Bullying Brother: When Your Home is Ground Zero

Posted September 13, 2010 by

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.


Jodi Richardson is the mother of two and a Parent Blogger for Empowering Parents. Before having children of her own, Jodi held many jobs that involved kids. This included teaching “at risk” junior high students in an alternative schools classroom. She finds being the mother of two children equally as challenging.

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  1. LoriGriggs (Edit) Report

    Now that it’s been six years, has there been any change? What, if anything, has helped? My 6yo is constantly aggravating his 4yo brother. I feel like our house is ground zero as well. Just today, my 6yo asked if his brother could go live somewhere else because he didn’t want to share mom & dad. It’s heartbreaking! My 4yo adores his brother. He wants to do bedtime stories as a family, and burst into tears tonight when my 6yo excluded him. I don’t know what to do 😔

  2. SunshineShadow (Edit) Report

    This has to stop. Take it from a much younger sibling who is now dealing with adult bullying. I am the target of character assassination and threats. My parents did not ‘nip it in the bud’ so to speak and now he feels that he can do anything. Completely irrational. I went to counseling – he never did. Even my mom is scared of him now. If the child will not talk to you, then get him to a counselor that he likes – and try and stop it before he gets so old that you cannot stop it.

  3. kiki (Edit) Report

    hi there, i had one or may be a few. i have something similar to this. I have a 14 year who sometimes bullies his dad,, like in most it would be my son and his dad at most times, but they enjoy each other at most time and they spend time together. he’s very polite and really courteous and help with others considering he has no siblings.. most times i have no problem, and i know sometimes it could involve in a bad day and work or school or some thing and i do and we do try to talk about it helps. we’ve had discussions and talks about our son if things are happening in school or is anywhere particular. about being bullied, definitely it could part-take at home with the its disrupted when some is having a bad…. in question to his dad and himself they get into arguments or disagreements and sometimes grunting and an attitude. then, we all get into an argument, disagreements and it doesn’t sound so nice, i definitely don’t like being in the middle and/or be the mediator. just trying to solve things is so hard at times. even to where talking with his dad, it’s just like he is a teenager himself and not just thinking before reacting, so sometimes we struggle or too, but then later its okay… we’ve had moments where i just want to stop… talking to sons and dads and hopefully we can get along to go along to work together…. so having to read up on self-help articles, to-do’s, therapy with doctors or too, help advice, and/or help from family, friends or even to spiritual help as well…… We have gotten through so many times to where thru out these years i felt like it’s a growing process and life we have to go thru, since then our relationship has grown and things have been going well, but i like to think having positive attitude, and trying helps sometimes, and it is a struggle for me (not all the time)…. having a balance and continuous involvement in all we do really sets things to a healthier relationship, and i could be wrong, thanks for sharing, and hopefully things work out, through out what we do in our daily lives…

  4. Nicole (Edit) Report

    We had bullying in our house with my son and stepson, the same age. My stepson developed problems with making up stories or thowing himself into walls or on the floor if my son even touched him. The stepson said he did this to “get back” at my son for the times he really did hurt him. The boys met at age 5 and are now 11. Things have really calmed down with age, so take heart. It just took years of constant, patient teaching about how to be appropriate. Then, as they experienced the rewards of good behavior, they started to choose the good path more and more. Just remember that the best gift you can give any child is a sane, stable parent. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the madness. Take a time-out yourself so you can model appropriate behavior. Good luck!!

  5. momtohandl (Edit) Report

    Wow…I could have also written the same thing..my sons are 3 and 6..and the 6 yr old is exhausting..The little one is still so little that I feel so protective. I know siblings fight..my brother and I used to pound on each other..but it was a ‘fair’ fight. My oldest TORTURES the little one…and the little one just doesn’t have the skills to ignore him yet. I’m also recently a single parent, which adds more stress, because how do you handle the punishment when you also need to handle the victim..I spend a lot of energy just trying to keep them apart from each other.

    Thank you for sharing!!

  6. Jamie (Edit) Report

    I used to live the same life! I feel as though I could have written this myself, but its reversed: the 8 year old is the bully and the 12 year old was the sensitive one. My 12 year old has ADHD, which annoys the crap out of the 8 year old who has bipolar. I won’t say “He is bipolar” I say he has it, as my son isn’t his disease. One thing I’ve learned and had mad things a lot better are books by Alfie Kohn and learning about Law of Attraction. When I stopped “expecting” my days to go like this, as I hear you do (and I did for a long, long time), they stopped being that way. Granted, they still fight, but I stopped expecting them to fight and its gone WAY down, and sometimes isn’t even a daily occurrence.

    Also, check out that Total Transformation program, it seems to work for a lot of people. But trying the radical way of parenting has also helped tremendously, where you treat everyone in the house as equals, and not “children” vs. the “parents”. It helps my kids feel like they are important enough to matter, and not just a “kid”. Many people are too scared to try this, but the results are amazing! Check out Dayna Martin’s youtube videos to start learning about it if you want to 🙂 You don’t even have to be a homeschooler to implement the philosophies.

  7. Tonya (Edit) Report


    Your house sounds just like mine. I have 2 boys, 14 and 12, and they have identical personalities, it sounds like, as your boys. The older one is my challenge: bossy, cocky, rude, verbally and physically abusive. He is also bipolar. My younger son is everything else: gentle, calm, hard-working, adaptable, innocent, and sweet. I love them both, but there is daily tension and regular combat in our house. I’ve witnessed and cleaned up after countless battles which leave a tear-streaked face, bruises and pains, hurt feelings and anger. And I’m always torn between the two of them. My older son, Quinton, needs me to coach him, hold him accountable, and love him even when he is unlovable. My younger son, Emilio, needs me to protect him to provide a safe place for him to find rest and recuperation from the world and its many challenges. I’m a single mom, and I often feel torn in those two directions. Thanks for sharing your story. If nothing else, you and I are not alone; and I, for one, am comforted by that. Take care.


  8. cordelia (Edit) Report

    Since mornings seems to start things off “badly” for you. Try starting “ahead of the battle.” When you hear Jimmy coming from his bedroom greet him with a very heartfelt “Good Morning. So glad to see you.” His response at first will be negative, a grunt, or total ignorance. It’s going to take time for the trust to come.
    As far as the TV issue, set aside a time to speak with each of your sons in private. Find out what their favorite shows are and when the air. You’ll probably learn that there are show they both like and a lot they don’t. When Jimmy is interested in watching the show Glenn has picked. DO SOMETHING ONE ON ONE WITH JIMMY. This will teach both boys how to SOLVE PROBLEMS as an adult would. Plus, look at the bonding time you will get to have with each of your boys.
    Again, Jimmy will resist at first because this is new territory for him. Be persistent! The rewards will be great.
    Last and most importantly, as you get up each day, force yourself to think of three positive things about Jimmy. This will set your mood in the right direction for the day.
    “Think and Grow Rich” is one of my most favorite books. It reminds me each day that “thinking” is more than half way to the end result.
    I have used these techniques with my own children. Children who bully are just people who are hurting inside because they don’t feel important.
    Never give up on the positive…….

  9. farmer (Edit) Report

    hey please try the approach in the total transformation. your oldest is in 5th grade and if you do not lay down rewards and concequences, you will find that you may have a police matter on your hands. after he bullies time and time again, this behavior beomes part of who he is and it becomes harder and harder to break the cycle of hehavior. it will work for you, you may have setbacks but you will have tools to use. also use the alternative discussion for the next time this happens. believe me the total transformation will give you the peace in your home that you deserve. best wishes, the farm wife with three boys

  10. Tracia222 (Edit) Report

    I have a 15 yo daughter and almost 14 year old son (they are 19 months apart). As my pedetrician has stated before, my daughter has been angry since the day my son was born. As he is gaining on her (height wise), and with some maturity, she is settling down. However, at it’s worst, if she physically hurt him, he could pick a chore for her to do. It was usually his laundry. This really helped in cutting down on the physical bullying. And yes, she is usually the one with the remote and I have to remind her to let him have it. I do think it’s effected his self esteem, and although he feels safe and protected at my house, my ex does not give her any consequences, but I learned long ago, there is really nothing I can do about what happens in his house. It’s frustrating. I feel that one day (when he gets bigger), he’s just gonna let loose, becuase he has a lot of pent up anger, I’ve tried to help him with. and I’ll keep trying in hopes that won’t happen. It’s not easy.

  11. Melody (Edit) Report

    Jodi, I am teary eyed.
    I can completely relate to the dynamics at play and the sheer exhaustion you feel. Thank you for your sincere and honest reflection on your family. We have the same drama in our home with our oldest daughter and her siblings; if it is not her brother (a year and a half younger) then it is her little sister (six yrs younger)that she is tormenting. She has always had to share a room as well (but I don’t necessarily think that is a factor in explaining why she behaves this way) so discipline and protecting the other has often been tricky.

    Although, I have found it a mixed blessing to share with others the trials we go through as parents of challenging children, it is a lot less isolating to know that we are not alone. You might find some insight from others, in the comments left following my article entitled, Family Dynamics, When One Child’s Behavior Impacts the Whole Family:
    There are links from others to resources that I found enlightening at the time, as well as feedback from parental support specialists here at Empowering Parents.

    In addition, Did you know you can read everything that one blogger from EP has published here simply by clicking on their name link or pic? Very cool. I look forward to reading more of your work. Feel free to share with me your experiences and we can learn from one another. Thank you again for such a great post!

  12. sli (Edit) Report

    Thanks for sharing! This article sounds so much like our home. We have a d that is 11yrs and twin ds that are 4yrs. The mornings start out the same exact way! As a mother, it’s very tiring and exhausting and not what you want first thing in the morning! But this is life in our homes, which alot of people don’t understand unless they live the life that we do everyday! My oldest can be the greatest, sweetest, most helpful person on a good day, but just don’t cross her (which is very hard trying not to do). There are days that I just cry because I see her doing these things, like you mentioned to our twins and when I step in, it’s WW all over again, and again, and again…ECT. There are lots of times that I am the one who becomes the biggest target of all and it just rips my heart out, but within seconds later…it’s just like nothing happened! My oldest has ADHD, ODD, Impulse control…blah, blah, blah. SO many disorders…I think she’s just a combination of so many the drs don’t really know! Her counselor mentioned that she thought that my d may have some aspergers in her as well! My youngest twin has some of the same issues, however some developmental issues as well! I’m hoping that I caught a lot of things in time, this time around! My oldest twin is most of all like your son, Glenn. She is one that just takes everything to heart and tries to stay out of the way and get scared very easily! She has said many times that she doesn’t like her older/younger sisters because they hurt her!
    I try my best to keep comfort for all my children, especially when times are chaotic! I was just wondering what you would suggest to someone that is a home mom with 3 kids. One being the biggest bully, one being a littlier bully (if there really is such a thing) and one just being caught in everything. How would you handle the situation by yourself, if the oldest one explodes, but yet you still need to keep a close eye on the 4 yr old twins?
    Thanks for your story. It’s comforting to me to know that my life is not the only one that’s crazy!
    My life may be crazy and chaotic most days, but they are my world and there is nothing I would not do for them!

    Thanks again and hope things work out for your and your family! Everything takes time, but it’s just waiting that drives us crazy!!

    Take care!!

  13. Carole Banks (Edit) Report

    James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation Program, was not a big fan of a kid just ‘doing time’ in his room. He wrote that kids don’t really learn anything from this type of punishment. He recommended using a consequence that requires kids to focus on what they would do differently next time they’re in that same situation. Instead of grounding your son to his room, take away a privilege and require your son to do something before he can earn it back.

    The best consequences are those from which the child learns something. For example, if your son was disrespectful to his brother, a good consequence is to tell him he can’t use his computer until he writes his brother a letter of apology. In the letter, he has to tell his brother what he’ll do differently the next time he’s angry with him. Writing the letter of apology is a learning experience that wins him back his computer privilege. That way, he’s not just “doing time.” He’s completing an act that teaches him something.

  14. Mom2Mom (Edit) Report

    Wow…I am going thru the exact same thing except my boys are 11 and 6. The 11 year old is so mean to his younger brother but I can’t get him to stop. I put the little one in karate to learn self defense. Quick question: How do you punish one child when they share a room? My oldest is getting in trouble at school and is on punishment but he is always baiting the younger in to the room to keep him company.



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