Blog Post Teaser Image

STOP sibling put-downs NOW

12 April
Posted by:
Michael Grose

The impact of positive and negative statements on kids’ self-esteem depends on who makes the statement, according to Queenland academic Professor Paul Burnett.

A long-time and respected researcher into the impact of positive and negative statements on primary school-aged children’s self-perceptions, Burnett found that age, gender and relationships matter when it comes to both praise and put-downs. Siblings and peers matter most when it comes to put downs..............but more about this further on.

Parental praise and positive comments were more important to boys in terms of impact on self-esteem than they were for girls.

Teacher praise counted more for girls than boys in terms of long-lasting effect.

Burnett didn't’t hypothesise about the reasons but these findings certainly fit with my perceptions. Boys seems to more sensitive and susceptible to parental approval than girls, so the impact of positive parental recognition for boys cannot be underestimated.

The age of children matters

Kids up the age of eight respond better to ability praise. That is, they prefer comments linked to their abilities and competencies. These comments need to specific and to be linked to behaviours the older they become. “You are clever!” may wash with a toddler, but comments like this have less impact with an eight or nine-year-old. “You are reading clearly and slowly, which means you are easy to listen to!” is the type of specific, ability-related praise they prefer.

Kids from nine or ten onwards respond better to effort praise. That is, comments recognising effort, improvement and goal-setting have greater impact the older they become. Similarly, positive statements need to be targeted to specific behaviours. Here’s an example: “You worked so hard before the test, it’s no wonder you’ve improved in that subject area. Well done!”

When it comes to negative comments siblings and peers matter

When it comes to negative statements siblings and peers have greater impact on kids’ self-esteem than when they come from parents. It seems kids are forgiving of their parents and understand parents say things that they don’t mean.

But it’s another thing when put downs come from siblings and peers, particularly comments about physical appearance and looks. Sibling and peer put downs are the most damaging in terms of kids’ self-perceptions and self-esteem.

Adverse comments about weight, appearance and looks from those in your own age group are more hurtful and impact on how kids see themselves more than adult put down of the same nature.

That’s a profound finding with some heavy long-term implication. That means parents need to directly address sibling put downs and indirectly, help kids handle insults and negative comments from peers. Here are some ideas:

1. Make your home a Nil Put-down Zone (NPZ): Talk about put downs, negative comment and insults and their possible impact with your kids. Let them know that such comments, even made in jest, are harmful, particularly for super-sensitive adolescents.

2. Develop a zero-tolerance approach to put-downs: Take a stand on put downs. Bring your A-grade assertive approach to the fore when you hear a put down. “Ben, that’s a put down you just made to your sister and I don’t want to hear it. We don’t use those in this family. Got it!” Get annoyed. They need to know that this sort of behaviour is not on from your perspective. Your opposition won’t stamp out put downs altogether, but oppose it often often and long enough and you’ll see their use decrease. Don’t be afraid to implement consequences and remove privileges to make your point for kids who persistently put down others.

3. Teach positive self-talk so kids can filter what they hear: Kids internalise what’s said to them via their self-talk, so teach them how to moderate their internal dialogue. Use the “If were you I’d be saying” approach. E.G “If I were you I’d be saying gee I’m doing well at maths.” “If I were you I’d be saying what my friend/sister says doesn't’t add up because I’m a pretty handsome dude.” This type of self-talk teaching needs to be ongoing and used when you know that your kids may be on the receiving end of some personal barbs from peers.

4. Build kids’ capacities:
Teflon coat kids from personal barbs by giving them some clever lines and come backs to use; urging them not to wear their hearts on their sleeves; and to recognise and walk away from hurtful situations. Recognise that you can’t be with kids all the time, so give them some ammunition they can use to minimise the quantity of hurtful comments that me be directed at them, as well as reduce their impact.

Most parents are intuitively aware of the positive impact of praise, but we need to be mindful of the negative impact of put downs from siblings and peers on kids self-esteem. If there’s one self-esteem enhancing strategy that adults can implement it’s this: STOP SIBLINGS & PEERS MAKING NEGATIVE STATEMENTS ABOUT PHYSICAL APPEARANCE AND LOOKS!

For resources to help you promote self-talk, build kids' capacities and learn how to handle sibling put downs visit

  • confidence
  • fighting
  • put-downs
  • self-confidence
  • self-esteem
  • self-talk
  • sibling
  • well-being
  • Subscribe to Michael's blog