When brothers don’t get along.


Leanne Page, M.Ed., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

“Dear Behavior BFF: When my nine year old gets upset with his 4 year old brother, he says “I don’t like you.” The younger brother now often says that his brother doesn’t like him. No matter how much I try to explain that brother is just frustrated, it’s upsetting to the 4 year old and to us as parents! What should we do?”

As parents we want our kids to be friends and it’s a daily struggle to decide when to jump in and solve their problems for them or let them work it out on their own. In this situation, the “I don’t like you” statement is causing problems for everyone else in the family. It has become a problem that needs an intervention.

It is okay to be mad at your brother. That is a socially acceptable behavior that we have no right to intervene on. It is not okay to tell your preschool aged brother that you don’t like him on a regular basis. So what can you do instead?

As a parent, you need to identify a replacement behavior for your older son. What CAN he do that would be acceptable in these situations? Is there a better statement he can make that gets his point across?

  • Say: “I feel _____ because _____. I need ______.”
  • Say: “I need some space from you right now.”
  • Walk away from your little brother.
  • Go ask a parent for help.
  • Say: “Please leave me alone.”
  • Say: “I will play with you later.” And then actually play with your little brother later.

Find a few choices of alternative behaviors for your older son. Then how do you get him to actually use those?

  1. Directly teach them to your son. Practice saying them back and forth to each other. You can role play taking turns being each brother.
  2. Create visual reminders together. Choose places to display these in your home where the problem happens most often. Is little brother invading big brother’s space? Hang a visual in big brother’s room/ area.
  3. Be ready to jump in and prompt the new replacement behavior at first. This means being extra attentive at times when maybe you would have been letting them play together in another room. Pay attention for when things start to ramp up. Then model the correct response for your older son. As he is getting visibly upset (you know his cues- you’re his parents!), say one of the correct responses. “I feel upset because you are in my personal space. I need you to go back to your room.”
  4. Provide positive reinforcement for engaging in the new replacement behaviors. If you have a system already in place, give extra points, tokens, rewards for this new behavior you are seeking. If you don’t have a system in place- give lots of praise and rewards for handling the upsetting situations appropriately.
  5. Stay on it. Little siblings are annoying. I should know- I am one. Continue to reinforce using words appropriately, walking away, whatever replacement behaviors you choose. Build up those appropriate responses with plenty of positive reinforcement!


Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at [email protected].

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