A: “That his psyche was damaged and that there was nothing we could do to help the situation.” Holy smokes. I don’t know a therapist who would say such a thing! Awful. In my heart, I believe that every child is capable of change. How much depends on many factors, but zero? No, I would not accept that, and I certainly would not see that therapist again.
First, I know that I say this in every column, but you very much need to have a full work-up done on this child. Find a good developmental pediatrician and have your son assessed for everything you can think of: sleep and food issues, learning problems, sensory issues, executive function issues. So many times in our culture, our gifted, “bright and imaginative,” and sensitive children are not seen for the multifaceted people they are, especially when they are sandwiched into a large family.
As you learn more about this 5-year-old, you can take comfort in knowing that the black-and-white thinking you so aptly describe is a hallmark of immaturity and childhood. The younger and more immature children are, the more black and white their thinking is. The essence of maturity comes when one can see that life is mostly gray. For instance, if your son were older and more mature, he might understand that he can’t get the same things as his brothers. He might say: “Well, it is disappointing that I cannot go to that play center today, but I understand that I am not as little as the twins. I have to go to a different area.” It sounds as if your son is not there, though. So our basic mandate, as parents, is to help our children become as mature as they can, right? How do we do this?
It would be useful to understand some basic birth-order traits that can occur in families. Do not take these as gospel truth; instead, allow them to inform your understanding of your 5-year-old. For instance, Alfred Adler, a psychotherapist who specialized in birth order and family dynamics, said that a second child might see an older sibling as a “pacemaker.” An overview of Adlerian birth-order characteristics developed by Henry T. Stein of the Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco & Northwestern Washington puts it this way: “There is always someone ahead. Is more competitive, wants to overtake older child. May become a rebel or try to outdo everyone. Competition can deteriorate into rivalry.”
Sound familiar? Think about it. He is not the first son (who, I imagine, is a leader and bright and independent), nor does your 5-year-old occupy the special space of 3-year-old twins. Can you imagine how those twins came along and “stole” all attention and energy from you and your spouse? Of course your 5-year-old is fighting for his place in the family. Everything feels fraught because in his young mind, it is. Everything is an opportunity for him to either win or lose. Every play situation is a chance to place his little brothers below him. You say, “He becomes aggressive toward his brothers easily and manipulates the little ones into teasing or excluding each other from playing.” It makes sense, right? The 5-year-old needs a place in the family, and he will belong negatively or positively.
And here’s where it gets tough. The more he fights with you and his brothers, the slower he is to mature. He is spending all of his energy fighting for attention, and this is depleting the energy it takes to mature. A child’s brain and emotions become stuck when they are spending all of their time in panic and aggression mode.
To sum it up: Your child is really stuck. His immaturity is hurting him, and he cannot mature because he feels lost, anxious, competitive and angry in his family.
What are you supposed to do?
Well, you need help. Find a good family therapist or coach (who is not strictly behavioral) and work on positively bringing this child into the fold. Why do you need a therapist for this? As the parent, you will need loving encouragement to keep going because this road may be long. I could be wrong. Sometimes all we need to do is change one or two things and — poof! — the child is a different kid. But my intuition is telling me that this child has been in panic mode for a while. He is hard to parent, which makes your heart harden to him, and so goes the cycle.
Does he need therapy? I don’t know. My strongest suggestion is that you begin and then take him. But that must be the order: you and then he.
In the meantime, here are some explicit instructions:
1. Stop creating circumstances in which there could be competition between the children. I know, tall order, but get in there and put a quick stop to it.
2. Stop getting to the bottom of fights. Even if you know the
5-year-old has orchestrated some serious shenanigans, skip over the blame and work on putting an end to said shenanigans.
3. In that vein, do not leave him alone with the twins. Yes, I am asking the impossible, but you want to help this child, right? If we don’t want him to get in trouble, we need to provide the conditions for trouble not to occur. This is the essence of parenting. We take on the maturity for the child when they cannot or do not have it.
4. No matter how many boundaries you have to hold, let your 5-year-old know he is a wonderful boy and brother. Take special time just with him. Find ways to meet his eyes and listen. Connect, connect and connect.
5. Stop all punishments. Timeouts, sending to room, etc. All are feeding his insecurity.
6. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that this child needs more consequences or a “talking-to.” He is suffering enough; layering on behavioral strategies (right now) would result in a backlash that will crush him.
Get help, ASAP, and don’t give up. He needs you.
Find this over on The Washington Post.