A bloodcurdling, gut-wrenching scream interrupted the serenity of the afternoon. Moments later I saw my 11-year-old son, Ben, sprinting toward me with a look of terror on his face.
An assailant was at his heels, visibly filled with rage.
Despite the chaos, I stood unwavering, prepared for a confrontation. I knew the culprit well; this wasn’t our first encounter. Ben took shelter, crouching out of reach behind me, shrieking, “Mommy, Josh punched me!” Josh, my 7-year-old son, defiantly declared, “I did not!”
Mediating squabbles between Ben and Josh had become a recurring burden. At face value, the scene was comical: my fifth-grader running in fear from the much smaller first-grader. But any semblance of humor left long ago, replaced by aggravation and angst.
My Josh’s personality is like a pendulum. His moods vacillate wildly. Depending upon the audience, his attitude can warm a soul or frost a heart. Josh’s adoration for me is limitless, and he smothers me with affection daily. His 9 year-old brother, Peter, is his idol. Josh emulates his every move in a quest for Peter’s recognition and approval. Most of Josh’s hostility is directed at Ben. Time-outs and consequences have had little impact on Josh’s behavior. Punitive measures merely serve as band-aids.
Later that evening, in the stillness of the night, I quietly reflected on the fury and frustration of the day. A feeling of defeat flooded my body. What was I doing wrong? How could I calm the unrest festering in my home?
Ben has Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). My husband and I had made the decision not to disclose this to the boys until we felt Ben was ready to fully comprehend and process the nuances and ramifications of Autism. So, I imagine that growing up with Ben is stressful and confusing. Behaviors associated with ASD are often difficult for adults to comprehend. How could a 7-year-old be expected to understand the complexities of Ben’s personality?
Ben is structured and ritualistic. For all of us, it has become habit to yield to his desires. Ben often dictates the television programs the boys watch and which games they should play. Peter dutifully acquiesces, out of a mixture of custom and a desire to appease Ben.
Josh is less compliant. He doesn’t share Peter’s blind allegiance to Ben. He’s willful, wanting to live life following his own agenda, not Ben’s. Ironically, Josh has received three character awards for his devotion to his differently-abled classmates in kindergarten. Yet he doesn’t show the same empathy for his sibling. I wondered, would their relationship improve if Josh identified some of Ben’s unique attributes?
I began to examine their relationship from Josh’s 7-year-old perspective, watching as he interacted with Ben. I eavesdropped on their conversations and studied Josh’s body language. I questioned the boys separately, attempting to understand each son’s perspective of their relationship.
Josh, who spends hours inventing original adventures for his toys and stuffed animals, explained that he doesn’t like to play with “Ben’s imagination.” He also sheepishly disclosed that Ben “annoys me and blames me for stuff.” And Josh was right; often times, Ben will accuse him of “ruining everything.” Josh merely suggesting an alternate movie selection will immediately provoke a blaming response from Ben. I would be exasperated too, if I was repeatedly berated for simply voicing my opinion.
Armed with a better understanding of the sentiments fueling Josh’s behavior gave me hope that harmony could return to our household. Weighing my words carefully, I briefed Josh on Ben’s sensitivities and in-flexibilities, urging him to consult me when he begins to feel agitated or persecuted by his brother. I also explained to Ben that everyone is entitled to be heard, reminding him that relationships, familial or otherwise, need to be nurtured.
Most importantly, I encouraged Josh and Ben to engage in activities they both enjoy. Luckily, Mother Nature has been my ally. With the arrival of warm sunny days, the pool beckons to both of them. Peter’s lack of interest in the pool affords his brothers hours of uninterrupted time together.
Progress has been slow and steady. The household dynamic is transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. Josh has orchestrated our weekly movie night without overt grumbling from Ben. In turn, I’ve witnessed Ben, stuffed animal in hand, make a concerted effort to engage in Josh’s creative fantasies. Josh’s aggressive outbursts have decreased.
Of course life isn’t perfect, but it’s better. Sibling rivalry is impossible to eradicate. Ben said it best, philosophically declaring, “It’s in our nature. Brothers and sisters have been fighting since the dawn of time.”
I may not have the power to fully dispel a tradition so deeply ingrained in history, but I have made gains. Who knows what the future brings? Children are unpredictable. But for today, I’ll claim one small victory for motherhood.