Am I Raising a Bully?
by Mary Follin and Kristi Crosson
THE PROBLEM: My oldest son (11 yo) is mean to his younger brother and sister. He calls each of them a derogatory nickname and constantly makes fun of them. He even shoves them a little when he walks by them, and it breaks my heart to see the two younger ones cut a wide swathe when they pass him in the hall or on the stairs. I am really, really scared about this. I don’t know where he learned that this kind of behavior was okay, but now that he’s older (and bigger), it’s gotten even worse. My husband gets angry and yells at him, but I try and ask him nicely to be kinder. I’m worried about him. He seems so angry and spends a lot of time in his room, alone.
MARY SAYS: While everyone in your household sounds as though they’re walking on eggshells around your son, I would suggest that he is the one who is the most unhappy about it. His behavior points to depression or something else that needs a professional checkup. Please seek counseling for this situation immediately.
Families are notorious for settling into patterns, and your family appears to be stuck in one that you don’t know how to get out of. Everyone in your household is intimidated by your son’s behavior, including your husband, who is responding to his son with anger out of fear: fear for his other children, fear for the wellbeing of the family, but most of all, fear for his angry child.
I applaud you for reaching out gently to your son, but ask yourself if he might not need a firmer approach. Rather than asking him kindly, TELL him kindly that in no uncertain terms, shouting at his sister, calling his brother names, shoving his siblings is unacceptable.
But there’s more you can do. Because of the dance your family is in, it sounds as though everyone is reacting to your son in a consistent way—avoiding him, yelling at him, or speaking to him timidly, and it’s time to change the dance.
When was the last time you spent time alone with your oldest son? Take him out to breakfast—just you and him—and find out what he’s excited about, what’s not working for him, and what scares him. Engage in a favorite activity with him that has nothing to do with correcting his behaviors—just having fun. But once or twice is not enough. Make a regular date with him so he can practice talking about his feelings, rather than lashing out. And please encourage your husband to do the same.
When someone is moody, off-putting, and hard to reach, the path of least resistance is to spend as little time as possible with them. Your son is only eleven, but in a few short years, he will have the autonomy to do the same to you, putting you at risk of losing your relationship with him.
Your son is mistreating your family not because he’s trying to hurt you. It’s a cry for help from a young boy who doesn’t know how to tell you he needs it.
KRISTI SAYS: At face value, it looks like your oldest son is dealing with his own frustrations in unhealthy ways. Perhaps he’s experiencing surges in hormones that are leading to more aggressive behavior and moodiness, or maybe he’s the target of bullying at school.
As parents, it’s our responsibility to train our kids in the ways we want them to go, which includes how we want them to treat other people. Pushing and shoving younger siblings and calling them names isn’t okay, and you’re right to be upset about it.
However, while you mention not liking his behavior, it sounds like you and your husband are dealing with it in exactly the same way. With words. Your words are kind and your husband’s words come out in frustration, but the truth is, you’re both just using words. Kids are concrete, and they need a combination of consequences for their negative behavior and positive reinforcement when they get it right.
Not only do you need to create realistic consequences when your son acts out toward his siblings, you’ll want to come up with rewards when he treats them kindly as well. But before you do that, here are some ways to evaluate the environment he’s in to see if there are other contributing factors to his moodiness and aggression:
- What’s in his room? Does he have his own T.V.? Does he have video games in there? Does he have his own phone? Technology is a big source of behavioral issues in kids. It messes with their growing brains and makes them more prone to aggression.
- What’s his sleep like? Sleep disturbances are another source of behavioral issues. Think about how you feel when you don’t get enough sleep. Now imagine you’re growing, having hormone changes, and you don’t get enough sleep.
- What’s his diet like? Too much sugar and simple carbohydrates, for example, can cause blood sugar highs and lows that lead to moodiness and aggression.
- What are his consequences? While sending him to his room might seem effective, it’s not the best consequence if he likes it in there.
- How often do you praise him for doing something kind for his siblings or when he plays nice with them?
Helping your son develop good relationships is your responsibility. You need to take control of the situation. It takes time, but you can help your son treat his siblings better.
Here are some things you can do:
- Start a conversation. Find out how your son is feeling, what’s going on at school, and if there is anything impacting him emotionally. Have these check-ins regularly.
- Help him learn healthy ways to manage his frustrations. It’s okay to be angry or frustrated. It’s not okay to hurt people or treat them unkindly. Teach him how to take a break for a few minutes if he feels frustrated. Deep breathing exercises and punching a pillow can help him blow off some steam when he needs it.
- Don’t be afraid to take away technology. Let him earn it back. Make it a rule in your house that technology is a privilege to be earned. When he does his schoolwork, helps out around the house, and treats his siblings kindly, he can earn time on devices.
- Don’t let him hide in his room. Provide space for him to be out with the family. While it’s okay to give him a break for a little while, letting him hideout in his domain all day isn’t healthy.
Your big task right now is to help your son learn better ways to express his anger. You’ll also want to reinforce his positive behavior and find appropriate consequences when he acts out. You can help your kids have great relationships with each other, but it’ll take time.
It sounds like you’re ready and up for the task!
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising small children (Kristi). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
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Mary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids. For videos, stories, and parenting ideas, follow Mary on Instagram @advice_mom.
Kristi Crosson is a freelance writer, homeschooling mom of three children, and author of Healthy Mom Revolution, a blog that offers insights on healthy parenting.