Dear Therapist:

Thank you for this forum. Our oldest, a boy of 6, thinks that he is in charge of everything. He is in charge of every game, every digging session, and every clean-up job. He will constantly dominate every interaction with his younger siblings (boy 4 & girl 2) and attempts to control them. If his commands are not adhered to, he will yell and threaten etc. He cannot tolerate his younger brother superseding him in any way: "you are not allowed to go ahead of me" "I'm older than you so you have to listen to me" etc. If his younger brother receives something he doesn't have, he will cleverly sweet-talk and manipulate him to hand the item to him.

This may be normal (for the oldest child); however, I'm concerned how this will affect his younger brother (& sister). His brother is always subject to third-wheel-treatment, even in the presence of neighbors (which results in him running home in torrents of tears). I feel that his confidence (which was nice and healthy) is slowly being eaten away.

1) Is this normal?

2) Is there anything we can do to stop this behavior or to strengthen the other children?

Thank you.



Your primary concern appears to be the effect of your six-tear-old’s actions on your younger two children (and specifically on your four-year-old). Although this may be a legitimate concern, the negative results for your older son should be taken into account as well.

Naturally, I don’t know all the details of your children’s needs, reactions, insecurities, and relationships. The human brain is exceedingly complicated. A young child’s developing mind is highly malleable, and there are innumerable factors that contribute to personality and emotional health. No parent could possibly account for every possible facet of a child’s development. The need to weigh one child’s needs against that of another further complicates the matter.

Whether or not your children’s behavior and actions are “normal” is inconsequential. What needs to be considered is whether they might lead to future consequences. The goal is not for our children to act appropriately when they are young; this is but a training tool that we hope will help lead to a goal. When we focus too intently on obvious childhood actions, we can lose sight of our goals. Certainly, we want our children to behave properly. For most of us, there are a few motivations for this. One is to help them to learn appropriate behaviors so as to become well-adjusted, happy adults. Another motivation is to avoid our own embarrassment due to our children’s inappropriate behavior. Yet another is a general interest in “raising our children right” as based on cultural norms. When we prioritize short-term goals, however, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. When we focus too heavily on our own feelings and needs, the end goal can become obscured. 

Your four-year-old son is the one who reacts most obviously to your six-year-old’s behavior. The feelings leading to his reactions can lead to issues like low self-esteem and associated problems. There are other possible effects of their relationship, however. For example, depending on the frequency, prevalence, severity, and other factors, this relationship may teach him to assert himself in a way that he otherwise wouldn’t learn. If your sense that his confidence is waning is based on your objective observation, intervention needs to be seriously considered. Indeed, it may be better to err on the side of caution. If, however, your feelings are a projection of your assumptions (or your own experiences or needs), it’s important to recognize this in order to make proper decisions.

Your daughter may not respond in an obvious way to her oldest brother’s actions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she is not being affected. In fact, you can make the case that her acceptance of her six-year-old brother’s domination has the potential to affect her on a deeper level than will her four-year-old brother’s overt reactions. For instance she may learn to accept the notion that her feelings are unimportant, and that she cannot assert herself.

I wonder, as well, about the cause for—and the effect of—your eldest child’s need to be domineering. Is this his way of asserting himself in order to develop some sense of importance, or to fulfill another emotional need? Or is it simply learned behavior? To the extent that it’s the former, his needs should be taken into account as well. If you believe that it’s primarily a habit, and that your intervention will result in no detrimental consequence, this should be considered.

Remember to remain focused on the ultimate goal. Don’t sacrifice your child’s eventual wellbeing because you’re afraid of an immediate and likely transient reaction. Each child’s needs should be considered separately. If you are able to identify each child’s needs, you may be able to help boost their self-esteem, and to encourage their independence, without making immediate and obvious changes in their relationships.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317


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