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Bullying in the Family

answered 02:13 PM EST, Thu August 18, 2011
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anonymous anonymous
My sister’s son verbally bullies my oldest son (7) whenever we get together for family gatherings. He will even tease and taunt him very cruelly at the dinner table in front of all the adults so I know it must be much worse when they go off to play without the adults watching.

My sister does nothing when she witnesses the bullying and it puts me in an awkward spot. For a lot of reasons, her parenting skills are a very sensitive subject within the family and I cannot bring her son’s treatment of my son up with her without it becoming a shouting match. For the same reasons, my parents and siblings aren’t eager to confront her about the behavior either. If I discipline her son for what he does, things are even worse.

I am at sort of a loss about what to do. They boys see each other a lot at family gatherings and I hate to put him in the position where I know he is going to get bullied, and he gets very upset about it as well.

On the other hand, the bullying is never physical and I don’t think he is any danger and I don’t want to deny him and my other kids relationships with the rest of the family. We’ve always been a close family and done things like weekly summer Sunday BBQs at my parents and other things in the winter. How damaging is it for my son to be in a spot where he is getting bullied in the family and he knows that his parents can’t or won’t put a stop to it? Is it going to have lasting damage? He still wants to go to his grandparents even though he knows that Owen will be there, so maybe I am overreacting…?

I feel like I have to choose between either giving him the gift of a loving extended family or keeping him safe from bullying.

David Johnson Says...

This is a very complex situation so I'm not sure I can do it justice in a question and answer format. You don't describe what the "bullying" is, rather you use words like cruel. So from the information you provide, I can't give you a good answer about your reaction. The fact that your son wants to visit, but gets upset about it also makes a judgment about the nature of the consequences difficult.

One thing seems apparent is that your sister is effectively bullying you. You and your parents are reluctant to bring up her son's behavior without creating a shouting match. It takes two sides to shout. If you express yourself in an appropriately assertive manner, and you sister responds with angry intimidation, that sounds like bullying. The same applies with your parents. Your issue is with your sister. There is no shouting match if you don't shout. The only way you can have an effect is to produce some consequences for your sister. That may mean getting up from the table and leaving if her son bullies.

Your actions however need to be proportionate and as I said, the seriousness of the situation is hard to assess. Older children will often assert themselves as the "alpha", or leader, in a group of children. Often a child at home will assert themselves as "alpha" in their own home. If that is all that is going on, then some simple limitations might be sufficient. Some children and their parents really don't know the limits of teasing. Suggesting a strategy to your sister may be helpful. But if the problem is inter-generational bullying, then your issue is with your sister and you need to stand up to her and resolve this. If you don't shout, maintain a calm voice regardless of her behavior, then you will retain the high road and a chance at a reasonable resolution.

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Page last updated Aug 24, 2011

Topics Covered by this Expert
Bullies Bullying Harassment PTSD Workplace Bullying

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