What do I do if my anxious child is bullying their siblings?

Addressing Anxiety and Sibling Bullying: A Parental Guide

Managing a child’s anxiety while maintaining harmony among siblings is a delicate balancing act. It involves understanding the nature of anxiety, recognizing the impact of behavior, and fostering an environment that encourages personal growth and responsibility without sparking shame. This post aims to provide parents with insights into handling situations where an anxious child might be bullying a sibling.

Understanding Anxiety in Children

Children experiencing anxiety are often not in a state of mental wellness that empowers them to control their behavior fully. This isn’t much about lacking the intention to behave well but more about lacking the ability to manage their responses effectively. According to Ross Green, “Kids do well if they can.” By recognizing that behavioral issues stem more from incapacity rather than unwillingness, we can approach the situation with more empathy and patience.

Recognizing the Struggles

Anxious children may not feel great about themselves; their actions, as much as they seem outwardly directed, are often reflections of their internal conflicts.

“This identity crisis exacerbates their anxiety, making it a cycle of stress and negative behavior, which might include bullying siblings.”

Addressing Sibling Bullying

Bullying is a serious issue and even more delicate when it involves siblings. First, it’s critical to ensure that the child being bullied feels safe and supported. Immediate comfort and assurance to the bullied child affirm your role as a protector, helping to restore their sense of safety.

Approaching the Anxious Child

Once safety is addressed, it’s time to approach the child with anxiety. It’s important not to confront them with accusations or labels that might trigger shame. Phrases like “You’re being a bully” or “You’re bad” can be very harmful. Instead, focus on the behavior and its unacceptability, framed by their emotions:

  • “I know you are anxious and I know you are struggling, but you may not treat your sibling this way.”

  • “I understand you are upset, but that doesn’t justify hurting others or breaking things.”

By acknowledging their feelings while also setting clear behavioral expectations, you’re not only guiding them towards better behavior but also validating their emotions, which is crucial for children dealing with anxiety.

Holding the Line Without Shaming

The goal is to help the child improve their behavior without making them feel worse about themselves. This can be a challenging line to walk, but it is necessary for their emotional and psychological health. Focus on the behavior as something they have control over, rather than something inherent to their character. This distinction helps the child feel capable of change at the same time as they understand the boundaries they must operate within.

Strategies for Positive Reinforcement

  1. Set Clear Expectations: Clearly state what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t.

  2. Reinforce Positives: Catch them doing good and praise them for it. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue good behavior.

  3. Model Empathy: Show empathy to all your children. Let them see firsthand how to express concern and understanding.

  4. Consistent Follow-Through: Be consistent in your responses to both negative and positive behavior to avoid confusion about what’s acceptable.

  5. Seek Professional Help if Needed: If you feel overwhelmed or if the child’s anxiety and behaviors are severe, professional help from a child psychologist might be necessary.

Conclusion

Handling a child’s anxiety while mitigating sibling bullying is about striking the right balance between support and discipline. It requires patience, understanding, and a clear communication of values and expectations in your family dynamics. Remember, each child is different, and the approach might need to be tailored based on individual needs, but the underlying principles of empathy, support, and clear boundaries remain constant.


Parenting is an evolving challenge that requires continuous learning and adaptation. By focusing on building a nurturing yet structured environment, we help all our children grow into well-rounded individuals capable of managing their behaviors and emotions effectively.

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