Q: I have two sons. One is 2 1/2 years old and the other 7 months. After I gave birth to the baby, my older son's personality changed. I remember him coming to the hospital, and bursting into tears as soon as he lay eyes on his brother. Ever since then, he has been less cooperative and very distant with me, and it has caused alot of tension in our relationship. He has changed from a very loving little boy, to one who often pushes me away. There have been a few occasions where he has reduced me to tears with his behaviour. On a couple of those occasions, I have said some mean things to him, much to my disgust! Since then, I believe this has caused him to further alienate himself from me, often hitting me and shouting. He has since become much closer to his father as a result, which is something I am glad for. I just wish there was a way for he and I to become as close as we once were and for me to make up for the things which I said.
-mum of two
A: My heart goes out to you, Mum of Two. Your bravery and honesty are deeply touching. I don't think you will find a parent anywhere who has not said or done something in the heat of the moment that they wish they could take back. Fortunately, we don't need to turn back time in order to bring about healing and restore a warm and healthy connection with our children. In fact, the relationship can even emerge strengthened and renewed after our repairs have been completed.
So here's the thing - sometimes the connection with our children becomes strained because of things we said or did intentionally, sometimes due to what happens in the heat of the moment, and sometimes due to something completely unavoidable and beyond our control, like a medical issue, a move, going to the hospital to give birth, or bringing home a new baby.
You do a great job of describing some of the signals that tell us that the connection with our child has likely become disrupted: angry outbursts, yelling, hitting or pushing, and becoming uncooperative. Other children will become silent and withdrawn, refuse to accept comfort from us, or regress in their behaviors.
Basically, when something happens that weakens the child's confidence that we will always be there for him (and it is inevitable that something WILL weaken his confidence, given that we are only human), big feelings of fear, insecurity, confusion, and betrayal can be triggered. The size and manageability of those feelings varies from child to child, but if the nervous system determines that they are just too big to deal with in that moment, it will put them into storage so they can be felt and released at a later time.
It's great that your son cried when he saw his new brother - that means those feelings did not go into storage. And typically, older siblings realize pretty quickly that it's not a great idea to express feelings of anger or betrayal about the little intruder when all of their beloved caregivers obviously feel adoration for the tiny squalling nuisance. They don't want their caregivers to be upset with them, so they store those feelings up for later.
Now is later. Your baby is old enough that he no longer needs your constant attention. So if you can, set aside some time every single day to spend one-on-one with your older son. Do something physical with him - wrestle or tackle or play games where he can use his muscles against resistance that you provide. That kind of activity will help release some of those residual feelings through the body.
He may need to cry. Perhaps a lot. Think of it as a cleansing storm; the air always smells fresher after it has come and gone. Give him free rein to express his anger. You may even bait him a little bit to get him started by saying, "Gosh, that little baby sure takes up a lot of my time, doesn't he? I sure miss being able to wrestle with you or throw you up in the air whenever I want to!"
So part of the process of repairing the connection is to allow him to express any and all of his feelings, and to give him physical opportunities to push against your resistance. Another important part is acknowledgement and apology.
Sometimes parents worry that acknowledging the losses their child has experienced will encourage him to play the victim role in the future, but it normally doesn't turn out that way. Instead, it is quite empowering for a child to have his experience validated. A statement from you like, "Gosh your baby brother's cry sure hurts my ears!" is likely to elicit a grin and a hearty agreement from your toddler, and there you are, back on the same team again.
It's also fine to apologize for the things you said that you regret. It can be simple: "Mommy said some things she's not proud of. I bet you were kinda scared when that happened, huh?" Listen to him if he wants to tell you how it was for him. And when the moment is right, you may be able to turn it silly by offering to make it up to him with a thousand kisses or a 80 million backscratches or something else sort of ridiculous.
Your son probably needs some extra reassurance that no matter how he acts or feels, you love him. No matter what. He needs tickles and cuddles and physical play with you. Don't give up on him and hand all that good stuff over to his dad to do exclusively. Your son needs it from both of you. Chase him around a little if he avoids you or runs away. Laugh and keep it light. Don't let him weasel away. He may cry, or get angry at you, and that's okay. He's just releasing energy. Stay lovingly present with him. Hold him if he'll let you, or sit nearby if he won't. He needs you to be his rock. He needs to probe a little to make sure your love for him is still unconditional.
I really like a lot of what the Hand-in-Hand Parenting model has to say. You may enjoy checking out the articles on their website: www.handinhandparenting.org. Here's a link to one about siblings: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/csArticles/articles/000000/000031.htm
I hope this helps. It's hard to cover the specifics in a general post like this, so please feel free to contact me if you'd like to schedule a consultation.
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com