Dear Dr. Wolf:
I am a 50-year-old divorced father of three teenage boys. My youngest is autistic. My second boy taunts and harasses him whenever they're together. I've tried to explain to No. 2 that he should show a little more compassion and understanding. I've told both older boys of No. 3's situation and I've tried my best to explain what autism is about.
No. 1 is pretty good with No. 3. It's No. 2 who concerns me. I need a better approach to get him to see No. 3 in a different light and to see the damage that he may be doing to him.
- Worried Dad
Dear Worried Dad,
The way your second son acts towards his younger brother is an oft-repeated story of siblings - whether there is an issue of disability or not. Compared to an older sibling, all younger siblings do have a disability: They are younger, hence usually smaller, weaker, less smart.
Why does your middle son want to harass his younger sibling? He may well harbour resentment. The way he probably sees it, his brother always gets Dad to run in and protect him. And he - as the older one - always gets the blame. He resents that he is supposed to take responsibility for his actions, while his brother seems to get a free pass. It is so unfair. He is also embarrassed by his brother - it reflects on him. (It's not pretty to feel that way, but normal.) Also, harassing his brother is a safe way for him to release excess energy. This is often the case with siblings: The younger one is the older one's private punching bag.
Not only that, but as so often is the case with aggressors, he may genuinely believe that his actions towards his brother are okay.
To him, they are okay because (again, this is how your middle son sees it):
- It is only in fun. (It isn't, of course. It's only fun for him. But this is the No. 1 bully excuse.)
- He is not really hurting his brother. It may make no sense, but it's the way siblings often feel about their actions to others within the family: The pain they may inflict somehow isn't real. It does not count.
- It really is his brother's fault that he acts the way he does. He could control it if he really wanted to.
- He cannot see his brother as a person.
What all of the above adds up to is that your second son is not very empathic towards his younger brother. This may seem heartless, but it's a normal child reaction - a reaction that he may well outgrow. He simply may not have reached that level of emotional maturity. When he's older he probably won't be proud of his behaviour. But he doesn't see it yet.
For now, you are right to try to provide a more sympathetic perspective for your middle son. But don't count on it making a significant difference. When you feel that your second son's words or actions are causing significant suffering for your youngest, you will still need to intervene - that is, separate them. I would not recommend punishing your middle son. Punishing, in fact, only makes it worse, because it may solidify his dislike for his younger sibling: "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be getting punished."
Finally, you'll want to regularly deliver the following messages to your middle son, whether they register or not:
- Most important is that you state over and over again that, whether he agrees or not, his actions do hurt his brother - badly. You may not be able to convince him, but you are stating that this absolutely is what you think.
- He needs to hear that autism is real. It is important to educate him, as you have done, about autism. And that, despite what he may think, his brother cannot be like other kids. It is the way he is constructed. He just can't.
- You should tell him his feelings about his brother are normal, that most kids might feel the same if they had a younger brother like his. That you are not angry at him for feeling the way he does. It is just that it is wrong for him to act on those feelings, as they do harm his brother.
As I said, he may not see it that way, but it is important that the harm issue be repeated over and over again. Your saying so does make a difference.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.