The Positive Discipline Association is a non-profit organization dedicating to promoting and encouraging the development of life skills and respectful relationships in families, schools, businesses and community systems.
One of the services of this organization is to provide training workshops to accomplish their mission. Another is a panel of Certified Positive Discipline Associates who answer as many questions as they can find time for. I have asked permission to post a recent question and answer by Laurie Prusso. I think you’ll enjoy her warmth, her humor, her encouragement, and her practical suggestions.
I have 3 boys. The oldest is 12, the middle 11 and youngest 7. The middle child has ADHD. My oldest son is a bully to the middle child. My question is how do I handle my sons when they are bickering in front of their friends outside? For instance, my oldest son and friends wanted to play soccer and the middle one said, “I don't want to play,” and the oldest makes fun of him for not wanting to play the game and the neighborhood kids make fun also. This is an every other day occurrence. Thanks for your help in advance
My name is Laurie Prusso. I sometimes answer the questions that come to Positive Discipline through the Website. I am a Certified Positive Discipline Associate and a college instructor, but most importantly for you—I am the mother of six sons. They are all grown now and I have 12 grandchildren. I’m so excited to answer your question and I hope that my response will help you.
I can tell from your letter that you are really very frustrated with the behavior that you are seeing and I get the sense that you would like to have some peace and to see your boys get a long better. First of all, I’m sorry to tell you that boys “fight”. They compare, compete, and even come to blows sometimes. Some of it is normal and some of it is just habitual. Without some really focused effort on the part of the parents, they will behave this way a lot. With some good training and skill building, they can lessen the conflict and replace it with a different more effective kind of play. Second, I can tell you that siblings, even siblings who seemed to fight, argue, and compete all of the time, often grow up to be very good friends and great adults. Such is the case for me. I could share stories that would curl your hair and give you hope, if I had more time.
Siblings compete for our attention and our time. As they grow, they “learn” this way of navigating their relationships. It isn’t always the most effective, but it seems to provide them with something that they want and need. It keeps them engaged with each other and helps them establish a hierarchy—real or imagined. It also gets you involved with them—a strategy that all children employ.
After a while, it is just their way of being and playing (sort of like bear cubs). Sometimes you can tell that they are just agitating each other, other times you may see that they are truly angry with each other. Your first two boys are very close in age and this may influence the relationship. You don’t mention the youngest son as being involved in the fray. He may be an onlooker, an instigator, or simply uninvolved with them. Your tribe is ready for some new learning that will enhance your family life and provide you with some hope that all three of your kids will survive to adulthood.
First, I will recommend that you read Positive Discipline. If you have already read it, read it again and refresh your memory of the ideas and principles taught in it. The book describes the mistaken goals of behavior. Children seek significance and belonging in different ways, and your boys may even be using different mistaken goals to try to meet their needs. Understanding how they are operating will help you decide what you will do. The only thing parents really have control over is deciding what WE will do and how we will teach and train our children.
There are many skills and tools that you can find in the book, and then apply to your situation. I am going to suggest one that will help you get right to the point. I recommend that you learn how to use family meetings to build relationships and find solutions to problems or concerns that arise in your family. There is a great chapter on Family Meetings in the book that provides step by step guidelines. Here I will be brief.
Gather the family. Have fun—have refreshments. Talk about things you all enjoy. Notice and comment on the “good things” that go on. Invite each family member to compliment or appreciate someone else. Then present your concern. Be conscious and thoughtful about it. Leave out blame and old history. Describe your feelings. Listen to each family member and validate their experiences—do not take sides or agree with them—just listen. You will learn a lot about them from listening attentively. You may even hear them say, “We just do it to get you upset!” When everyone has shared their experience and their feelings about your concern, create a scenario, based on a recent conflict they have had. Invite them to act it out in a role play. The older one may gaff at this. If so, involve the younger son, or the adults can do the role play. Then invite them to brainstorm possible alternative ways for them to interact with each other and with their friends. Write down every suggestion they make, especially the outlandish ones that are sure to come up, like, “Send him to a military school!” This will help them learn to trust this process and to be willing to use it to meet the needs of your family. HAVE FUN! Laugh together at things they say. Your mood and tone will set the tone and keep the mood you want.
Review the suggestions and select one that they are willing to try for a week. When they agree (if they don’t agree, it is NOT the solution) on a solution, role play the scenario, this time using the agreed upon solution. Sometimes it is fun to have them trade roles and replay. Listen to them talk some more about how they think this might work for them and for their friends. Tell them that you’ll check in with them next week at the family meeting. Encourage them in their efforts and serve them more cookies. You can never have too many cookies!
Family meetings are an excellent way to teach children more effective ways to get along. They have probably already heard all of our comments like, “Stop treating your brother like that!” And, “Your friends will not like you if you treat them that way.” And, “You boys are driving me crazy.” These kinds of things aren’t really helping us or them to really address the problem and find peaceable solutions to it. What you really want is for them to love each other and treat each other like they do. At 11 and 12 years of age, they will be less willing to talk about such sappy things as they will be to tackle a problem and try to make things better.
Lisa, I discovered Positive Discipline when my kids were in their teen age years and it changed my entire way of thinking. I really think that if you read the book and try to implement some of the principles and ideas in it, you will begin to make a change and when you make a change, then your boys will make a change as well.
Finally, don’t give up. Adolescence can be a very trying and challenging time! I used to say, “It only gets worse!” But now I can tell you with confidence that, “This too shall pass.” Adolescent boys are—or seem to be—out of control. They have so much energy and passion. They can learn to channel it into good and productive things, and they will. Learn to have fun with this stage of development and to notice the strengths in each of your boys. As they grow, there will be fewer and fewer times when you can use your power to “make them” do things. You will be glad that you discovered another tool for your parenting bag of tricks. Negotiate with them and they will become more cooperative. Focus on their strengths and know that we were all there once!
I feel like we are kindred spirits. Good luck to you.