Q I have two children aged 14 and seven. They had their usual ups and downs together but since we have been in the house all the time, I feel like their relationship has hit rock bottom. My older boy is so cruel to his little sister. She is only seven and adores the ground he walks on but he is rude and dismissive to her. When he's not locked away in his room, he snaps at her or is mean to her, saying she's fat or nosy or stupid. It is breaking my heart to see her so crushed, but I can't seem to get through to him that he needs to be nicer to her.
avid replies: There is no doubt that being so restricted in our movements and not having the usual distractions of school, friends and hobbies is putting pressure on many families and many sibling relationships. Part of the difficulty you face is that your children are at such different developmental stages that it is hard for them to find stuff that they might want to do together that would feel fun for them both.
However, it is worth checking in with your 14-year-old about how he is coping with the lockdown. It may be that he is really struggling with some aspects and taking out that negativity on his sister. Perhaps he is carrying a lot of worry, hopelessness or frustration. Have you any sense of whether he has been able to stay in touch with his friends? How does he feel about the virus? About his future, or the near future in terms of getting back to "normality". Do you know how he is spending his time in his room?
One of the dangers with teenagers retreating to their rooms for extended periods is that they are most likely lost on the internet for a lot of their time. Sometimes that will be innocuous enough, watching movies, gaming, chatting with friends on social media and so on. Other times, though, they may have fallen into more dangerous and more destructive habits like pornography.
The reason I suggest this as worthy of further checking out by you, is that a lot of the ways your son is acting towards his sister seem demeaning and critical, which reflects the throwaway, belittling, and debasing culture of internet pornography. Even if his actions are not linked to porn, I think if you could tune into his feelings a bit, you might be able to help him realise the impact of his behaviour on his sister, even helping him to understand some of her feelings.
Perhaps it has always been his pattern to be mean towards his sister and the lockdown has simply escalated or intensified the negativity that he feels towards her. Even seeing her appearing to "cope" better might add to feelings of envy or jealousy that may have been there for a long time.
Your daughter, too, will need your time and attention with regard to the impact of her brother's behaviour. If she is "crushed" by what he says and does, then she may need your emotional support to cope.
Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is an enduring bestseller that tackles the issues of sibling relationships in a very accessible way and that too might be a good resource for you to help you to understand and deal with the negativity that your son, in particular, seems to feel towards his sister.
As the authors say in their book, "it's not until the bad feelings get out that the good feelings can get in". Perhaps both your children need a chance to talk more about how they feel about each other.