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‘Our son does not have the proper respect for adults that we would like him to have’

Ask the Expert: ‘We are horribly aware that we are the probable cause of this’

Question: We are the parents of five boys, who range in age from one to 11. We are very concerned about our third son, who is seven and exhibits quite a lot of challenging behaviour.

He is very intelligent, engaging and charismatic, and loves animals and nature. Unfortunately, his two older brothers criticise him a lot and our second son in particular uses every opportunity to denigrate his younger brother, despite our efforts to stop this dynamic, (using a combination of rewards and withdrawal of privileges). It is so upsetting, because nothing seems to work.

Our seven-year-old rarely does what you ask him to do unless you have asked on average six times. With the frustration that brings, voices are raised, which we never envisaged happening. He also lies at times and persistently breaks rules, for example, he keeps going into the river behind our backs, which is very worrying.

He does not have the proper respect for adults that we would like him to have, though we are horribly aware that we are the probable cause of this.

When these conflicts flare up, there is just such a pervasive, negative atmosphere in the home and we are very upset about it. It is affecting the happiness of our family, and we need advice as to how to foster love, or at least fondness, between our boys and how to instil some respect and good listening in our seven-year-old. I am a full-time mother and my husband works very long hours (only home after seven).

He finds it difficult to engage with his sons on an emotional level and rarely speaks to them individually.

Answer: When one child develops behavioural problems, this can lead to resentment among siblings and stressed relationships in the whole family. Sadly, stressed relationships means increased conflicts and rows, and this can reinforce the problem behaviour. Further, if your third son becomes identified as a the "problem child", then this damages his self-esteem and makes it harder for him to manage and cope in the long term. While these family dynamics can become habits, they can be changed with positive parenting and a good bit of patience.

Understanding your son’s needs

The first thing to do is try to compassionately understand your third’s son’s needs. Why do you think he finds it hard to listen to your requests? What makes him sometimes act impulsively or find it hard to tell you the truth? Without enough information to make a judgment, it strikes me that he could have some specific needs that have not yet been recognised such as attention, communication or learning problems. You might consider getting him assessed to determine what these needs might be. The first step would be to talk to his teacher to get a sense of what he is like in a different context. The goal is not to label your son, but more to compassionately understand his needs so you can remain positive and warm even when he is being challenging.

Supporting his relationship with his brothers

One of the most common family challenges is rows and disputes between siblings. The fact that his brothers are criticising and putting him down will greatly aggravate problems. However, you have to careful how you try to remedy this. If you come in heavy and criticise his brothers, they could feel more aggrieved that you are taking his side (when they likely have their own story of resentment towards their brother). Instead it is better to act more as a mediator rather than as a judge. For example, you might take the older brothers aside individually and ask them why they are so negative about their brother. The goal of this conversation is not to criticise them but to understand their feelings. It is likely that they find some of his behaviours hard to deal with and your goal is help them be empathic (“your brother sometimes acts without thinking”) and to think up good solutions – how can you handle this situation kindly without putting your brother down?

When an incident happens between your son and his brothers, don’t immediately take a side in the dispute and instead try to help them sort it out themselves. For example, you might say, “Let’s take a pause here . . . in this home we always speak kindly to one other . . .”. You then might arrange a later time for when you can all talk out the dispute, giving them time to listen to one another and to come up with solutions that work for everyone.

Positive parenting

Positive parenting is about finding ways to manage your son’s challenging behaviour without resorting to shouting, frustration or negativity. This includes techniques such as using increased encouragement and rewards, problem solving with your children, and having clear rules and calm consequences. It is also about nurturing you and your husband’s relationship with your son through arranging daily individual time, listening to him etc, while ensuring his four brothers receive the attention they need also. It takes a bit of thought to make these techniques work well in families so I usually suggest that parents attend an evidence-based parenting course over several weeks to learn how to put these into practice.

The Parents Plus Programmes, which I co-developed, are run through many primary care and family resource centres in Ireland and they are open to the public and run online via Parentline (parentline.ie/courses) and through ADHD Ireland for children with ADHD. Alternatively, all the ideas from the course are contained in my book, Positive Parenting, which outlines nine weekly steps you can take to turn around behaviour problems.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie