Dear Therapist:

We have an 11 yr. old son who has been bullying his younger siblings for years. He is an intense child with a low self-esteem. He threatens them, bribes them, belittles them, embarrasses them, annoys them, and physically hurts them. He needs everything to go his way. We've spoken to him time and again about his behaviors and he's aware of what he's doing and that it’s not ok. We've punished and threatened and explained. He does have some good times and we try to focus on those times and comment, compliment and sometimes reward him for his behavior. Our question for you is: Is there a way to have a bully free policy at home, where we can't exactly kick him out of our family (like they would do in school)? We've spoken to chinuch professionals and mental health professionals over the years and have had some better times than others but we can't seem to get rid of it. We are now noticing some of the victims (his
younger siblings) copying his behaviors. Any advice would be much appreciated. Thank you.



Without some more detailed information on the history of your son’s behavior, his emotional issues, and specific strategies that you have attempted, it’s difficult for me to respond in any detail. I will speak theoretically and in generalities.

It seems that there are a few problems with which you are dealing. You want to help your 11-year-old son to feel better about himself. You also want to help him to reduce or eliminate his troublesome behaviors. You are concerned about the effect that his behaviors are having on his siblings (and the rest of the family). His siblings are also beginning to learn that these negative behaviors are acceptable.

It seems that you have taken advice from numerous people, and have tried various approaches without significant improvement. Part of the issue may lie in a lack of long-term consistency. For instance, perhaps one approach was attempted for a short while. If this approach worked to some degree, was it continued? If not, why? Was it difficult to maintain in the face of a relatively small degree of success? Did you become complacent? If the approach did not work, did you give up too quickly? If one approach was used for a short period of time, then another, then a third, then the first retried, this can give your son mixed messages, allowing him to feel that there is no constancy to rules and boundaries. It is important for your son to see disciplinary consistency.

When one spouse tries one approach while the other focuses on a different one, this can send the message that they are not on the same page, and that he can play one against the other. It is important for both parents to show a consistent united front.

When employing a punishment regimen, two of the things that are important to recognize are what I refer to as “raising the bar” and a possible power struggle. When a child has become accustomed to doing what he wants, the early stage of a punishment can become a testing ground for each person’s fortitude. Who will crack first? Often the child will increase his level of problematic behavior to test the strength of his parents’ conviction. Unfortunately, if the parents are first to cave, the higher bar is often set, with the worse behaviors becoming the new normal.

Obviously, each child is different and responds in their own way. However, some rules of thumb are: Only make rules and consequences that you are fully prepared to defend. Be clear about specific rules and the consequences for disobeying each. Positive reinforcement generally works better than punishment. However, punishment along with positive reinforcement can work together to strengthen one another.

Negative consequences should be consistent, applied with as little emotion as possible, and clearly tied to the specific behavior. Rewards should also be consistent and clearly tied to specific positive behaviors (or a lack of specific negative behaviors). This is often time-based (i.e., weekly) and a behavior chart can be used to monitor progress. A chart is a good way to help reinforce positive behavior on a constant basis. There can be a tiered system, where he receives rewards commensurate with specific levels of positive behavior. For instance, he might get a small reward for one or two checkmarks, a larger reward for three or four, and a yet larger reward for five or six.

Once a decision is reached as to the strategies to be use, remember to be patient. The best chance of success exists when the rewards and punishments are properly chosen, and long-term consistency is shown.

These are all general principles that may seem simple, but they are often difficult to properly follow. A therapist can help you to create a plan and to follow through appropriately.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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