A comment was left on yesterday's post about the difficulty of sibling relationships when one child is prone to rages. I will be the first to admit that this is very, very tricky and there are no clear cut answers to the difficulties. I had mentioned in yesterday's post that I thought living with a sibling who struggled had made my older children more compassionate. And I really do believe that, but the key word here is older. I think it is much easier for an older sibling to feel compassion than it is a younger or same age sibling. The combination of size and maturity changes the dynamics significantly.
But what about the relationships between a child who struggles and younger siblings? What can parents do to mitigate the effects of living with a volatile family member? It is something that J. and I struggle with and I'm sure we are doing it very imperfectly. I will share some of the things we have done/are doing, realizing that I don't have a definitive answer and what we do may not be the best choice for another family.
First off, if this is your reality and you have not read The Explosive Child, please go out and read this book. I wish I had read it years ago. It gives real, concrete ways of helping to manage a child who is prone to raging. (It is certainly not a substitute for therapy, but it helps with day to day management.) The best thing for siblings is for the raging child to stop raging and this book can help you start down that path.
Often, though, children who have difficulty with life are difficult even if they are not raging. They can be prone to meanness and general unpleasantness in general. They are quite capable of verbally (if not physically) picking on younger siblings. How do you deal with this?
One thing that really helped with my thinking on this was a post by Lisa Qualls at One Thankful Mom about comforting the wounded. (You should read the post... click the link.) In it, she reminds us that caring for the child who has been hurt is a parent's first priority, but often we get it backward and want to deal with the offender's bad behavior first. I've have tried to put this into practice and focus on the child who is the injured party.
Keeping everyone safe is also a priority. It is not good for the disregulated child to be able to hurt someone any more than it is good for another child to be hurt. Sometimes the disregulated child just needs to stay with me and I can be the external Jiminy Cricket for that child. Yes, it's a pain because I don't get a break and it requires some superhuman patience to continue to deal with the disregulated child in a compassionate way, but it is worth it if it gives the younger siblings some breathing room. We have also taught our younger children to walk away the second they are being treated in a way they don't like. I cannot tell you the number of times I have said to one or more of them, "If someone is being mean to you, leave. Just walk away. Come to Mommy or Daddy. You do NOT have to listen." And yes, I will say this, in a calm and regulated voice, in the presence of the disregulated child.
One of our children is extremely tender-hearted and it doesn't feel right to him to walk away. It feels as though it is adding rudeness to rudeness. In this case, our therapist has suggested that he say, "I love you, but I will not fight with you" and then leave. Teaching our children non-engagement has been very helpful.
It is typical of a disregulated, struggling child to want to hijack the good times a family is sharing with an eye to making everyone as miserable as the hurt child is feeling. And they are very, very good at this. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of grace to be able to ignore the behavior of the child and focus on the rest of the family. But my other children need to experience good family times and J. and I have made it a point to try very hard to focus on the good at these times. It is OK to laugh and have fun and enjoy your other children even if there is a child in the other room grunting and saying nasty things. Sure, inside you may be seething, but you have to learn to tune out the bad and pay attention to the good in your situation. Let me just say, they only way J. and I have managed to do this (when we have... we often fail) is by God's power and grace. It's hard.
Education in calm times is also key. The child in question may have a variety of reasons for why he or she functions as they do. Trauma is huge in rewiring the brain, but there can be other reasons as well. A child does not have to be adopted to behave in explosive ways. The origin may be different, but the results are the same. It is the parent's job to explain to the healthy siblings why their brother or sister acts as they do. Invite them to pray for their sibling. Listen to their concerns and worries. Acknowledge that it's hard and doesn't always seem fair. Cry with them. But whatever you, do not forget they are there because the disregulated child is very good and garnering parental attention, even if most of it is negative. On bad days, I feel as though 99% of my energy is taken up with one child. That doesn't leave a lot left over. I need to be very careful to leave enough for my other children.
Lastly, make the most of the good times. I spend a lot of time focusing on fostering what positive interactions I can. (And that would be mine with the child as well as between siblings.) We humans are very good at creating habits; it's how our brains are wired. If we didn't create habits and have much of what we do everyday become automatic, the amount of brain power it would take just to get dressed and fed in the mornings would tax us to the point of exhaustion. (It's why living in a new place and a new language is so tiring... nothing is easy or automatic.) As a parent, I want to be very careful what habits my children are developing. Does a child speak nastily to another sibling every time they interact? In that case, I would gently (in a calm moment) point it out. Ex. "So, I've been noticing that you have been having trouble speaking kindly to X. I think it makes X feel pretty badly and it makes me think you aren't feeling to good about yourself, either. I would like to try to help you speak more kindly, do you have any ideas of how we should do this?" The child probably won't have any ideas and may only grunt, at which point I will have some ideas.
Conversely, if a pair of siblings is playing together nicely (and this is an unusual occurrence), there is very little that will cause me to interrupt them. I may not even comment on it, at least not at the time. I will also be very sure to keep an eye on it so that if it seems to start to go south I can break off the play while it is still positive. I will also notice what they were doing together that fostered this kind of relationship and try to find similar ways for them to interact. I will help them to develop the habit of getting along.
This is a tricky subject and there are no definitive answers. I wish there were. I would love for others out there who live this reality to chime in with other things that have worked in their homes that I might have missed or not know about.