Q: I have, ka”h, eight children. The oldest, an 11-year-old boy, has a terribly competitive and controlling personality. He consistently tries to rule over his younger siblings… I hate to call him a bully, but I believe he is just that. If any sibling does not bend to his will then he excludes them by getting all the other kids to be on his “side,” ensuring that this sibling feels left out and is unlikely to stand up to him again.
I try to be on hand and mediate when such issues arise and constantly talk to my oldest about middos tovos, not being bossy and not excluding others. He’s a smart, charismatic kid and he understands the concepts, but when it comes to action he doesn’t follow through. I’ve even painted scenarios showing how society eventually shuns such people, and … when his siblings grow older… they may even exclude him…
I have tried giving my younger kids the strength to stand up to their brother. But at the end of the day, their fear and desire to be in the “in” group wins out.
I am at my wits’ end. My fourth child has been taken for an assessment due to learning disabilities, and the assessor mentioned that he can see the child is bullied by his older siblings…. My second child complains that he’s dumb… Unfortunately, he feels this way because on more than one occasion my oldest has told him so…
I’ve sent my oldest for behavioral therapy, but it doesn’t seem to have helped. In addition, I hardly give him any responsibilities that involve his siblings because I know he will abuse my faith in him…
My husband and I are totally on the same page about this; we’re willing to try anything to stop this awful trend.
A: Your frustration is palpable and for good reason. Your oldest son does sound like a bully. And there are many good parenting practices you have tried which, unfortunately, have not borne fruit.
At such times, it is helpful to remember the words of Chazal (Brachos 32b): “If a person sees that he has davened [for something that he needs] and he has not been answered, he should go back and daven [again]. [We learn this from] what [Dovid Hamelech] says: ‘Daven to Hashem. Strengthen and fortify your heart; and daven to Hashem’ (Tehillim 27:14).” Similarly, in your case, if you have taken the right steps and not seen the desired results, you may need to repeat those same steps with some slight modifications.
Talking with children about middos tovos is a wonderful idea. Unfortunately, however, when dealing with bullies, such shmuessen tend to go in one ear and out the other. Instead of talking with your oldest privately, why not lead a conversation with all your children? That way, you can serve as a counterweight to his bullying. In addition, you can model for your other children what it looks like when someone resists or ignores the manipulations of your oldest child. Finally, you can use the group process to develop a plan for addressing the problems you so painfully described.
More specifically, in a relaxed atmosphere, such as at the Shabbos table, you could bring up the subject of bullying. Ask all your children if they have ever experienced or witnessed it. If so, how did it make them feel and how did they handle it? Finally, ask what they would recommend as a remedy or defense for someone who is being victimized. Such a discussion will make your younger children feel more empowered. Moreover, it may help your oldest to feel less invulnerable to the consequences of his behavior.
An alternative approach is to initiate a discussion of bullying at home. Acknowledge it as a family predicament which has a negative impact on everyone. As the parents, you and your husband want to hear everyone’s suggestion for resolving the matter. Mention that each child’s opinion is valuable and worthy of consideration. Then go around the table and let each child have his turn to speak, including the oldest. To reduce the chances of his dominating the discussion, you might “arbitrarily” begin with the youngest.
Another good idea you had was to get professional help for your oldest son. Unfortunately, the behavioral therapy he received was not helpful. Often, behavioral therapy is ineffective with bullies because it treats the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of the destructive behavior. You might want to consider, therefore, taking your son for another round of therapy. This next time, however, let him have a more expressive therapy which focuses more on his feelings, in general, and his self-image, in particular, which may be driving him to act this way to begin with.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.