Bullying Brother: When Your Home is Ground Zero
The weekend morning is quiet; the boys are sleeping in. But if today is like most mornings I can bet on what will soon happen. My eight-year-old son will wake up first. He will wander in and say good morning or head to the television. He will find some cartoons to watch or he may even help himself to some cereal.
Eventually my older, more challenging child will awake. He is in fifth grade. He isn’t as likely to seek me out for a morning “hello” while I am doing laundry or dishes. However I will know he is up because sooner or later I will hear a scuffle. Maybe some shouts of protests from his younger brother as he takes over the television or intrudes on whatever activity his younger brother is involved in. And if the situation quickly escalates, before I can intervene, I will even hear some crying. This sound is usually preceded by the sound of a smack, fist-hitting flesh.
These are not moments I look forward to first thing in the morning, but it is a scene at our home that has played out countless times over the years. My older son, Jimmy can be quite the bully. And sadly Glenn, my youngest, wears the war wounds of being his nearest target: the bruises, the torn clothes, and the tear-streaked face.
Jimmy’s bullying behavior isn’t reserved for just the classroom, the playground or programs where people outside our family lodge formal complaints. Others may not realize that daily our family is confronted with these same serious issues. We are living at ground zero.
The other day Jimmy, pointed and sneered at shirtless Glenn told him he was getting fat and growing “man boobs.” I remind Jimmy, as always that we “talk nice” about others. And that day Glenn chuckled and laughed it off. But I’ve also seen Glenn suck in his tummy at Target when he’s shared a dressing room with his brother. I hate the negativity that spews from Jimmy’s mouth. He has planted many seeds of self-doubt in Glenn’s self esteem. I have tried to redirect him, I try to set positive examples even during moments when it feels like all the patience has been drained from my body. It is exhausting being Jimmy’s mother.
When you’re living with a bully there can be many side effects for the whole family. And weight gain may be one of them. When you have a menacing, critical, physically abusive family member, even one who’s only eleven years old, food can be a great ally, a soothing device. And I’m not talking carrots and celery. No, I’m talking about polishing off a bag of chips, a stack of cookies when your feelings are hurt. While Mom and Dad are busy dealing with timeouts and consequences food can be comforting. And after a rough day, and the kids are in bed, I have been known to comfort myself with the pint of Ben and Jerry’s hidden away behind the frozen corn even though I think a pint of Jim Beam is what would really numb the pain.
There is no doubt about it, we all could use some more exercise, time in the parks, a walk in the neighborhood. But over the years much of our time has been filled with Jimmy appointments. During which time we have all been forced to spend time waiting. Waiting in the office at the school, in the lobby at the counselor’s, waiting at the tutor’s, at the homeopath. Waiting while we’ve searched for help and answers.
It is difficult, the position our family is in, the position my younger son is in. I desperately want change for our whole family. Yet when I see a fresh bruise on Glenn’s chubby skin, I get anxious on a whole new level. Isn’t it my job to protect my children? I feel I am failing Glenn, he deserves better. What haven’t I tried? I need to do more, sooner to make change happen.
One night I tucked Glenn, into bed and asked him point blank, “Do you think Jimmy is a bully?”
“Definitely,” he said without missing a beat, his vocabulary word of choice sounded so mature. It made me give a concerned smile in the dark room. “Definitely Mom, he is a bully.”
“I wish he didn’t act like that. I saw that bruise… Why do you think he is so mean?”
“He’s scared, Mom.”
This answer surprised me and was interesting. What did Jimmy have to be scared of, I thought? He struck me as nearly always fearless, cocky, bossy. Yet one of the many articles I’ve read about bullying and challenging behaviors talked about how these kids lack necessary skills to deal with situations they find uncomfortable. I was fascinated with Glenn’s interpretation.
“Scared? I asked.
“Yeah, Mom there’s too many kids at school. If they all joined together they would be stronger than Jimmy, but if there are just a few he can handle them. Nobody wants to fight him.”
This was quite a theory. According to Glenn, Jimmy’s bullying was preventative maintenance for his own insecurity.
“Are you scared Glenn?”
“No, nobody will fight with me cause of Jimmy.”
I ask, “But who’s the bully in your class? What would you do if…”
“If somebody bugs me, Mom, I just tell them to stop.”
“What if they don’t stop?”
“Then I keep telling them or tell the yard duty lady…or grab them by the shirt and pull them away.”
“Grab them by the shirt, huh? And Jimmy—why doesn’t he just grab people by the shirt?”
“Because, he just punches them the first time. That’s why he gets in trouble. Yeah, that’s why he gets sent to the office.”
Jimmy’s troubles started early, before Glenn could properly pronounce the word “suspended.” And now that Glenn is a student at the same school, I have seen him acknowledge the comments, “I saw your brother in the office…” and the questions, “Was he suspended again?”
At school, in the neighborhood, at home, Jimmy lacks patience, self-control, fails to make good choices. Glenn on the other hand has a lot of wisdom beyond his mere eight years. My husband and I joke that he is the patron saint of forgiveness and brotherly love. His patience and ability to adapt and accept situations amazes and inspires me. He is a survivor. The lessons he’s learned in dealing with his brother: asking for help, redirecting anger, using his sense of humor, will serve him well in other parts of his life.
My sons share a room. Glenn listens to Jimmy’s bedtime stories sometimes before they fall asleep. They giggle and talk with the lights out and I know that Glenn loves Jimmy and visa versa despite the bruises, the bullying.
As our family struggles forward with the hope that Jimmy will not always be this way, I hope that my sons will continue to love one another. That they will grow up to be friends as well as brothers. I deeply love both of them and pray for their successful futures. After they have fallen asleep, I am thankful for the peace and quiet. And I hope that tomorrow will be a good day…like any mother would.