Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 1, 2011 ~ Day 82
Helping Hands

I guess it is no secret that I was feeling pretty raw when I wrote last night's blog about the protracted torture of my younger son by his elder brother, because today I have been blessed by an outpouring of love and sympathetic understanding from a handful of cherished friends who are also mothers.

Thank you so much.

I don't typically write follow-up or companion pieces but since this is the issue that has been at the forefront of my heart and actions today, I thought I would describe a conversation I engaged in with a play therapist over the telephone about everything going on in our home. She gave me some really concrete advice, which I immediately took to heart and embraced.

After giving her a nutshell version of the past three years with my sons, she gave me four main pieces of wisdom:

First, she told me to reframe the way I look at the situation with my eldest son. "Rather than thinking "What is *wrong* with you?" when he does something terrible to his brother," she said, "Remind yourself that he had a rough entry into the world (with the 60 hour labor) and frame it for yourself that he is doing the absolute best he can and really hanging in there despite a relatively tough beginning. Give him the benefit of the doubt and think of him with compassion."

She then told me that my expectations about my son and my fears about his actions will all come across in my tone and the way I react to him, and that it is important not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy where I treat him as though he is going to turn out as a violent or disturbed adult and then he unconsciously meets my unspoken expectation.

Second, she told me that it is actually a really good sign that he acts out at home with me rather than in the classroom, at the homes of friends or with his grandparents, etc. "As a therapist, this is actually the scenario that we would most hope for," she described. "As hard as his behavior is on you, the fact that he is letting it all out at home tells me that he feels safe and unconditionally loved in your home and family unit so he can 'let it all hang out' there, without fear that you will stop loving him."

Then she advised me that there should be some middle ground - a way in which he can act out his aggressions without inflicting them upon an actual human being (i.e. his brother). "Do you have a back yard?" she asked, "Do you have a tree? If so, when he feels like hitting his brother he can grab a pillow or a foam swim noodle and hit the tree with it instead. He is only five years old so asking him to completely extinguish his instinctual behavior is unrealistic. Instead, consider asking him to modify his behavior. If he really wants to kick or punch something, have him kick or punch his bed."

All of this excellent advice brought to mind something his first preschool teacher shared with me three years ago when he was just two years old and actively biting his baby brother. "If he wants to bite," she'd said, "Give him a wet rag - maybe even a frozen wet rag so it will feel good on his gums - and let him bite that. It will satisfy the urge and give him a place to get rid of his anger safely, without hurting the baby."

I had completely forgotten about that until now.

The last piece of advice the play therapist gave to me was perhaps the most profound. I had asked her whether she accepted our health insurance, which she does not. We discussed out of network fees, deductibles and other bureaucratic details... but before we ended our conversation she asked me to think about one thing.

"Given your financial situation," she said, "I can see why you may want to consider finding an in-network play therapist. However, before making your decision please consider this. You may wish to pay privately to consult with a therapist rather than going through insurance companies, because once a mental health diagnosis is given and recorded on his insurance record, it will stay there forever. Do you really want this sibling rivalry issue dogging him for the rest of his life?"

What a kind woman to share this information with me! I had reached for the telephone to call her based on the recommendation of a dear friend (thank you, K!!!) coupled with my own gut instinct. I obviously had not taken the time to think through what potentially using our insurance coverage to enroll our son in a few sessions of play therapy would mean for his long-term future.

I adore my son and I am not ready to make *any* choice that will even possibly affect the rest of his life~his ability to receive insurance coverage~his school and work records. Land sakes, he is only five years old! Everyone in life deserves second chances, and I feel like at his age he deserves fiftieth and one hundredth chances. He has so much potential and is such an incredible human being in so many ways. I am not ready to slap a label on him (e.g. "Adjustment Disorder!") and I am not eager for anyone else to do so either. He is HIMSELF. He is amazing. He is difficult. He is artistic and sensitive. He is my complex, much loved son.

My husband and I talked all of this over tonight during what was supposed to be a romantic dinner date (note to self - do NOT discuss children on romantic dinner dates!!!) and agreed that it will be worth the money for us to pay privately and go together a few times to meet with this play therapist to learn how we can parent our son more effectively and be a strong team for each other in the process.

We're not sure if our son himself will ever actually make it to a therapist's office, but we did agree that we both need help in learning how to respond to our child's words, moods and actions. It's nice to be on the same page about this.

At the end of the day, the friction between my sons may well turn out to be something I have unwittingly instigated or perpetuated. Who knows, there may be some big changes that I need to make in my parenting style! Whatever happens, I am 100% up for it and open to learning. "Please, be honest with me about my own parenting behaviors and ways of thinking," I encouraged her. "I love my son with all my heart and if there is something that I can alter in myself or my own behavior or parenting style that will help to nurture him and make him a happy (and reasonably kind) sibling, I will do whatever it takes."

So that is where we are at, as of now. I am feeling so much more optimistic and proactive. I can nearly see a path forward and a potential light at the end of the tunnel of carnage, where yesterday evening I saw none at all.

Perhaps my eldest son could sense my relief, for he is a sensitive and intuitive kid. When I picked him up from school this afternoon he confided, "Mommy, I think I'm going to earn one of those 'family tickets' for acting good tonight and I do not think I will hit my brother at all because we both love our grandma and we are going to have a lot of fun with her tonight while you are on your date with Daddy."

I'm so happy to wrap up this blog by reporting that for the first time in weeks, both boys DID indeed earn their special family tickets tonight (for treating each other gently with no fighting... even when we were stuck on the freeway in traffic and they were both exhausted!) which puts them each one step closer to earning the special toy of their choice... and puts me one small step closer to creating an atmosphere of genuine peace and contentment in our family life.

It may not be much... but it's a start!

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