We recently had one of our readers ask a challenging question. We felt like it would be useful to share her question and Dr. Wally’s response in hopes that others will find benefit from it.
I recently found you through an article you had published in Meridian Magazine. I am so grateful for the insights you share on the Internet so freely. I really appreciate your emphasis on compassion and empathy.
I know this is not an “Ask Dr. Wally” website so I feel rather presumptious asking you for some advice, but I am desperate enough right now in looking for new ideas to do so.
My oldest child who is almost 14 regularly and frequently insults his younger brother (who is almost 3 years his junior). He calls him “idiot” or “stupid” several times a day, particularly during the long summer vacation days. We have talked to our son on several occasions about compassion and caring about his brother, but the habit persists. For some time now, we have given him extra chores when the insulting continues (normally doing some of his younger brother’s work). I am just wondering if you have any other thoughts about the situation. I realize that there are limits on how much I can communicate about our specific family situation in a short comment. I am only asking this sort of question here because I deeply respect your views and I suspect that other parents might have issues with the same type of thing. No problem at all if you are not able to address this issue at this time. I would just love to hear any thoughts you have on raising teenagers either now or in the future.
Thank you for writing. You ask a challenging question.
The challenge for your older son is to develop more compassion. Yet our usual ways of lecturing children actually dull their compassion. This is not an indictment of you. This is the reality of the human condition. I don’t think the older boy will be able to show compassion until he has felt it. While you have probably shown him a lot of compassion, his behavior may be telling you that he is still hurting and he needs more.
I recommend that, next time he treats his younger brother badly, you take him aside for some one-on-one. Be sure to beg heaven to expand your wisdom and compassion. Then try to express to your son what he might be feeling.
“I guess your brother bothers you?”
“You’re feeling pretty frustrated with him?”
“Sometimes you wish he would leave you alone?”
(You can get great ideas for this by reading Between Parent and Teenager FREE at www.betweenparentandchild.com
Let him talk or clarify. Take as long as you need for your understanding and compassion to be fully felt by your older son. WHEN he feels understood, then you might say, “I can see that you’re having a hard time. I’m sorry about that and want to do anything I can to help. I wonder if we can think about what your comments are like for your brother.” Let him try to express how it might be affecting the picked-on brother. The purpose of all this is to give the older son compassion and then help him feel it for his brother.
Obviously this process takes time, wisdom, and inspiration. But it is likely to develop compassion. If your older son has practiced hard-heartedness for years, it may take a while to develop compassion. But he can learn to understand the real pain he creates when he treats his brother badly.
This does not mean that you have to allow older brother to abuse younger brother while he learns the lessons. You can set boundaries. You may say, “I understand that you have many challenges and that your brother bugs you. I need to ask you to avoid insulting him.” Help him see that he can take a break rather than attack and insult his brother. You may need to establish a consequence for violation of this rule. For example, if the older son insults the younger one, you might say, “Rats. That’s too bad that you were so overwhelmed that you broke our agreement. We need to establish some quiet time for you to think about this and get your feelings under control.” Quiet time might essentially mean that he is grounded for 24 hours and expected to take time to reflect on how to get his feelings under control. (Btw, the classic book on emotion coaching is Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.)
While God does have infinite compassion, He also imposes consequences for bad deeds.
Blessings to you,
I have written an article for the Ensign about cultivating compassion. While it is still in the process of being reviewed and edited, a very similar version of the article appeared on Meridian in two parts: