Q: My 13-year-old son is always picking on his 11-year-old brother. It bothers me, but my husband says boys will be boys. What should I do?
Helen B., University Heights, Ohio
A: Well, ask your husband what he would say if it were an older kid at school, instead of his brother, who was picking on your 11-year-old. Chances are he wouldn't take that so lightly. Most parents now recognize how detrimental bullying can be.
Being pushed around at home by an older sibling can be as damaging as being bullied at school. What's more, if the abuse is at home, there's little chance for the victim to avoid the bully, making it even more intense. Both forms of abuse (bullying at school and at home) create anxiety, self-doubt, low self-esteem, depression and suppressed rage in the victim. And bullying is a sign of emotional problems in the perpetrator, too.
Fortunately, you can straighten this out with direct intervention. Make it clear to your 13-year-old that his bullying behavior is never OK. And there need to be consequences if he does it — no TV time, no digital games, no allowance. But you and you husband also should talk about what may be motivating your older child. Are you playing favorites? Does your older child need more attention, more support? And discuss with each other (and perhaps with a professional counselor) how you can help your younger child learn to stick up for himself and to make it clear he won't tolerate the behavior.
Another great strategy: Start to spend special time with each child every week. And plan family activities so the kids can build positive memories together. If the problem continues, www.clevelandclinic.org offers great advice on managing sibling rivalry. Also, talk with your pediatrician. Then consider that it may be time to see a family counselor.
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