Question: We have three boys in elementary school and our two older sons are constantly picking on their younger brother. I intervene when I can, but the youngest one is beginning to play the victim, and I don’t want to encourage him in that attitude. How do I handle this complicated situation?


If it’s any consolation to you, you’re not alone. Every parent with more than one child deals with sibling rivalry at some point or other. In some families these conflicts even extend into adulthood, with adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s competing with one another like elementary school kids. That’s why it’s important to do everything you can to nip it in the bud before the situation escalates.

Looking up to dad

You didn’t mention whether you’re a single parent or not, so for purposes of our answer we’ll assume that you’re married and that your sons are growing up in a home with a present, involved and caring father. We have a good reason for insisting on this point. Dads have a powerful influence on their sons, whether for good or ill. Boys tend to imitate their father’s behaviour, including his treatment of other people. This leads us to ask the following questions: In your household, does dad model patience, kindness and respect in his relationship with other members of the family? Does he set firm limits on the boys’ behaviour, implementing swift consequences when the older ones pick on their little brother? If not, it’s time for him to step up to the plate.

If he is doing these things consistently, then the issue may be that your older sons feel they need to compete for their mother’s time and affection. Strange as it may seem, picking on little brother may be a way of saying, "Mom, I want you to pay attention to me."

Carving out individual attention

In a case like this, one good way to solve the problem is to make sure that both mom and dad schedule one-on-one time with each of the boys a few times each week. This could involve something as simple as a trip to store with you, a game of catch in the park or a walk around the neighbourhood. If your older sons are acting out because they’re feeling a bit neglected, this individual time with them could make a huge difference in their behaviour.

If you have additional questions or would like to discuss this situation at greater length with a member of our staff, we’d like to invite you to call Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department at your own convenience. Our counsellors are available to speak with you Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800. They’d be pleased to assist you in any way they can. In the meantime, you may want to pick up a copy of Dr. James Dobson’s bestselling book The New Strong-Willed Child and pay special attention to Chapter 9, "Bitter Brothers and Surly Sisters." You can order this volume by visiting our online bookstore or by calling our office at 1.800.661.9800.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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