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Core Question

My 13 year-old younger brother defies any attempt to control him and my parents do not/can not tell him to do anything that he doesn't want to do. He simply refuses to do it and there is nothing they can do about it. (e.g. time out fails miserably and if told to sit in his room he frequently does not go even for a short time)

Full Question

My parents are extremely busy and have not had enough time to develop a healthy relationship with their kids. A major issue that has arisen unchecked from this is the fact that my 13 year-old brother has become defiant of any attempt at discipline. Short of physically restraining him, which he knows my parents won't do, they have no options when he refuses to comply and as a result, in my own opinion he has not been disciplined for any reason for several years. How can I (assume I am the parent in an identical theoretical case) or what can my parents do to punish him for doing something when he becomes violent without physically harming him yet not letting him "win" all the time? What can I do in my present situation? It is silently driving a deep wedge between my parents and myself and I am no longer comfortable talking to either of them about anything private.

Just to note, in this situation I am not the parent (16 y/o older brother) but have written it from that perspective since trauma resulting from years of this has made me question whether I want kids or not when I am grown. Is there a way to deal with this and prevent it before it gets this bad?

  • Only time outs have been tried and did not work? Are you hoping for suggestions on how to punish him (excluding physical punishment)? Can you give an example of such a situation, i. e. your brother misbehaving? – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Jul 6 '18 at 17:13
  • @AnneDaunted Lots of things have been tried but he either refuses to comply and/or the parents don't follow through. Scenario from just this morning: He was watching soccer on the television and my dad asked him to remove a plate from his place at the table and he refused so after some shouting my dad told him to turn off the TV and go to his room at which point my brother again refused and continued watching TV until my dad stood in front of the TV and they had a little face off. End result was my dad giving up and my brother continuing to watch soccer with no plate removed from the table. – anonymous Jul 6 '18 at 17:18
  • First thing I'd do is take a look at the other posts in the discipline tag, particularly those paired with teen. See if any of those have relevant ideas, and/or see how your situation is different from theirs. – Joe Jul 6 '18 at 17:18
  • @Joe Before I post anytime on SE I always browse through some relevant posts but I couldn't find anything particularly similar to my situation. – anonymous Jul 6 '18 at 17:20
  • @Joe my situation is different because we really have two problems that have merged into one as well as the fact that my brother does not hesitate to break something or assault someone to intimidate/get his way. – anonymous Jul 6 '18 at 17:22
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Edited to answer the question.

(Writing as if you were the parent) There is a lot of negativity around interactions with your brother. When this is the case, some experts suggest shifting away from negativity and focusing on positivity. The catch-phrase for this is "Catch them being good." Minimize conflict by learning to choose your fights, how to minimize escalation and disengage in conflictual situations, avoid harping on history (no comments like "Finally!" or "How many times...?", etc. Parents who take courses in behavior management (their own and their child's) often see significant improvement.

The reality is that finding such parenting classes or reading about them on your own is difficult. Implementing the skills in real life in-the-moment situations is challenging but essential. You may be stuck in the routine of frustration and (unfortunately) anger. Getting "unstuck" is critical to success.


Having said that, the entire family here is in a bind, as you know (you're questioning having children as a consequence of the environment/the family dynamic.)

How can I (assume I am the parent in an identical theoretical case) or what can my parents do to punish him for doing something when he becomes violent without physically harming him yet not letting him "win" all the time?

I don't have a satisfactory answer to your question. You can't do anything. Your parents give up probably because it's easier than the suffering they'd go through trying to get your brother to comply.

Though it might seem to you that there's a reasonable answer out there somewhere, parenting isn't a by-the-book experience. Blame parents with extreme caution, because children can be a terror. They are not born with a clean slate, nor is every problem a child has caused by the parent. It takes at least two people to have a fight.

The best thing I can recommend is family therapy with an adolescent psychologist who has experience with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I'm not saying your brother has that, but if they have experience with ODD, then they will have the experience necessary to handle your brother.

You don't need to fear having children. Thankfully, some kids are born wonderful and stay that way. But you will probably need to learn some parenting skills that may not have been modeled by your own parents.

My brother had ODD, and to say he made living at home unpleasant is an understatement. My parents were very old school - they believed in beatings - but even with that, they couldn't cope either; they ended up kicking him out of the house immediately after high school. His school(s) and the Army had a lot of difficulty as well.

A Flow Chart of Behavior Management Strategies for Families of Children with Co-Occurring Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Conduct Problem Behavior

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  • Probably the better answer than mine. – Pascal says Talk To Monica Jul 6 '18 at 22:32
  • @Pascal - In this case, maybe, but your answer is still very valuable. I may be biased by my experience of something similar and my experience with kids with ODD. – anongoodnurse Jul 6 '18 at 22:47
  • Very well said. – pojo-guy Jul 6 '18 at 23:53
  • I believe that I posted a comment in response to you on the other answer but I have tried to get my family to go to counselling and so far it hasn't worked. In addition we are currently living in one of the poorest counties in the U.S. and the counselors are often less than competent and often used to dealing with far worse situations so the few that i have asked recommended against it. – anonymous Jul 7 '18 at 0:04
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    +1. "A Flow Chart of Behavior Management Strategies..." is an excellent resource! Although it says its for children with ADHD/CP, its essence is applicable to all children, and all parents. Many thanks for introducing it to me! – learner101 Jul 9 '18 at 10:14
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I don't have personal experience with a situation like yours, but I've recently come across an article about aggressive kids and how parents can deal with them. I'll try to get the gist of it across.

The article states that aggression in kids is always a request for attention. The child wants the parents to spend more time with them, or to know that they care about him. The article also says that aggression in children might be a reaction to feelings of insecurity.

If that's right, then handling your brother should involve

  • Taking an interest in his life

  • Spending more time with him (this is possibly too late at 13, when he wants to spend more time with his peers instead)

  • Showing him he is liked

  • Making him feel more secure. This is done by providing clear guidelines as to what kinds of behavior are acceptable and which aren't, and defining and enforcing limits.

Taking an interest in your brother's life and spending more time with him shouldn't need any direction from random strangers on the internet; your family is best placed to determine how you do that. You write that your parents are extremely busy: If this isn't needed to ensure the financial survival of the family, they should rethink their priorities. A thirteen-year-old is almost out of their reach; something will have to change fast. Right now your brother is only making life difficult at home. If he doesn't learn to control himself at home, he might have to learn it from others, with much more dire consequences until he has learned.

Defining and enforcing limits seems like a real problem in your family, and I don't think the situation will improve without changing that. Letting your brother get away with everything is the worst thing your parents can do; your brother might interpret this as a lack of interest in him, and misbehave even more to cause a reaction.

Short of physically restraining him, which he knows my parents won't do, they have no options when he refuses to comply

There is a very large difference between physically restraining someone and physically harming him. Your brother is 13, so at least your father should still be capable of restraining your brother when he becomes violent. There is nothing wrong in restraining someone who becomes violent; on the contrary, I think it's necessary to keep him and other people who are present from harm. Your father doesn't have to hurt your brother, or demonstrate his dominance; he can simply grab him in a bear hug, or possibly pick him up and deposit him in his room. I don't think that's usually necessary with 13-year-olds, but if your brother reacts to the enforcement of limits with violence, I don't think there is much else your parents can do (but see below for nonviolent resistance).

He was watching soccer on the television and my dad asked him to remove a plate from his place at the table and he refused so after some shouting my dad told him to turn off the TV and go to his room at which point my brother again refused and continued watching TV until my dad stood in front of the TV and they had a little face off. End result was my dad giving up and my brother continuing to watch soccer with no plate removed from the table

what can my parents do to punish him for doing something [...] yet not letting him "win" all the time?

This shouldn't be about punishment and winning, but about showing that actions have consequences.

In any kind of leadership function (and especially as a parent), you need to be reliable. If you expect people to listen to you, you need to make it clear to them that doing what you say leads to better outcomes for them than not listening. This also means that you can't invent arbitrary consequences - they should simply follow naturally from your brother's behavior. For example, if your brother doesn't want to put plates away, not letting him watch TV is an understandable, but arbitrary consequence. A better way to handle this might be to simply let the plate remain on the table. Nobody else should put it away. Sooner or later he'll be disgusted enough with his dirty plate to put it away and get a fresh one (this might take a while, but hopefully he'll understand before the plate starts crawling).

It works with other things, too. If your brother doesn't want to clean his room and throws all his dirty clothes under his bed, then maybe he shouldn't be made to pick them up - but nobody else should do it for him, either, and Mom shouldn't go collect his dirty clothes to wash them. Sooner or later he'll run out of clean clothes. He might go to school stinking to high heaven, but I bet he won't do that for long.

What if he leaves his stuff lying around all over the house, and everyone is disturbed by it? You could stow it away somewhere he doesn't find it (or ultimately throw it away) - if he doesn't clean up after himself, well, it's a natural consequence that he won't know where his stuff has disappeared to. He can't expect you to put away his stuff for him, and he can't expect you to tolerate more of a mess than the other members of the family make.

Nonviolent resistance

If your parents really aren't willing to restrain your brother when he turns violent, they can try a form of nonviolent resistance. It's supposed to work in several steps:

  1. Try to prevent escalations (don't get dragged into arguments or threats, wait until the storm has passed before trying to talk etc., don't expect to win, simply provide resistance)

  2. Once that has worked a few times, tell him they are no longer willing to tolerate the situation

  3. If there is a violent situation, your parents get help from someone your brother respects. This might be another family member, a friend of the family, or even a teacher. This help consists simply of telling this person about the situation, and the person then telling your brother that he/she heard about what happened, and that he/she doesn't approve.

Note that step 3 requires that your parents trust someone else to know about the difficulties they have with their son.

Don't be afraid of having children of your own just because your parents don't know how to handle your brother. If you spend time with your children and tell them what kind of behavior you expect from them early on, chances are they won't develop your brother's problems.

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  • This is a good answer. +1. But I think you overlook the obvious here: the entire family needs help, and if they haven't been able to handle him, reading about it probably won't help. They need professional help. – anongoodnurse Jul 6 '18 at 22:27
  • @anongoodnurse - yes, I agree. Still, my answer might be helpful for other families that aren't that far along the path yet, and point the OP to what he can do for his own kids. – Pascal says Talk To Monica Jul 6 '18 at 22:35
  • I think your answer is excellent advice; I didn't mean to downplay that. I'm sorry to have done that. – anongoodnurse Jul 6 '18 at 22:38
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    I have to admit that this is an absolutely excellent answer! I do want to provide some clarification that may change it slightly though. 1) You say that restraining is not assault which I entirely agree with but more than once my brother has threatened to call the police because my dad "hit" him while he was trying to protect himself. We all agree that it was not assault at all except for my brother and if he is angry enough I wouldn't doubt that he would actually call the police. 2) I failed to mention it but we are homeschooled for educational reasons and he has very few close friends. – anonymous Jul 6 '18 at 23:55
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    @anonymous - I would absolutely let him call the police. The police usually aren't naive; they know the difference between assault and self-defense, and they deal with domestic abuse (of which this is a kind) all the time. They aren't the go-to folks to turn to (they often misinterpret the law), but Crisis Intervention (it may be called by a different name in your state) deals with this stuff a lot. They should be able to guide you some. – anongoodnurse Jul 7 '18 at 3:36
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What can my parents do?

They can do just about anything and everything as long as it is within limitation of the law. The real question is, what will your parents be willing to do.

A lot of parents I have met take a capitalist/privilege-based approach to punishment, i. e. in a situation where they feel the child deserves punishment they take away expensive material objects and privileges they provide to the child (cell phones, sports equipment, cars, etc.). I personally think this is a lazy method that doesn’t really teach anything other than to suppress desire to misbehave only in hope of benefiting via privileges provided. This makes great incentive to lie and simply avoid getting caught. This approach tends to ‘control’ a behavior problem, but not to solve it.

You are not the first older sibling I’ve met who has been in a situation like this - in fact it seems almost common for parents to ‘give up’ on parenting their youngest child, which is really unfortunate. They have essentially taught your brother that he will absolutely get away with his behavior, which is a dangerous situation. A lot of times it is very hard to reverse the psychological and emotional state that he has come to be in.

What can I do?

Take over as a parent (in some ways, that I will explain).

You’re 16, so you’ve got a few years on your brother and from the tone of your post maybe some maturity on him, too. I personally think 13 is absurdly old to even be attempting ‘time out’ and ‘go to your room’. In a lot of cultures you are officially a ‘man’ by age 13, but clearly your brother has some catching up to do, and that’s not entirely his fault. Help him start that process by being a leader and a guide for him.

The age difference between you and your brother is the exact age difference between me and my older sister. My parents were also very busy when I was younger, and although I would have never disrespected my parents like your brother does (simply out of fear, my parents were not opposed to physical punishment), I too had some behavioral issues and my sister really steered me in the right direction.

My sister did an amazing job of doing certain things for me and with me that my parents probably should have been doing. She occasionally sacrificed free time to take me to things I wanted to do or activities I was involved in, she took the time to check up on me and talk to me, she brought me along to things she was doing, she expressed genuine interest and concern in my well being. My sister was also about 16 when this was going on, and she just as easily could have ignored me and the obvious signs of behavior issues but instead she stepped up to the plate and did the absolute best she could to set a good example for me. She never explicitly acknowledged it to me or said ‘ok from now on I’m going to act like your mom’, it was very subtle, but I noticed. I noticed the responsibility, compassion, humility, humbleness and sacrifices she made and I noticed her concern and care for me - all communicated by her actions and sacrifices. It was one of the first times I felt loved, because I knew she didn’t have to do. It made me respect her and once I respected her I felt absolutely terrible when I let her down, because I knew I really was letting her down.

Reaching out to your brother might be what he needs. Sometimes behavior issues like he is exhibiting are a cry for help. In these cases, punishments might only push him farther - because what he might really be making a cry for is attention, guidance and nurturing. This may not be the answer you were looking for, but it is certainly something you could try.

I understand you may feel your brother's behavior is unjust because of how it spills over onto you. You may just want your brother to be punished so that justice is served, and you can enjoy your freedoms without interference. But, sometimes rehabilitation is better than punishment, and it might be possible for you to play a role in helping your brother. Teaching him responsibility, respect and maturity. I’m not suggesting you give up your entire life and all your own time to raise him, but you could certainly play a role in leading your brother down the right road.

These are things that a parent should do immediately with a new child and are part of nurturing and bringing up a child. Leading by example. If you do this early on, you will rarely have to worry about how to punish a child. This is the answer to

What could I do if I was the parent?

Start earlier, don’t even let it get to this point.

Good luck :)

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  • I have mostly isolated myself from my family because of the emotional (and occasionally physical) abuse coming from my brother. In your opinion should I try to reach out to him in the hope that it may change his behavior? I have the rather challenging issue that my relationships with my family members are awkward that I never really have an honest discussion with them. – anonymous Jul 7 '18 at 0:46
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    You are a lot like me - that’s how I was too. But yes, that is what I am suggesting! You don’t have to initiate it with a big deep conversation or anything. Sometimes it is a lot of little things adding up that have the most profound impact. I personally think there is nothing to lose by trying this (It probably won’t make things worse). Just try to swallow any resentments you might have towards your brother currently, Be patient with him, and give it your best shot. It might be just what your brother needs. – Prince M Jul 7 '18 at 1:03
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    Just remember that your brother’s behavior issues are probably the result of years of bigger issues that have been going on at home/lack of attention from your parents. Don’t expect him to come around the first time you try to reach out to him. In fact, at first try to expect nothing in return from him at all. – Prince M Jul 7 '18 at 1:08
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    Not sure why this was voted down. I think it offers good advice and a course of action OP could try; if it doesn't work, OP still isn't much worse off than before, but it seems to me like this might be worth a try. There is a downside, of course: It requires you, @anonymous, to set aside your (justified) anger, which is very hard to do. Which reminds me: Maybe if your parents aren't willing to go to family counseling, you could arrange some counseling for yourself - it might help to simply talk things over with someone who has more experience than your peers, and listens to you. – Pascal says Talk To Monica Jul 7 '18 at 9:47
  • @anonymous: Where I live, the school system offers free counseling for teenagers, and social services do it too. I'd imagine that there are similar offers where you live, even if you're home-schooled. – Pascal says Talk To Monica Jul 7 '18 at 10:07

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