Coaching Compassion And Kindness To The Sadistic Sibling




Parents write, “Our older son is so mean and sadistic to our younger son that we minimize family vacations, and time together. Help!”


One of the more troubling challenges facing parents is mean spirited behavior perpetrated by one child towards a sibling. Random acts of cruelty such as verbal degradation or harassment, physical violence, and/or property destruction tear at the fabric of family functioning. These behaviors tend to ignite a visceral reaction in parents culminating in an extremely punitive and/or negative interaction with the offending child. This only tends to perpetuate the cycle since the sadistic sibling perceives the parents as always taking the side of the targeted child, further fueling their anger and retaliatory impulses.


If this combustible mixture of family forces has wrought havoc in your home consider the following coaching tips to help replace combustion with compassion:


Express concern to the offending child that sadistic behaviors are as much a danger to themselves as they are to their sibling. Explain how allowing cruelty to be an acceptable route for their feelings to follow will only lead them on a problem path. Although they may not presently mistreat anyone else in their life these behaviors will spread to other relationships and situations over time. This will undoubtedly erode friendships and close doors of opportunity in the future. “You may not realize it now but if you don’t do something to control this problem it will grow and you will be seen by others as someone to avoid since you are a mean bully to your brother/sister,” emphasizes the harm this will do to their reputation and happiness.   


Share the view that sadistic behaviors don’t emerge out of nowhere but have a root.  Academic or peer problems, frustrations with parents, or other causes may be simmering under the surface. If so, the sadistic behaviors may reflect the unconscious tendency to convert unexpressed emotional pain into impulses to make someone else feel hurt too. A younger vulnerable sibling becomes a convenient target, or even an older and kind-hearted one. “For you to act this way towards a family member tells us that something is causing you pain and anguish. We want to help you bring it up to the surface with words that tag the problem and not actions that trap you into lectures and punishment,” gets across the point that parents are here to help not take sides.


Challenge them to take a broader look at how the pattern of cruelty has impacted upon much of family life. Review some of the scenarios that have sabotaged family peace and express sympathy about how their own enjoyment has been sacrificed.  As you do so, explain how even though their behavior h as often triggered the fracas, compassion allows family members to feel sorry for and want to help one another.  Offer the following: “Compassion gives us a path away from cruelty and towards a kinder understanding of one another,” and follow up with times they have demonstrated it.  “By trying harder to have a kinder and loving impact upon all family members you will be growing more compassionate.”


Cultivate compassion by emphasizing how the entire family can strive for the goal, and help each individual overcome their own personal   “kindness barriers.” Encourage each member to humbly express where they need to work harder and also be receptive to feedback from others. If an incentive seems necessary, establish a framework for highlighting compassion by introducing a “kindness point bank” where family members receive acknowledgement and contribute to mutually agreed upon reward. 


Dr. Steven Richfield is a clinical psychologist and author in Plymouth Meeting, PAContact him at 610-238-4450 or