The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings

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The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings

Q: What do the other children in the family experience when they have a brother or sister who’s hostile or acts out chronically?

James:
It’s traumatizing when something hurtful happens to you, and you can’t control it, you can’t stop it, you can’t predict how hurtful it’s going to be, and you can’t predict when or whether it’s going to happen. Children who grow up with a chronically defiant, oppositional sibling grow up in an environment of trauma.  They don’t know when they’re going to be verbally abused.  They don’t know when their things are going to be broken.  They don’t know when there’s going to be a major breakdown in the kitchen, and someone’s going to be restrained as they’re yelling and screaming.  Often, acting out kids target their siblings as sources of power. It makes them feel powerful to say mean or abusive things or to hurt their siblings. They like that feeling of power, so they do it over and over again. 

Several things happen in the mind of a child who lives with this kind of trauma.  First, the siblings of acting out kids become used to witnessing outbursts, and it has a negative effect on them in the long run.  These are people who grow up willing to accept higher levels of abuse in their marriages and their friendships.  They become desensitized to disrespect and abuse. They become numb to how it really feels to be called a name. They tolerate higher levels of disrespect and abuse in other areas of their life once they become adults.  Their ability to be assertive also diminishes.

It’s also important to have a "safety plan." Just as families are encouraged to have a plan of action if there’s a fire (where to meet, how to get out, what to do), I have always encouraged families to sit down and talk about how they can help the acting out child.

They learn not to assert themselves.  They learn how to avoid people and situations, and it can hamper their social skills.  In our world, a certain degree of assertiveness is necessary to communicate in a way that gets your needs met, and these kids don’t learn how to do that.

I’ve worked with the siblings of kids who act out in my practice, and they are, by and large, nice kids, but they have a lot of problems asserting what the problem is with their sibling and confronting it.  They make a lot of excuses for their sibling’s behavior and abuse. They tend to defend him to outsiders, and it develops a very unhealthy social persona in them.

Q: The child with the behavior problem tends to get most, if not all of the attention in the family. What effect does this have on the other children?

James:
My experience is that this manifests itself in two ways.  One is that the sibling becomes what is called a “lost child.”  This is a child who avoids family situations. When a family discussion starts to get a little heated, this kid disappears into his room. As things get more complex and as he gets older, he stays in his room more.  He avoids conflict and confrontation.  In emotionally charged situations such as dinnertime, the lost child will tend to avoid dinner because the acting out child uses it as a forum for his aggression.  The lost child will tend to say he’s not hungry or his stomach hurts. Anything to get away from the tension and abuse.

On the other end of the spectrum, kids will develop higher levels of attention-seeking behavior that we call “adaptive responses.”  For example, a child who’s adapted to a calamitous situation at home shows his adaptive response in school by hiding out. He doesn’t raise his hand. He doesn’t get involved in group activities.  He uses an avoidance adaptation in school that makes him stand out as if there’s something socially wrong with him, and it’s how he’s adapted at home.  Some kids will act out even more than the hostile sibling, although this is rare. 

An adaptive response to trauma means avoidance of anxiety and hyper arousal—in other words, watching out for trouble, listening very carefully to catch wind of tension, always remaining on high alert for hostility so that they can catch the pain before it comes. 

Q: What should parents do to minimize the negative effects of the acting out child on the other children in the family?

James:
The first thing parents have to do is make every effort to make the sibling safe.  And that leads to them not holding the acting out, abusive kid accountable.  No matter what he does. 

If parents are afraid of backtalk because it makes them feel powerless, it’s very likely that they’ll tell the defiant child to stop doing it, and the child will say, “I don’t have to listen to you.”  The parent feels as though there’s nothing they can do about it, and that leads to them not hold the child accountable because they don’t want to be embarrassed and feel powerless.  Inevitably, parents stop setting the limits. The result is the other children in the family wonder who’s really in control, and they identify the acting out kid as the person in charge.  As the defiant child acquires more power, the siblings challenge him less and give in to him more. 

However, if a parent does tell a kid, “Stop that. It’s not acceptable” and turns around and walks away, and the kid says, “Screw you,” the siblings don’t see him as powerful; they see him as primitive.  That’s the important thing.  If the parent holds the child with the behavior problem accountable and takes away his “power,” the siblings see the parent as in control and see the kid as out of control.  Most important, the parent reduces the environment of trauma for the siblings. Instead of wondering when the pain and chaos will erupt next, they will know the parent is in control and nothing will erupt.

It’s also important to have a “safety plan.” Just as families are encouraged to have a plan of action if there’s a fire (where to meet, how to get out, what to do), I have always encouraged families to sit down and talk about how they can help the acting out child. Do this without the child being present. 

I have taught parents to say this: "If Johnny starts acting out, I’m going to deal with him. I’d like you go to your room for five minutes.  The best thing you can do to help Johnny when he’s acting out is to leave him alone.  Don’t feed into him. Don’t fight with him. Just let me know."  When parents set up this structure, the siblings have a plan for what to do when this kid starts to melt down.  When they know what to do, it reduces their feeling of panic and helps them to ease the trauma.

The plan should be framed as how can we help Johnny. Parents should say openly, “We’re going to help Johnny by holding him responsible for his behavior and setting limits. But Johnny doesn’t always respond to that, and sometimes it takes us a while.  The best way you can help Johnny is to stay out of it and go inside.”

Remember that trauma comes from not feeling that you have any control over the situation.  If the children have a plan for what to do, then it’s not traumatizing because they have some control. The situation may be annoying and frustrating for them, but it’s not traumatizing. 

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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