Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28, 2011 ~ Day 81
Brother vs. Brother

I am at my wit's end, which I suppose literally means that I no longer have any witty remarks to make about the ferocious sibling rivalry between my sons. It is getting arduous - physically arduous for my younger son, and mentally arduous for my husband and I as we try to mediate and protect.

I'll be completely honest here and say that I really do not understand what is going on with our eldest kid right now. Maybe an enlightened reader with siblings - or a parent with multiple kids older than ours - will come across this post someday and share their views, which I would welcome. I was the youngest of five much older siblings and spent most of my childhood as an only child. I do not understand sibling rivalry first hand, and I was completely blindsided by its force nearly four years ago when our second boy entered the world.

My husband and I have done everything we've ever heard of to try to mitigate the feelings of displacement that our eldest might have after gaining a baby brother. His little brother came into our lives bearing gifts: literally. Before his birth we made the suggested run to Target to purchase a very cool toy (in this case, an awesome musical guitar that played the Michael Jackson hit "1-2-3" and other fun sounds) which our newborn baby "gave" to his big brother at the moment they first met. Big brother loved the guitar and appeared not to mind the baby, for a while.

We had been advised about the importance of sticking with routine and making sure to pay maximal attention to the oldest child during the transition period. "Your second child will never know the difference, having always had a sibling to share with and never knowing it any other way. The oldest child will feel every change and every moment of sharing his/her parents' attention acutely," we'd read, so we paid special attention to our eldest after the new kid hit the block.

We are equal in all things with them. We give them individual attention, take them on private "dates" with mommy and daddy. We buy them the same toys, matching shirts, etc. all in the hope of making sure they don't feel that we prize one above the other. We make a big deal about each of their individual successes, but always sure to simultaneously express great pride in the accomplishments of the other child as well.

I think it was when we'd moved to our condo three years ago, and the baby brother was just starting to crawl, that things began to go haywire. As soon as he could actually get into his big brother's toys - rather than just gazing at them from afar, the crud really hit the fan.

Suddenly my husband and I had a violent dynamo on our hands... biting, hitting, kicking, even trying to choke the baby. It got so bad we had not one but two conferences with his preschool teacher to ask for advice and to make sure that he wasn't demonstrating these behaviors at school. Nope, as it turned out - not at all. In fact, she was shocked. "I adore him," she said. "We have a special bond. He is an angel. I have never seen him be mean even once. If anything, he is very shy at school."

Despite her assurances, the misery at home persisted. It got to the point where the only thing that actually mitigated his behavior was the quiet promise from us (his parents) that if he didn't shape up and treat his brother better, we would tell his teacher how terribly he was acting at home. "No!!!!!!!" he would scream. "Not Miss Lauren!!!!!"* As it turned out, he felt the same way about his grandmother, their good opinion held a lot of influence with him. Somehow he wanted both of them to think that he was incapable of meanness, which also perplexed me. Why were we, his parents, allowed to see the 'worst' but he could control the behavior in all other venues?

Three years later, it has never really let up.

I know it goes without saying that we love both of our sons, differently but with equal strength. They are very different children with very different personalities, so it would be impossible to hold carbon copy feelings for them. Losing either one would destroy us, without any question. Which is perhaps why it tortures me to witness the violence and meanness the elder brother consistently showers upon the little one, even now.

When he thinks I am not looking, he puts his hands around his brother's neck and tries to choke him. He grabs hunks of his hair and pulls it hard. He makes mean scary faces right in his little brother's face and growls. He punches him in the back and stomach. He knocks him off his bike. He steals his favorite toys and hides them. He backs him into corners menacingly.

I realize that they are ages 5.5 and 3.5, and that maybe some of this is normal? I keep hoping that he is going to grow out of this phase.

That said, I consistently dread 3:15pm because it is the time when I must pick up my eldest from school and watch as our day disintegrates into a house full of screaming, shrieking, consequences and time-out. The hours between 3:15 and 8:15 are like a drain on my personal energy pool, sucking me so dry that by the time I get my kids to bed I am ready to sit in perfect silence doing nothing but staring into space for an hour, just to regroup.

Tonight my husband sweetly took our kiddos down to visit their grandfather and get hamburgers for dinner, a fun treat. You would think they would return in good spirits, no? Yet from the moment they entered the house my eldest was angry at his brother, knocking him off of the stepstool when it was time to brush teeth and pulling his hair hard in the kitchen when I was pouring bedtime drinks.

My husband said it had been like this all night, and that he had already taken away the privilege of dessert. When reminded of this, our son stormed off into his room screaming and yelling at us "What??!?!!! You poo poos! You little meanies!" and he came back holding a toy fighter airplane that he proceeded to 'shoot' at us.

My husband sent him to time out for cursing at his parents and he dissolved into a high pitched tired against us, then returned and began throwing things at me. This time my husband brought him back to his room and told him it was time for bed.

As I tucked our smaller boy in to bed a few minutes later, we had a heartbreaking conversation.

"Mommy, why is my brother so mean to me?"

"Honey, I'm so sorry that he treats you badly. You are both very special to us and it hurts me to see you fighting."

"I forgive him. I love him, mommy. But..."
and he looked at me with brimming eyes, " brother does not love me."

"Oh honey, yes he does. I think your brother loves you a lot. He is just sensitive and sometimes can get emotional."

"No mommy,"
he shook his head. "My brother does NOT love me. He loves my sister, but not me."

What does one say to this? Deep down I really believe that my eldest son loves his little brother, but he sure doesn't show it. Do I tell the little one to keep putting up with physical and mental abuse heaped on him daily because the two of them are family? How do I help my smaller child avoid internalizing the role of victim (any more than he has already done) and also keep my eldest from becoming a terrible bully?

I have asked my friends with boys whether they have these problems, and the painful truth is that I do not have a single friend who has confessed experiencing situations of this magnitude. Granted, we have very few friends with multiple boys. But I think I have at least four close girlfriends who have more than one son and I have never seen a single one of their boys inflicting harm upon his brother. I do not know a single mother whose children have drawn blood from each other while hitting each other in the head, and it has already happened in our family twice.

Before we had our youngest child - a daughter, I wondered so often if it was something in the way I was parenting that caused this intra-familial strife. Yet she has proven to be angelically adorable and our eldest cherished and protected her from the first moment. He treats her like a queen. "We are like peas and carrots," he says. "We stick together." Apparently she does not pose the same challenge to his crown as reigning son; instead, she has become his delighted and adoring minion.

I don't know how to end this post, because it truly seems that there is no end in sight. Even my genial husband, usually unflappable in the face of child angst, has grown weary and frustrated with the constant aggression. "He was at it all afternoon," he sighed tonight, "It needs to stop".

I am left then, feeling like we are parenting in a small boat hurtling through rocky uncharted waters. As I do every night, I am praying for divine guidance or enlightenment... we need a life preserver, or an extra oar. I am praying that tomorrow will be a better day for my sons (and thus, for all of us).

*Name of the party in question changed to protect their privacy.

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