When I Get Big, I’ll Get Even

Does this scene look familiar? Two siblings fighting over something while the adults sit back laughing and offering encouraging remarks to continue the altercation. Is supporting these cute quarrels the precursor to increased aggression later in life or is this just something that will lead to funny stories to tell their significant others?

I can remember a time when my oldest daughter and my son were in the car fighting. I was tired of listening to the whining and squabbling for the entire ride so I just let them go at it. I continued to drive while they continued to beat each other. My goal was that 1. they would get it out of their system and finally leave each other alone and 2. one of them would get hurt which would cause them to think twice before they fought with each other again. Did this help? Definitely not. They (along with their other two siblings who were in the car) reminisce about that time when Kaitlyn and Thad beat each other up and mom let them do it. Why?


If aggression is rewarded in just the right way then it will be reinforced and continue on throughout life. There are two types of rewards: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. In the video and example above, positive reinforcement is being given to the children involved. They are receiving something that most people crave – attention! Children who see aggression producing more good outcomes, and fewer bad outcomes, are more aggressive than other children (Boldizar et al., 1989).

People are motivated by

  1. Positive recognition/attention for positive behavior or…
  2. .. in absence of that, they’ll take negative attention/recognition for negative behavior

… over being ignored (Gregory, 2011)

Children are provided with attention for their behaviors so they are going to continue to do it! They are also going to model what you, as the parent, do in aggression fueled situations. Do you yell, spank, hit, scream, bite? They are going to yell, spank, hit, scream and bite other children when they want something to be done. Do you speak calmly, use non-physical means, use positive words to curtail a non-desirable behavior? Children will then speak calmly, use non-physical means, use positive words to deal with situations that they don’t like.


Research suggests that punishment is most likely to decrease aggression when it (1) immediately follows the aggressive behavior, (2) is strong enough to deter the aggressor, and (3) is consistently applied and perceived as fair and legitimate by the aggressor. (Kassin, et al., 2014). Parents issue punishment to their children in many different ways though most of the time they do not follow the criteria as identified above. There is often times confusion as to why the punishment was given as it didn’t apply to the act. Many times when my children fight with each other I end up assigning the aggressor more chores. Why? Mainly because I don’t know what an appropriate punishment is for the incident so I assign something that is easy for me to come up and is something that I want done. This doesn’t stop the aggressive behavior because there is no direct correlation with the act and the punishment.

Driving my kids to school and they end up arguing in the car. I assign a chore that needs to be completed before I get home from work. My children know that I have the attention span of a gnat and will probably forget that they are suppose to do something. They don’t end up doing it and because I don’t consistently apply or enforce the punishment, the aggressive behavior is then not dealt with appropriately and continues.

If you want to help your children decrease the amount of aggression that they have towards one another then you should attempt to follow the tips outlined below.

  • Keep your cool
  • Be calm and firm
  • Discourage aggressive play
  • Limit exposure to violence
  • Know your child’s triggers
  • Model good behavior

I’d be interested in knowing what works for you to curb sibling rivalry and the need to get even!


Aggressive Toddler Behavior: What to Do. Retrieved from http://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-behavior/aggressive-behavior.aspx

Gregory, C. (2011, March 08). The Perils of Rewarding Bad Behavior. Retrieved from http://corinnegregory.com/blog/2011/03/08/the-perils-of-rewarding-bad-behavior/

Kalin, S., Fein, S., & Marcus, H. (2014). Social Psychology (9th edition). Belmont, CA: Cengage Wadsworth.


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