What Motivates Children to Kill Their Siblings?

Under the age of 11, children who kill don’t usually understand that death is an irrevocable event.  But once children crossover into adolescence, they typically kill if they feel victimized, or when they meet restraints that they believe to be unfair.

Freud called adolescence the period of “strum and angst.” Aristotle called adolescence the time of insanity. Today, we know it is a time of tremendous growth and hormonal change, which causes both the mind and the body to be emotionally vulnerable.

Adolescents have a sense of omnipotence and they test themselves against their environment, experimenting and participating in more dangerous activities than they ever will at any other time of their lives. A self-focus, bordering on narcissism, helps frame their identity, self-esteem, and self-worth. When frustrated or angry, adolescents may feel victimized. If empathy is missing, as it is in most bullies, frustration can lead to aggression. If a child doesn’t have the means to solve problems through communication, then he will strike out when angry to relieve tension, anxiety; or to get his own way.

The stress of anger can elevate the cortisol levels in the brain, which also effects impulse control.  When adolescents lose impulse control, they may reach for a power symbol — such as a knife or a gun.  If they lose control and chose a weapon, they may kill to hide their behavior. Adolescents, in particular, can display this high-risk behavior, as their immaturity and impulsivity can impair their judgment.

Sibling problems can be unusually intense, as siblings spend so much time together and have a unique and intimate history. Sibling adolescents fight just as much as younger siblings do, but because of their intellect and size, can often do more damage.

The ages of 10-15 are extremely competitive between siblings, and the mental and biological changes of adolescence often affect their relationships with their parents. As adolescents strive for significance and parental attention, sibling rivalry may emerge. This constellation of events can be corrected if parents know their children, pay attention, are even-handed with the attention they show their children, and intervene when necessary.

Going back to the Bible story of Cain and Abel, you could argue that Cain was, in a sense, innocent, as he did not know what death was and was responding to jealousy.  As early as one year of age, children are aware of parental favoritism.  By three years of age, children know the social rules, and can measure themselves against their siblings.

Steps to reduce the power of sibling rivalry among children include:

  1. Do not compare, label, or show favoritism.
  2. Make each child feel part of something larger than each other: a family, a home team.
  3. Spend private time with each child, giving special attention when needed.
  4. Guide your child through angry outbursts, helping him or her face his problems and work through them.
  5. Pay attention, know your child, and watch for inappropriate behavior, especially behavior that is not age-appropriate.
  6. Notice bullying and intervene when necessary.

All children want to be loved, valued, and respected by their parents. They want their parents to be fair and even-handed, with love, attention, and discipline. Parents are the most important influence on their children’s behavior, therefore, if parents positively endorse their children and are responsive to their emotions, they may be able to bring siblings together, rather than push them apart.

Finally, it is still the family’s values, ideas, and attitudes that offer up violence as an option to problem-solving. Therefore, parents can make a difference by acknowledging and recognizing when problems exist, and getting professional help when necessary.