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A teen son bullies his family. But he’s not the only one who needs to change.

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5 min

Q: I have 16- and 11-year-old sons and a 14-year-old daughter. The 16-year-old is an a-hole at worst and a jerk at best to the 11-year-old. In typical interactions, he is dismissive, disrespectful and borderline emotionally abusive to the 11-year-old. They do hang out every few days and play video games together nicely, but this is the only non-negative interaction.

The 16-year-old used to behave similarly (although not nearly as bad) to the 14-year-old, but as she has grown older, she has learned to give it back to him, so he generally steers clear of her. When we confront him about it, he says that the 11-year-old intentionally provokes him (not true) and that we favor the 11-year-old. I can understand why he feels that way, and we try not to interfere, but I will not tolerate blatant disrespect in our house and family.

When I have told him that we will have to go to counseling for help, he has threatened that “you will not like what will happen” if we do that. I’ll then ask him for alternatives to solve the problem, and he doesn’t come up with any. I feel as if my hands are tied, and this is affecting my 11-year-old’s self-esteem and social interactions. Please help.

A: Oh dear, I know this is hard. Although we don’t like to admit it, many of our first bullies are family members, siblings among them. It’s a special kind of pain to awaken every day to your bully; home is meant to be a place to rest from the hardships of the world, not to grapple with them.

If you read my columns, you know I strive to always find the silver linings in every family challenge, and I never believe anyone is too far gone to change for the better, but I am going to be honest: You have an uphill trek here. Am I concerned about the borderline emotional abuse to the 11-year-old? Yes. Am I worried about your 11-year-old’s self-esteem and socialization? Yes. And am I dismayed that the 16-year-old was like this to his sister? Quite. But what has me the most distressed is how long this has been happening and that your eldest seems to feel as if he’s in charge of the family.

His threat after you suggested counseling is deeply concerning. Do you have weapons in the house? Has he been aggressive with you or your partner? I have to ask, because aggression plus firearms equals a tragedy that we frequently see.

It is common for siblings to fight, and it can get quite ugly. Children can show their worst selves to each other — verbally, physically and emotionally. They can often react to struggles with their peers by fighting with their siblings, and perceived favoritism from their parents can exacerbate their scuffles. But although the arguments can become quite heated, most tweens and teens can — and do — find resolutions to their fighting, but I am not seeing that in your family. Your daughter had to toughen up to stand up to her brother, and now your youngest son is taking the brunt of the aggression.

Somewhere along the line in your family, your eldest son showed signs of becoming an alpha in the house, and the adults didn’t provide the boundaries to help him and the other children feel safe. Contrary to what people may think, bullies typically aren’t happy doing the bullying. A child doesn’t enjoy wreaking havoc in a family, and they certainly don’t want to be the “bad kid,” but patterns of behavior get stuck, and before you know it, you have serious problems on your hands.

It’s not all bad news. The brothers spend some positive time together, and I see you have made gestures to problem-solve with him. As for now, your youngest son must be made to feel safe. It is clear that your eldest sees you as favoring your youngest, and he may not be wrong. Although you love your 16-year-old, you probably don’t like him. (The name-calling is a tip-off.) And I’m sure the defending, blaming and hand-wringing around your 11-year-old only further provokes your eldest.

While you are keeping your 11-year-old safe, you must find a way into your 16-year-old’s heart. It may sound impossible; however, I believe that there is a deep wound in him and that he desperately wants to be understood and seen, but he doesn’t feel safe, either. I would bet there’s an issue underlying your eldest son’s aggression (depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and although some may say, “Kids can just be horrible jerks,” I largely disagree. There is a need that hasn’t been met in your eldest son.

Find yourself a therapist who will also see your family. This is a family issue (primarily yours, if you can believe it), so everyone will need to go. Take the time to find someone who works with families with teens and who has a good understanding of aggression, and make sure you feel a good connection with them.

While you are finding a therapist, please read “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene and fully take advantage of his website, Greene’s problem-solving model has been used with an array of children, including the toughest and traumatized, and I think you will find his work to be illuminating.

It is not too late to start helping all of your children heal. Please find a good therapist, stat. Good luck.

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