My kids are enemies. What should I do? : Life Kit ​A sister relentlessly picks on her brother despite their mom's best attempt to make peace between them. Psychologist Becky Kennedy shares advice with a parent who feels out of ideas — and patience.

Dear Life Kit: My 10-year-old bullies my 8-year-old. How do I make it stop?

Dear Life Kit: My 10-year-old bullies my 8-year-old. How do I make it stop?

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Photograph by Michael Blann/ Getty Images; Collage by NPR
Photograph of a shadow of an adult separating two feuding children who are struggling with sibling rivalry. The image is framed by a collage of letters, envelopes, stamps and paper.
Photograph by Michael Blann/ Getty Images; Collage by NPR

This story originally published on Jan. 27, 2023 and was updated on Nov. 2, 2023 to include a rerun of the podcast episode.

Need some really good advice? Look no further than Dear Life Kit. In each episode, we pose one of your most pressing questions to an expert. This question was answered by Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist, the author of Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and the founder of the Good Inside parenting community. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dear Life Kit,

My 10-year-old daughter picks on her 8-year-old brother relentlessly. She calls him names, whispers mean things to him, throws his things — and does anything to upset him and get him to react. We've [taken away her] electronics, put her in [time out] and separated them whenever possible. I've asked her many times why she's so mean to him. Her response is usually a shrug, with comments like, "I don't like him," "I never wanted a brother," and "Put him up for adoption." How can I better address this?

— Drama Mama

Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist, host of the podcast Good Inside with Dr. Becky and the founder of the Good Inside community. Photograph by Melanie Dunea hide caption

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Photograph by Melanie Dunea

I would start by reminding yourself that your daughter is a good kid who is having a hard time, not a bad kid doing bad things.

Then, I would wait for a calm moment to say something like this to your daughter: "Hey, I want to talk to you about your brother. No, you're not in trouble. Things must feel really bad [for you to act] this way. So here's something I want to do: I'm going to come into your room every day for five minutes, and I'm going to let you say every mean thing you want to say about your brother. And I'm just going to listen. And then, with your brother around, we're going to put a stop to [the unkind words]."

Kids usually take to this because their parent is actually allowing them to express their pain. They're no longer alone with it.

When we're struggling and someone comes to us and says, "Look, I'm on your team, and part of being on your team is connecting to you and allowing certain things, but also containing things that are dangerous," we tend to feel very held.

The conversation I would have with your son is something like, "For a while now, you've had a lot of interactions with your sister that have felt really bad. I want to tell you it is never your fault when your sister says those nasty words to you. And I want to let you know I'm going to have a different approach now. I haven't protected you enough, and I've developed a different way of intervening with your sister too. Your sister is struggling. It doesn't make her words OK, but I need to help her and I need to help you. Part of what I want to say to you is that I'm sorry that this has gone on for so long. It's not fair to you. And I'm serious about making a change."

[I would also ask him], "What is it like when she says [something nasty to you]?" Most young kids are not going to have a profound response. Still, ask the question because it shows that you're interested in their state of mind.

Then I might [tell him], "Just because someone says something [unkind] to you doesn't mean it's true. You're allowed to be mad when people say mean things.'"

Listen to Becky Kennedy's full response in the audio at the top of the page or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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Dear Life Kit is hosted by Andee Tagle and produced by Beck Harlan and Sylvie Douglis with help from our intern Jamal Michel. Bronson Arcuri is the managing producer and Meghan Keane is the supervising editor. Alicia Zheng produces the Dear Life Kit video series for Instagram.

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