to come up with a space of their own where no one is allowed to bother them or where they can retreat? It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate – my older son’s private spaces are a couple of pillows in the closet and his favorite branch on a tree outside, while my younger one has a little “fort” setup in the corner of the dining room that he retreats to, or he’s also been known to go chill out in the linen closet. Having a space to get out aggression might also help – tell her it’s ok to be mad but she can’t hit her sister – but she can hit this punching bag or go stomp her feet and yell in the basement laundry room, etc. Or perhaps she could go ride her bike around the block, etc? While hitting and aggression is not ok, we’ve taught our kids that to say “I’m feeling grumpy right now, I’m going to my quiet/angry space, leave me alone” – and if the other siblings continue to bother them, the nagging one gets in trouble as well as the hitter. Basically, teach the kids to give themselves a time out when they can feel their emotions getting the best of them *before* you need to use a time out as a punishment.

    You can even start this with your toddler – our daycare has an area they call the “feelings corner” and it’s not used directly as a punishment style time-out, but rather a place with soft pillows and stuffed animals where kids can go “when they are feeling big feelings until they calm down enough to join the group again”.