Tag Archives: siblings

You can’t unsee, you can’t unhear and you can’t unparent

December 30th, 2019

“I treat all my children the same,” my friend said to me.  “There’s no difference.  I don’t have favorites and what goes for one, goes for all.”  I held my tongue, but inwardly I winced.  There is not a chance in hell I could do that, I thought.

I didn’t always think that way.  The myth that we treat each child the same way as the other ones has a firm hold on many of us.  We see ourselves as fair, dispassionate dispensers of goodies and discipline.  What’s more, we think that if we parent in an undifferentiated way, we have taught our children fairness, equality and some sort of justice.  It’s hard to let go of that idea.

And then you have a child like my first, the one with outsized mental health needs.  I had to parent him in a way I never imagined.  And when his brother came along, I just kept on doing things the same way.

For starters, my oldest son couldn’t soothe himself from day one.  Oh, he tried.  He sucked his thumb well into childhood.  He didn’t give up his teddy bear until almost middle school.  But that was for the small hurts.  If something sent him into a tailspin, including yelling or anger, he couldn’t get back to calmness by himself.  There would be a meltdown or a long, shuddering crying jag until he exhausted himself or I sat with him, often for a long time and talked him through it, guiding his mood and thoughts away from anger and pain.

When he was older, the meltdowns could lead to self-harm.  Taking a tough stance, yelling or even a firm voice often led to him bruising, scratching or cutting. It reduced the pain inside, he’d later explain. That sure put a stop to a bunch of tactics.  The point of setting a limit or giving a consequence is never to increase the odds of self-harm.

He was also impulsive and couldn’t apply what he’d learned in one situation to the next.  When we went to Target, I’d have to lay out the plan in advance:  we are buying this, you can have gum (or not) and then we are going home.  Things needed to be predictable, we couldn’t mix things up.    I could never ask, “What shirt/socks/sweatshirt should we buy?”  Having lots of choices kick started his anxiety.  Instead I’d say, “I like the red one and green one.  Which one do you like?”  And if that worked at Target, we’d have to begin all over again in the grocery store.

None of these things were true for his younger brother.  Sure, he would cry or have the occasional temper tantrum as a small child.  But they lasted a short time and they vanished as he grew older.  He was confident about trying new things.  Once, I remarked in wonder to a friend that he had no problem choosing a t-shirt.  She said, “That’s what’s supposed to happen.  That’s what regular kids do.”

But I approached parenting him using the lessons I had learned with his brother.  I didn’t know how to unparent.  I couldn’t unlearn the way I’d learned to parent already. I didn’t know how to wipe clean the experiences I’d had with his older brother. I usually gave him two choices when picking out shirts.  I was careful to set limits in a way that didn’t trigger a tantrum.  I over-explained.  I drew a map of how our excursions would go.   Maybe it didn’t hurt him, but he didn’t need it.

Like many parents, I drew on how I was raised, remembering how my own mother did things.  Problem was, my older son wasn’t like me, so that was a bust, though later I circled back to those strategies for son number two.  As a child, I picked up on the nuances and followed the rules without complaint (for the most part).  I didn’t need things spelled out and navigated childhood pretty well.  One parent in a support group I led was the same way.  Her daughter had changed in one year from an easy going, high achieving teen to one whose default setting was defiance.  She told this story to our group and said, “My mother used to say, ‘someday you’ll have a child just like you.’  I only wish I had!” I felt the same way.

A friend of mine used to say that we raise only children these days, no matter how many siblings are in a family. The way it used to be, she says, is that the Jones kids would all be in choir and the Smith kids would get swimming lessons.  It was a lot easier on parents who do the scheduling and shuttling.  Now, one child takes guitar lessons, another goes to art class and a third plays soccer.  She’s right, we encourage our children’s individual interests and passions. Maybe that’s what’s fair and equal.

Being a parent is a hard job.  Parenting a child with mental health needs is 100 times harder.  Each strategy we find that works, we hang on to.  Each routine that makes things a little easier, we incorporate.  Every unorthodox approach and each new way we phrase things is our new way of parenting.  Maybe we shouldn’t unlearn them.  We worked hard for them.

 

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When I call it sibling spillover, other parents nod their heads

October 9th, 2019

“That’s okay”, my 9-year old son said, “I can read the rest myself.”

Reading had been one of our sacred times.  His older brother, who had meltdowns several times a day, was not allowed to come in and disrupt bedtime reading. It was a hard and fast rule.  My 9-year old and I read books far beyond his reading level, as his interests ranged widely, but he was catching up.  Still, it was our special, untouched time together and we cherished it.

This night was a hard one.  My older son came down the hall, right up to his brother’s bedroom door, crying and raging.  He flung himself on the carpet, never crossing the threshold, but we could certainly hear him and feel his intensity.  He was still revving up and this meltdown would continue for a while.  So my younger son dismissed me, sadly but firmly.  He then finished the chapter by himself.  I hadn’t realized that he could.  He’d been pretending the book was too hard.

He told me the next night he didn’t need me to do anything but say goodnight.  “I won’t hear how the story ends,” I said.  “I’ll tell you,” he responded. We never read again at night together and I felt a pang each night for months.

This is the way it goes for the siblings of children with mental health needs.  Their parents are torn and there are days they get scraps of attention when they should get big swaths of it.  They learn how to meet their own needs, often before they are ready to.  Like my son who sent his melting-down brother and me away so he could have a quiet bedtime, they often choose what works over what they need or really want.

My younger son played soccer for a number of years.  There were home games and away games as well as practices during the week.  Although I dropped off and picked him up from practice, I attended nearly every game, a promise I made to myself.  Sometimes we would be in the car together or with teammates as we drove to away games and talk about anything except home life and his brother.  Other times, he would commandeer the radio and play whatever he liked, loudly. It was a kind of oasis in time, where we could pretend we were just another mom and son with no other worries.  He relished that time when he had his mom all to himself.

Parents share openly the impact of their child with mental health needs on their time, their finances and even their ability to work a full time job. We describe how our child’s needs are so outsized that it demands every scrap of time, attention and resources we have to try to meet those needs.  It also impacts marriages, relationships with relatives who don’t “get it” and sometimes longtime friendships.  But those things are about us, how we feel, adjust and cope.

The impact on the other child – or children – is something we often have little control over.  Our child with mental health needs may scream threats at their brothers and sisters, disrupt their lives and make them scared and angry.  We can feel powerless, guilty and saddened.  We don’t have easy remedies.

I first realized the deep impact on my younger son when he was only four.  His then-7-year old brother had wild rages where he overturned furniture (how could one small adrenalized boy do that, anyway?), threw whatever was near his hand and maintained this for up to three hours.  My little four-year-old learned to run to a special play area at the foot of his bed, shut and lock the door and pull out the toys he could only use during the be-safe-now times.  He did this several times a week, at least.  One day, a friend asked a question about his brother.  “My brother,” he told her, “is a very good boy who does very, very bad things.”  He also said he was afraid his brother would hurt his mom.

Therapist are quick to diagnose siblings with depression, anxiety or even, PTSD.  Those may all be accurate, but when I talk to other parents, I call it sibling spillover.  I‘ve never had to explain it.  Hundreds of parents have just nodded their heads and told me how their other children have been profoundly affected by the one with mental health needs. And by our inability to give the undivided attention and resources they often need.

We develop strategies, however, like going to soccer games without the other brother with mental health needs. We parent one way for one child, another way for the other.  We look for experiences where the sibling without needs can feel smart, brave, talented and whole.  We love unconditionally and extravagantly.  Mostly, it seems to work.

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My grandfather, my son and the right thing

February 19th, 2018

I was 9 years old when I noticed that my grandfather dropped my grandmother off for church services every Sunday but never went inside.  Oh, he went to church for weddings, funerals, fairs and Saturday bean suppers.  But he never once attended Sunday services.  My grandmother would say he didn’t like sitting in the pew or that she simply needed a ride.  I asked my mother about it, feeling a little anxious, trying to make it fit into my limited understanding.  “Your grandpa doesn’t believe in God,” she explained, “But he believes in Good.”

I sucked in my breath and my little-girl understanding shifted.  Until then, I had Good, God, having morals, doing good deeds and being a good person firmly super-glued together in my head.  You couldn’t have one without the other, right?  I began to understand the different shape of each thing and how they were not identical.

I saw in my grandfather, whom I adored, a warm, generous, very kind man who adhered to a strong code of conduct.  If you left a dime at his house, he returned it to you at the next visit. But he was agnostic, not religious. I noticed others who did the “right thing” every time, even when it was uncomfortable or a stretch for them, but they had beliefs about the world that startled me.  I gradually became comfortable with the idea that our inner guidance systems are unique and help us navigate the world in singular ways.

Many years later, this would help me understand and love my son during the hardest times.

My son was 7 when I realized that he saw and heard things that no one else did.  He was too old to label it magical thinking and his therapists and teachers were reluctant to call it psychosis.  What he saw and heard often scared him and that fear followed him all day, often even into the night, resulting in nightmares.  His fear, frustration and despair would overwhelm him and he would lash out or fly into a frenzy, hurtling objects and even hurting himself.  In those hours, he changed into someone else, shedding the things that gave him joy: his laughter, his creativity and his curiosity.

Sometimes the voices and visions told him to hurt his younger brother and I would hold him tight while he raged.  I would urge his smaller sibling to close himself in his bedroom, to be safe and out of sight. We did this again and again over the years, our family’s version of a safety drill.  His younger brother went from telling people that “I have a very, very good brother who does very, very bad things” to simply announcing that his brother was bad.  Very bad.  Once, when someone asked what his brother was like, he replied, “I have a bad brother and he is a very bad brother to me.” In his mind you couldn’t do such bad things and not be bad yourself.

It’s hard when you are in the midst of daily chaos to unstick the superglue that binds together your ideas about what children are like, especially your own children.  I thought children were naturally resilient, absorbing life around them, sometimes being silly.  That wasn’t my son’s life at all.  He was emotionally fragile, sometimes lost in his own world and unable to laugh. It was my job to untangle my assumptions and instead put in plain view the things I wanted others to see.   It was my job as a parent to paint that picture, showing the world outside my family that my child could be good and do bad things.  That my child had lots of moments where he was brilliant and vulnerable and caring.

He could be loving and smart, hold my hand, give great hugs and say funny things and still have moments and hours where he made me cry, made me angry and pretty scared for him.

There were no guidelines to understanding my son; I had to create my own.  I began to understand that while he did not always understand what was real, he could understand what was right. Even more, he cared about that. Often, after his rages and being lost in his phantasmic world, he would feel deep remorse.  (He was still unable to stop himself the next time though.)   His sense of what was right and wrong vied with the voices and destructive impulses.

When he was a little older, he announced he had made what he considered a better moral choice.  He began directing the raging and hurting only toward himself, sometimes viciously, sometimes persistently and away from his brother and me. His inner guidance system was trying to make peace between the storms in his mind and his sense of what was right.

We are all nuanced people with complicated beliefs.  It doesn’t get any better when you throw mental health issues into the mix.  On those parenting days when I came up for air, I would channel my mother.  I would talk about my son saying, “My son is not always sure what is real, but he loves knowing what is right.” Then I would add a story or two which showed the shape of our lives, hoping to unstick others’ ideas about good children and bad behaviors.

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The middle child against the hallucinations

December 18th, 2017

It was a cold day in the winter and I remember my older son screaming like there was a criminal in the house. I ran to see what was going on and it was the misplacement of a book that startled him. He was saying over and over he was sure that someone took it.  Or someone planned to take it, because he was thinking about the book at school and it was taken so that he could not use it.

This was actually a better day then most. In the past, he would lash out  physically when he did not have something, or he thought that the world was planting things to make it difficult as the voices told him during the day.  I would be the one who would remain calm but get attacked as he tried to find words to come to his lips from his brain. It would be so very hard to try to figure out the antecedent prior to the behavior (ABC Charts),  Have you, too, ever had to try to figure things out at midnight, when you finally have a moment to think about the events of the day?

I remember sitting night after night trying to figure out what could I, should I, plan to make it all easier in our house. With three children (and often another few that needed a place to be) planning was most important. It took lots of planning on what and how I would explain the transition of lots of things. We had a large white board, charts, rules and ideas for the emergencies.  We also had it simplified into this-is-the-way-life-is-going-to-be-today.  Many people would tell me that it was like a mini behavioral plan all around.  What many did not realize is that board was just as much for me as it was for them. My lord, some days I was lucky to remember the schedule and get things done.

There was one time that I remember the voices arriving when they were not wanted at all. It was my middle son’s eighth birthday and we were planning for his cousins to come over and spend time with us all. We were going to make pizza and have ice cream sundaes after. That was the afternoon that the voices came, only to create hell in the house for my older son who was ten at the time. He would not listen, settle down. He could not tell me what was going on and I was having a challenge figuring it out.

We knew something was up and we had planned for the “safety” word as we did most days. This is the word that you say so that the other children get to a safe place. Our safety words were always words describing the beach. This time it was “ocean” and it was clear that the place to go was the living room, bring the dogs and use the electronics.  We had discussed it prior to the party and also practiced once. We were all on eggshells as the party went on. Did we need to use the word? What had happened? I hoped that the voices were gone.  You never know when you are with a child who experiences this and can’t really plan well. So we continued to go through the evening. It was peaceful but we were walking on eggshells awaiting the drop.

Finally morning came, along with play dough, music and fun.  We were set for the day and ready. Unplanned, not practiced and surely not wanted, the voices arrived. Off went the items and I was in the line of fire. I remember the first punch to the face and the kicking on the floor. As the safety word was used everyone did great but my middle son. He wanted to reason with his brother. He got everyone to the living room but, like many of our children who have brothers and sisters with hallucinations, he wanted to protect both his sibling and his parent.

I ended up sitting on the floor finally with safety hold on my son. My middle son sat back to back with me rubbing my head and saying nothing. I held my oldest until it was done and told him that he was safe, he was loved and I was there.  After several minutes– that felt like hours –he calmed down. He was finally able to cry and breathe. My head hurt and my legs wanted to crumble but I just sat there and started to cry. To this day I remember what my eight year old said: “Mommy he didn’t mean it.” He was completely right. And I did not mean for him to have all the pain as a sibling to brother living with trauma and hallucinations.

Sometimes you learn to accept and live with the voices as part of your family and other times you wish they would never come back.  It is hard because the hallucinations are with my son all the time and we love him. So in those situations we will learn to deal with those darn voices.

Meri Viano is our guest blogger.  She is the parent of two sons and a daughter who continue to inspire her blog posts.

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Staying quiet

August 14th, 2016

children-209779_960_720The night my brother blackened both of my eyes in a violent, alcohol-induced rage,  I think you could hear a pin drop. I wonder if I’ll ever forget the sound of his fists on my cheek; my skin was so young, so soft, that I felt like they absorbed every inch of his knuckles. My mother watched. She sobbed, she yelled. She was his next target. When I called the police, they both tried to act like everything was fine. My mother, desperate to protect her teenage son, so lost in his addiction and mental health needs, begged them not to bring him to jail. “She shouldn’t have called you, I’m sorry guys,” my mother expressed, only minutes after her head was lifted from the hardwood floor. “I think she did the right thing,” said one officer. The other said, “What do you want us to do with your brother?” My mother shot me a look and I mumbled, “It’s fine.” I remember her straightening up, as if getting ready to protect him. “Are you sure sweetheart?” he asked again. “She’s sure!” my mother quickly interjected. I nodded. Avoided eye contact. Stayed quiet.

When I went to school the next morning, neither of my parents asked me if I felt up to it, if I was okay. All of my friends thought my boyfriend had hit me, and vowed that everything would be alright if I told them the truth. As I had gotten used to, I remained silent. What was I going to say, that my 6’2” brother beat me to a pulp, and that his eyes had glazed over and hardened, had never seemed to really see me? No one wanted to hear that. People knew how siblings fought, sometimes roughed each other up a little, all in good fun. Most of my friends thought I was an only child.

In the weeks following the incident, I would run up to my room and lock my door. I thought about running away, or moving in with a close friend. I got so far as to get her parents’ approval. I got straight A’s in school, had a lot of friends, did sports, and was a pretty good kid. Every ounce of my effort went into maintaining this picture. No one knew that my anxiety disorder would often get so bad, that panic attacks would disable me for minutes at a time. My severe depression crippled me, making me fall asleep on the floor crying. It made me turn to self harming to feel any sense of control at all. I spiraled in silence, and no one noticed.

When I expressed interest in relocating for my safety, my mother vehemently denied any possibility or need to do so. If my brother got through a day sober, it meant, to her, that things were looking up. I would be fine at home, and I was making things worse again, like the night I had called for help. I heard that that night  was my fault, time and time again. I was told this to my face, with my purple, hollow eyes looking back at her. I nodded. Avoided eye contact. Stayed quiet.

It’s all too common that the siblings of individuals with substance abuse or mental health needs go unnoticed. These crises upset an entire household, especially young, impressionable siblings. They may even get blamed for triggering an episode. These individuals grow up believing that their sibling’s violence and instability is their fault, and that they can do something to help. The trauma they witness will remain with them forever; many will never receive the recognition or support they deserve to help them heal too.

It’s important that the siblings of individuals with substance abuse and/or mental health concerns have their voices heard. They often hide in the shadows, trying not to make waves. I felt shrouded in shadows for so long, that when I moved out on my own after high school, the light nearly burned my skin. People asked about me and my experiences, and I started to tell them. I began paying attention to what I nodded to. My eye contact became strong, resilient, almost defiant against what I had borne witness to in years past. And I stopped being quiet. My voice has become loud and unwavering, and it’s a gift that I use whenever I am able.

Our guest blogger is a young adult who wishes to write anonymously

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