My ten-year-old is a sweet boy who is usually pleasant and polite. However, he has a habit that is driving me, my husband, and my nine-year-old daughter up the wall.

My son loves calling my daughter names even though he is aware how sensitive she is, and sometimes, when he gets excited, he will grab her around the neck and squeeze her a little too hard.

I know my son loves his sister. When I catch them playing nicely together, I always praise them. I always show affection to my son with hugs and kisses. I have tried negative and positive reinforcement, but nothing seems to work.

Help! I need advice.


It sounds like you are on the right track using positive and negative reinforcement. But it is never easy to troubleshoot for parenting problems based on a few lines of explanation. Interactions between people are full of nuance that means so much...

You say that your son has a "habit that is driving you up a wall." Do you mean that this habit is occurring frequently, possibly several times a day? He "loves" to call her names—are you referring to derogatory names? When he is "excited"(=upset?) he will grab her around the neck and squeeze her a little too hard—he chokes her?

Allow me, however, suggest a few things to look at.

My first guess, and I admit it is just a guess, is that your son is having some difficulty controlling himself in certain situations. What is the common denominator in these situations? Was he angry? Was he too hyped up? Did he want something someone else had? Was he being teased?

It is easy to act nice and be pleasant when things are going your way and you are having a good day. But the real measure of a person is how he reacts and handles himself when things aren't going his way. Even though a person may be disappointed or frustrated, this is not a good excuse for lashing out or not being able to control himself. So first, if you have not done so already, teach your son about controlling himself and responsibility. Explain to him that the only thing a person truly controls in this world is how he reacts and what he does; if you give up this control then you truly control nothing!

Your son is ten, tell him clearly what you expect of him, no excuses, and then enforce it with consequences. PERIOD.

Never again be drawn into explaining why there is a consequence for his behavior, as discussion acts as a reward for negative behavior. Five short words should suffice. No doubt he is a smart boy and knows these actions are wrong, so if he tells you he forgot, no need to go over everything again, the consequence will help him remember.

Anything that causes a parent to "jump into the fray" is a successful attention-getting device. Even though you may feel that your son would not perpetuate a situation that gives him a negative response that is not true in the world of child behavior. Children are "hard wired" to seek out attention from their parents, and it's so much easier to gain it negatively than positively. Talking to him or interacting even with touch or eye contact acts as reward for behavior. You must make sure he gains no reward for his actions – in terms of attention – as well as giving him consequences.

For example, let's say your son has just squeezed your daughter "a little too hard"—a totally unacceptable act, which no excuse could justify and none should be allowed to be voiced (another attention getting device, one-on-one time while he explains). Immediately you say "No choking!" and give a consequence, such as he immediately folds all the towels in the laundry. Consequences should be immediate, appropriate and short; something that makes him work for ten minutes is usually enough.

I think I have given you something to think about, but there is one more thing. The need for attention is a legitimate need and as such must be fulfilled. If your children are showing a need for more attention from you at certain times of the day (when they exhibit poor behavior) then I suggest giving it to them on your terms. Before they behave poorly bring them into your circle, get them to help you or do things with you such as help prepare supper. See if you can head off some of this negative behavior. With that – and the redirection of attention and the consequences – you should be able to make headway on these issues.

Your ability to take a step back and analyze the situation will lead to a greater understanding of what is really going on between you and your children. Your love and concern for them is very evident and will lead to the close knit family you are aiming for.

Wishing you all the best!