Parenting Spike: The seriously difficult child- Fighting with the little sister

by Andrew D. Gibson, Ph.D.



Mrs. Longobardi in Hartford writes that her Spike, a ten year old terror, attacks his younger sister without provocation. There doesn’t seem to be anything she can do to stop it. She has tried everything she knows. The kid pounds on the little one at will.

Mrs. Longobardi didn’t give a lot of other information, but we can surmise that if Spike is assaulting his sister that other things are going on. The beatings probably aren’t isolated.

Older kids generally attack younger siblings because they can. It is an old abuse story: victims are sniffed out because they are perceived to be weaker. Certainly a younger sister will fit that category.

The attacks happen in families in which there is a lot of anger and the tension that surrounds it. Generally the anger is a reciprocal problem between parents and a specific kid, in this case Spike. But, it is very likely that Spike’s resentment means that he wants an easy target on which to vent his own frustrations.

The assaults on the younger sibling have less to do with the younger sibling that they do with the atmosphere of the home. Sure, the younger one may be setting Spike off more than you think. The presumption of innocence has probably been over extended to the little one. But that likely fact doesn’t change much.

Spike is hypersensitive, hyper-threatened and hyper-reactive. He feels as though everyone is bearing down on him (they probably are), that he is always accused of things which he may or may not have committed (that’s true, too) and that no one gives him a break (again, probably true). Since he made himself into the dysfunctional family centerpiece, they react accordingly.

Their reaction keeps him on edge. If anything happens that even remotely looks like criticism, he swings into full defensive mode. Part of the way he defends himself is to smack the snots out of his little sister. Spike goes after her partially because she is complicit in making him feel lousy. He also goes after her because she is easier to overwhelm than his parents. This doesn’t meant that he treats his parents gently.

Oh, no. But it does mean that he can get more bang out of his assault buck by shoving her against a wall than his parents. She can’t fight back effectively. The meanness he feels needs expression, so he will find outlets where he can and use them.

The antidote is, of course, to reduce the tension in the household by removing Spike as the centerpiece. His parents may say, “Well, he puts himself there by his ratty behavior.” but that is only one half of the equation.

The other half is how they react. So, the educated guess is that Mrs. Longobardi reacts to every negative thing that Spike does. She reacts because she thinks she is supposed to react.

But if she will just step back a moment and examine this scenario, she will probably determine that her reactions do not make anything better. They don’t stop Spike. They probably just prolong the fight. In that case, Mrs. Longobardi needs to seriously experiment with not reacting.

Mrs. Longobardi should maintain whatever household standards she can but she can also do it in a way that is essentially neutral. If she violates her neutrality, that is a sign that she is ineffective in some specific situation.


About The Author


Dr. Andrew Gibson was born in Detroit at the close of WWII. He grew up in the midst of farming country in central Michigan. Both parents were teachers. He keeps a picture of his childhood companion, Wags, to this day (you had to see the tail to appreciate the name). After discharge from the Navy after the Viet Name war, he graduated with a BA and MA from San Diego State University and earned his Ph. D from the University of Connecticut. He has taught at Portland State University, n Portland Oregon, at the University of Maine, Presque Isle and at SUNY New Paltz. He resides in Eastern Connecticut, with his wife of 41 years, where he conducts a private practice in parenting seriously difficult children. His book “Got An Angry Kid? Parenting Spike-A Seriously Difficult Child’ is the first of a series examining seriously difficult children at various age and emotional disturbance levels. He invites you to find him on the web at

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2 Responses so far.

  1. 1
    Joyce says:

    That’s tough, especially with the economic stress that parents are feeling and the pressures for children to get farther academically. I think a lot of parents need to be more conscious of causing tension at home (ours included) when there is so much of it going on elsewhere.

  2. 2
    Robyn says:

    I agree with him on neutrality. Sometimes my reaction is enough of a reward…and not the message I wanted to send.

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