Dear Therapist Within:
I am having an issue with my oldest little brother who is about to turn twelve years old. He seems to always want to pick on my youngest brother of 9 years. He is always trying to one up him, to the extent that they literally hit and push each other. I feel they have learned some of this aggression from my mom and step dad verbally fighting over the years no doubt seeing me and my step dad fight as well. I understand that boys will be boys but it seems like they have approached a whole new level of being rotten. Just the other day they were arguing, fighting, pouting and putting on a show for my mom to watch in disgust. I don’t want my little brothers to grow up with this kind of attitude, especially the older one. They are both very intelligent kids, they passed the AIMS with flying colors and I feel that they can exceed. My mother is completely hard headed and just doesn’t want to listen and tells me that I am no different from them when I try to intervene….Almost like she would rather prove a point than to have me try to intervene….I am completely lost and I feel I am losing two very smart siblings with a lot of potential….What should I do?
ANSWER: First of all, I applaud you for recognizing the problem and wanting to do something. This is a form of bullying that really needs to stop. It can very well result from seeing bullying going on in your household. Often when children see it, and if they are the target of your parents, for example, they feel angry and helpless and take it out on someone younger and smaller than they. I wish I knew how old you were so I could make some judgment of how sophisticated my response could be – but here goes anyway! I would opt for doing some behavior modification with the oldest boy – IF there are reinforcers that you have control of and which they would respond to. In order to find out if this would work you need to:
- First, you need to establish a baseline. For a week, count the number of times they fight every day, the number of times the older attacks the younger, write down the time and how long each fight lasts. You need to have some way of measuring your progress. This will help.
- Second, think about the kinds of things that your older brother would find reinforcing – the kinds of things he would work hard for – this can be going out with his sister for ice cream, you taking him (or then) to a water park, playing some video games, shooting baskets, etc.
- Do you control the distribution of these “rewards?” What I mean by that is do you have the ability to drive them somewhere, the money to buy them ice cream or any other ability to give them rewards?
- If you can come up with a list of the rewards, I would then sit down with each of the kids – together at first – and ask them lots of questions. Why do they fight? Do they think it is a good thing to fight? Do they think it will help them when they go to high school? Do they think other people (potential friends) would be more or less attracted to them if they are always fighting? What kind of people would they like to be when they grow up? Do they want to have a family that fights all the time? I wouldn’t bombard them with these questions all at once!! Take it slow and easy.
- Next think about how often you would need to reinforce your older brother for not fighting. Look at the baseline you have collected. Do they fight every day? Several times a day? A couple of times a week? If it is several times a day, you will need to reinforce him every day in some way. It could be a star – once they have 5 stars, they would get a reward or something that fits the situation
- Now sit them down and talk to them – let them know how much their fighting upsets you and how much you care about their future. Ask your older brother if he would be willing to work on not fighting – and if he will, every day he doesn’t pick a fight you will tell him how proud you are of hiim and that if he can avoid fights every day for X number of days, you will – then name the reward. You might even set up a punching bag somewhere in or out of the house to let the older brother get his aggression out safely instead of taking it out on the younger one.
Now of course, this will only work if your older brother respects you, if he isn’t trying to get your goat, and if you have power over giving him rewards!!! Let me know what you think and if this is possible. Good luck!!!
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