THE PROBLEM: My older son (14) picks on his little brother (9). It’s not out-and-out bullying, just belittling remarks, like, “I see you have your shirt on backwards again, dummy.” I’m worried about this because their father isn’t in the picture, and I’m afraid my little one won’t have a male role model to look up to. (I think that’s partly what’s going on with my older son.) I have two other children (daughters), and he’s actually pretty nice to them most of the time. So not only is my youngest getting picked on, he’s also getting left out. I don’t know what to do.
MARY SAYS: For starters, please be assured that this dynamic is common in many families, even when Dad is around. For whatever reason, one sibling feels entitled to belittle another without considering the other child’s feelings. Your older son may be jealous of the attention his brother gets from you. Or, if your youngest son has a happy, sunny outlook on life, his mercurial older brother might find him irritating. It may simply be that big brother’s hormones are raging, and not in a good way.
Because there is so much to sift through, rather than looking for the root cause, let’s talk about what you can do about it.
You’ve probably already discovered that disciplining your older son doesn’t work. He gets even more irritated when you tell him to “stop that,” doesn’t he? And while you may precipitate a temporary cease-fire, he’ll be at it again when you’re not looking, or when little brother starts “doing that annoying thing he does.”
So what can you do?
One of the best ways for your sons to develop a close relationship is for them to spend time together. Just the two of them. “Yeah, right,” you might be thinking. “I might as well throw my kid to the wolves.”
But is that true? More than likely, you do everything in your power to keep these two apart, or at least, monitor them closely when they’re in the same room. How often are they together on their own, doing something fun? Is it possible you don’t know how it would go because you’ve never seen it before?
Tell your older son about your vision for his relationship with his sibling. (Be sure to accept feedback from him in case there are other changes you need to make.) Let him know that you think the two of them should be better friends, and you’re willing to help. Ask him what he’d like to do with his little brother, where he’d like to go. Out for pizza? Miniature golf? To a movie?
Then give him some cash, drop them off, and otherwise stay out of it.
Schedule regular outings like this, and you will begin to see a change. If it feels like you’re rewarding your older son for bad behavior, you’re not. Rather, you’re creating space for these two boys to form a bond, a sacred pact that takes one-on-one time to live up to.
ERIKA SAYS: From what you say about your family dynamic, I feel for both boys, especially your oldest son. My mother always said, “Hurt people hurt people.” Could your son be hurting, causing him to lash out at his youngest and only brother?
Sit down with your son and have a private, open, honest conversation. Understanding what’s behind his behavior will provide insight as to what’s going on. Once you’ve had the talk, it’s time to make changes.
Here are a few suggestions about what might be causing tension between your two boys and what you can do about it:
Your older son may be feeling neglected because his father isn’t around to guide him. As a single mother, it’s important to me that my son doesn’t focus on his father’s inability to be there for him. What I mean by that is, I don’t focus my energy on or project my concerns about his father’s shortcomings onto my son. Instead, we acknowledge he is doing the best he knows how.
In your case, it sounds like your son’s father has little to no involvement, but you can step in and help your son navigate the difficulties he may be experiencing as a growing boy. Yes, you may not understand everything he’s going through, but let him know that together, you will figure it out. A boy doesn’t need to be raised by a man to learn how to become one.
Your son’s attitude toward his little brother may well be age-related, as he will naturally have less in common with his younger siblings the older he gets. I am the oldest of five children. My brother, who was second-born, is five years younger than I. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I wasn’t very nice to him as a preteen. He followed me EVERYWHERE, wanted to hang around when my friends came over, and had to be at all my sleepovers. Looking back, I can see he wasn’t trying to annoy me. He simply had a deep admiration for me and looked up to his oldest sister.
If this is the case for your son, make him aware of the impact he is having on his younger brother. He needs to know his actions are hurtful, and that he is setting the tone for how others will treat the little one, too. As a big brother, your son has an opportunity to model for all his siblings what it’s like to be in a healthy relationship. Knowing this may inspire him to take more responsibility for his behavior toward all his siblings.
Lastly, I would make sure your son is not being picked on or bullied by his peers. If he’s in a position where he feels powerless, mistreating his little brother could be his (misguided) way of gaining power back. Get him the help he needs through the school, a counselor, or a peer group, any of which can make a world of difference.
There is nothing you can’t do as a single mama to help mold your children. Whether there are one or two parents in the home, what matters is the love, wisdom, and people filling it up. Surround your family with a healthy tribe, and your children will grow into amazing adults. You do what you can, and your tribe fills in the gaps.
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 a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more ASK MOM advice.
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. Follow Mary on Instagram at @advice_mom.
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.
Suzanne Johnson, mom of five children and grandma of six, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of Realms of Edenocht.