When the Bully is Your Brother

This article was originally published in the Daily Breeze, 2016. 

The boxing gloves fit his tiny hands the way Daddy’s leather shoes fit his feet. But there he was: My 4-year-old elf child — standing a good six inches smaller than everyone else — with a punching bag hanging in front of him like an overstuffed piñata.

It was Sam’s* first mixed martial arts class at the Elite Training Center in Hermosa Beach. For those who haven’t seen the sprawling window overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, this place is a serious training facility for grown-ups. But ninjas come in all sizes, so three times a week kids ages 4 and up can strap on their gear and karate-chop, kickbox and wrestle their way to a black belt.  

Watching him nervously through the glass viewing window, I wasn’t sure if my little guy was going to budge. But when the teacher said, “Go!” — he went for it. Skinny arms flailing in big arcs above his head, he swatted at the bag as if he were trying to knock out a fly. Then, as quickly as he started,  he wrapped both arms around the punching bag and gave it a nice, long hug.

Adorable, I thought. Then:  This is never going to work.

Here’s where you’re probably wondering: Why would I want to get my sweet-natured preschooler into boxing? Why would I want to toughen up the same little boy who just last week stopped me from killing a spider in our house because, “Mommy! Every animal has a job!”

The answer is: I don’t. But there’s a bully. A very persistent bully who likes to tease and prod him until tears stream down his face. Every day.

I’d call this kid’s parents and put an end to it; but the problem is, the bully-in-question is Sam’s 6-year-old brother, Nathan.  My oldest child.

People tell me this normal. “Boys will be boys,” they say. “All siblings fight.” “They’ll be best friends eventually.”

Maybe. But it seems that my sons — the two boys whom I love most in the world  — just can’t be around each other. At least, they can’t be around each other without the big one teasing the little one and the little one crying until he gets the attention he wants.

I worry about the long-term consequences. Research has shown that bullying by a sibling can be just as psychologically damaging as bullying by a classmate. In fact, researchers at Oxford University found that children who were bullied by a sibling at age 12 were twice as likely to report depression or anxiety at age 18.

“Forms of bullying where victims are shoved around the playground or targeted at work have been well documented, however, this study uncovers a largely hidden form of bullying,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Lucy Bowes, said in a press release. “Victims of sibling bullying are offered little escape as sibling relationships endure throughout development.”

“We are not talking about the sort of teasing that often goes on within families,” she continued, “but incidents that occur several times a week, in which victims are ignored by their brothers or sisters, or are subjected to verbal or physical violence.”

In our case, Nathan isn’t really trying to hurt his younger brother; most of their squabbles are nonphysical. And admittedly, Sam isn’t entirely innocent — he likes to nag, and he’s got the masochistic habit of following Nathan around incessantly.

(As a side note: It should be noted that they do get along mysteriously well at bedtime, when staying up past 8:30 trumps all brotherly discord.)

All I know is that it’s exhausting. The screaming-fighting-crying loop is so constant and so loud in our house that I’m pretty sure our neighbors have to keep their windows closed because of us. (Sorry, neighbors.)

So far, nothing seems to help. We’ve tried therapy. We’ve turned off violent TV shows (Good riddance, Power Rangers!).  We’ve tried sticker charts and time-outs. We’ve told Nathan to go hit a pillow and Sam to not sit so close. And, like all parents, we’ve pleaded with both of them to PLEASE JUST GET ALONG!

But it seems Nathan just likes making his brother cry. And Sam just likes the attention he gets from crying.

Basically: One needs to be a little softer and the other needs to be a little tougher.

So that’s why we signed both boys up for mixed martial arts. Because now — even though one can throw a punch like a grown-up and the other barely fits into his karate pants —they’re both on the same team.  

It just might work. According to Elite Training Center lead instructor Andres Haro, martial arts is more about refraining from fighting than it is about throwing blows.  

“It’s not our job just to make them hit stuff,” Haro said. “It’s our job to capture their attention and educate them in the etiquette of physical contact.”

Of course, the kids do get to hit stuff.  They also get to wrestle each other to the ground and duel with mock light sabers.  But through it all, there are underlying lessons about discipline, control, and caring.

“We help educate kids in what it means to be fair and caring and selfless,” Haro said. “It’s okay if they accidentally push people too hard, but there has to be proper conflict resolution, especially with siblings.”

It helps that Haro told my boys they weren’t allowed into class unless they got along with each other at home. It also helps that parents are expected to report back every class as to how the kids are behaving — and that good behavior reports earn kids special “stripes” on their karate belts.

Is it working? Maybe. It’s only been a few weeks, but they’ve already both earned a “caring” stripe on their belts. That counts for something.  

There’s still a lot of crying. A lot of screaming. A lot of noise.

But…That’s normal. 

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