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What To Do When Your Oldest Child Bullies the Younger Ones

Dear Mark, We have greatly benefited from your online parenting book and we have watched you on YouTube. Our son aged 10 [will be 11 in Aug.] has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD. We have 4 other children, and we try to run a loving but disciplined home. Though my son is not out of control, he is very aggressive and rude from the off, without any provocation. We feel very undermined because of his behaviour, especially in front of the other children. I feel very sad and depressed when he behaves like this, which is most of the time. He bullies his younger siblings, and causes a great deal of tension and unhappiness at home. The autism is the reason for his lack of social skills but why is he so angry, unhelpful and unpleasant in an environment that is mild mannered? Is it because he is a bad tempered person who happens to have autism and ADHD?

Please forgive me if I am missing the obvious. Thank you very much for your time and patience. Looking forward to hearing from you. A.


Approach the bullying situation in three distinct ways:

1. Ask yourself if you think that the mocking and harassing by the older brother to the younger sibling is only a superficial encounter between siblings or if there's a deep-seeded resentment involved. The older brother may be displacing anger that he feels in another area of his life and taking it out on the closest possible victim, his sibling. You don't want the younger sibling to see himself as a victim. If the interactions stem from unresolved familial issues, one or both of the children may need therapy.

2. Notice when they get along. What are they doing? Playing video games, riding bicycles, listening to music? Whatever it happens to be, see what you can do to create more opportunities for them to engage in these activities together. When they're engaging in an activity together, they are building their relationship.

3. Stop the older brother from mocking and harassing his younger sibling. When he starts in, assume control of the situation, step between the children and stop it immediately. Say something like, "Mocking and harassing your brother is not OK. I will not allow one kid I love to harm — even with words — another kid I love." Use powerful — but not threatening — body language and tone of voice. These interactions between the siblings are likely a negative habit embedded in their relationship. By stopping these interactions quickly, the kids will need to find another way — hopefully a positive one — of interacting.

4. When they do get along with one another, be sure to catch them in the act of "being good" and extend a dose of acknowledgment and praise: "I see you guys are getting along - that's you being respectful - good work."

Most bullying situations start in the home, sometimes delivered from parent to kid and other times between siblings. The children need to learn better ways to interact because neither will succeed well in relationships if they generalize the bullying or the victim roles to other situations.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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