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Q: My 11 1/2-year-old son has a habit of putting down my 9 year old. They are both doing great in school but the older son likes to degrade the other's intelligence, e.g., reading skills, etc. I have discussed this with both of them but the younger son gets extremely hurt by this. Is this normal? What can I do to rectify the situation?
A: This sibling teasing is certainly normal. Oftentimes when the younger sibling, especially a same-sex sibling, begins to be perceived by the elder as encroaching (stealing) on his special areas of expertise and acclaim (academics, sports, popularity), the older sibling will attempt to reaffirm his specialness (and superiority) by attacking the younger's most vulnerable spots.
Your elder son is also on the cusp of being a full-fledged teen and may already be carving out his own separate adolescent identity from his "little brother". You can't really stop your elder from putting down your younger boy out side your presence, however you can certainly forbid any such hurtful talk in your presence. I suggest doing an occasional one-on-one check with each son to talk about their relationship. Empathize with each one about the normal difficulties of having an older/younger brother at this age. Tell your older son you expect him to demonstrate his maturity and "elder statesman" qualities by treating his brother how he would wish to be treated; praise his efforts to do so. Siblings will "rank" on each other, after all, but if a family member is truly causing another pain then that harmful behavior needs to stop.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.