NEWSLETTER #1: Siblings
Do you know how your typical children truly feel about their special brother or sister?
The typical children may play and share and say “nice” things about their brother or sister, but inside not so comfortable emotions may be stirring.
They may have many different and even conflicting feelings. They may feel:
• Overly worried about their sibling
• Responsible to care for him/her
• Jealous of the attention their sib gets
• Fearful that they will become disabled
• Scared that their sib will die
• Angry that no one pays attention to them
• Resentful of having to explain their sib to everyone
• Resentful that they are unable to do things or go places because of their sib
• Embarrassed about their sibling’s differences
• Pressure to please their parents to be or do what their sib cannot be or do
• Guilty for having negative feelings toward their sib
• Guilty for not having the same problems
• Like the “older” one even if they are the younger one
This is by no means an exhaustive list.
What all parents should know about childhood feelings:
• They can have a powerful impact on a child’s early life, producing intense feelings, both positive and negative (SWR,29)
• These feelings can persist into adulthood (SWR, pg. 29) As one adult declared: “my special sister cheated me out of a normal childhood.” (SWR, pg.32).
• These feelings can even be passed onto the next generation (SWR, pg.29)
• These relationships may influence how a child acts and feels about himself
What can you do to encourage your child to express their true feelings to you?
1. Decide to “tune in” to your child
• Tell him/her that you want to know how they really feel about…
• Observe and write down what stirs up the siblings; note what incidents and conversations distress you
2. Encourage the typical sibling to air his/her true feelings in the moment
• Listen for the message and the mood behind your child’s words
3. Acknowledge your child’s feelings:
• With words that identify the feeling: “you sound furious”
• With wishes: “you wish he’d…”
• With symbolic or creative activity: “how would you feel about making a “private property” sign and hanging it on your door?”
• DO NOT TELL YOUR CHILD THAT HE/SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE SUCH FEELINGS; THAT HIS/HER SPECIAL SIBLING CANNOT HELP HIMSELF. SUCH A MESSAGE DELIGITIMATIZES A CHILD.
• WHATEVER FEELINGS YOUR TYPICAL CHILD HAS ARE REAL TO HIM/HER.
4. Show how to discharge angry feelings acceptably: Say to your child when he acts out against his special sibling: “Tell him with words how angry you are; but you may not hit your sister.”
5. Tune in to the individual needs of each child in the family
6. Read 2 classics in parenting, both by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish:
• How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & How To Listen So Kids Will Talk, 1980, Avon Books
• Siblings Without Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, 1987 Avon Books. (This is the reference to SWR cited above.)
This newsletter is a start. I have ideas for much more, but you have to start somewhere.
I would love your feedback:
• What is your reaction to the newsletter?
• What was useful to you?
• What needs more explanation?
An offer: if you will call me (052-7639135) or email me firstname.lastname@example.org with a question about a sibling situation that you are dealing with I will respond to it (and maybe include it [anonymously] in a future newsletter.
Hello. Welcome to FathersConnect Newsletter #2.
We are still dealing with siblings.
I have 3 children. My second child has Down syndrome. He has a brother 2 years older and a sister 2 years younger.
When my daughter was in 3rd grade, her teacher assigned the class a creative writing project: Write about what is the biggest bother in your life. My daughter wrote: My Down Syndrome Brother. Thank G-d, with concerted effort from my wife and me, her “biggest bother” has become just her other bigger brother. We dealt with a lot of sibling rivalry issues before we got there.
In Newsletter #1 is a list of different and conflicting feelings which typical siblings may have toward their disabled brother or sister. (The list is not all-inclusive.) It is a list of negative feelings.
The aim is to encourage the sibling to express his/her feelings. A number of suggestions are offered to encourage expression of the feelings.
In this Newsletter you will find how to respond to your child when he/she expresses deep-felt negativity. The goal is for the “hurt” sibling to feel validated by you even when he is angry at his brother/sister. If your child feels validated by you he will have a much easier time accepting the exceptional behavior of his atypical sibling.
The Goal: Instead of dismissing your child’s negative feelings, acknowledge them.
• Help your child put the feelings into words:
• Child to parent: “You are always doing things with Billy”
(Not this) Parent: “You know he can’t do things for himself. Besides didn’t I do a puzzle with you today?”
(Rather this) Parent: “You don’t like that I spend so much time with your brother, do you?
• Child to parent: “Billy called me a bad name.”
(Not this) Parent: “Forget it. He calls everybody bad names. That’s one of his problems.”
(Rather this) Parent: “Did it hurt your feelings to be called that name.”
• Turn your child’s negative expression into a wish that you imagine he would like to be real
• Child: “Why can’t Billy talk right?”
(Not this) Parent: “You just have to accept who he is.”
(Rather this) Parent: “You wish that you had a brother who could talk like everyone else, don’t you?”
• Channel anger and frustration into something creative or expressive
• Child: (Hitting his brother who has bothered him beyond his tolerance level)
(Not this) Parent: (Yelling) “Stop it. You are being naughty again.”
(Rather this) Parent: (Calmly) “You may not hurt your brother. Here, show me how you feel with this doll.”
• Child: “Billy scratched my CD; it won’t play now. I’m going to smash his iPad.”
(Not this) Parent: “If you do, you’re in big trouble.”
(Rather this) Parent: “How about drawing a picture of what his iPad would look like if you did what you feel like doing? Then you can show it to him.
Common situations and how to respond to them
1. Typical siblings often have very mixed emotions about their atypical sibling. Compassion and “hate” often come together.
• Parent response: “A person can have two different feelings at the same time. Sometimes you like your brother very much and sometimes you can’t stand him.”
2. You encourage your child to express his anger in words. And he does, shouting over and over again how much he hates his brother. You ask him: “Do you really hate him? Don’t you sometimes like him?” And the child just repeats “I hate him; I hate him.” He can’t seem to move beyond this.
• Parent response: “I hear how angry you are. Something he did really bothered you. Would you like to tell me more about what he did to you?”
3. It is a moment when you have no energy left to listen to another complaint about his atypical sister from your disgruntled typical child. Even if the complaint is appropriately expressed in words.
• Parent response: “I hear how upset you are with your brother. But I am exhausted right now. I don’t have the energy to help you now. But I will help you after I have had a cup of coffee, say in about 15 minutes (or whenever). (If age appropriate:) Why don’t you write down what happened and how you feel, and we’ll look at it later.”
4. You blow it. You forget to respond “correctly.” You feel a bit down on yourself. Take heart:
• Kids always give you a second chance when you are sincere and well meaning.
• Reframe a “mistake” into a “learning opportunity”. Take a moment to look at the particular situation and what may have contributed to you “forgetting” to do it right.
• Remind yourself that you are trying to do good; and that in itself is worth a pat on the back
A final word.
• Helping siblings to have a positive image of themselves and their atypical brother or sister is a BIG topic. Much bigger than what I’ve covered in these first two Newsletters. If you would like to improve your particular “sibling” situation I can help you to do that. Call me at 052-7639135 or email at email@example.com
• A “siblings” workshop for parents will open up in the early spring. In it we will go into greater depth and work to resolve your particular issues. If you would like details contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Watch for the release of Chosen Fathers: Life Lessons Learned from Fathers of Children with Disabilities. It is a collection of interviews I conducted with 13 fathers who candidly talk about being the father of child they didn’t expect. It will have a spring release.
I well know how busy you are, but please take a moment to let me know what kind of information would be useful to you that this newsletter could provide.
Take very good care.
The following articles are a sample of REFRAMING a challenging situation to see it from a different perspective, and find a solution to the challenge.
More than 25 of these articles originally appeared in The English Update, a journal published in Jerusalem between 2013-2016.
12 February 2013
To Catch A Thief
I recently asked my son how he will dress up on Purim (a joyous annual Jewish holiday in which people dress in costume). “A policeman,” he answered, just as he has answered every year for the last 18 years. And every year I have hoped that he will choose something different. Express some creativity, try something new—I think to myself, but every year I am disappointed. My son has Down syndrome. But so what, I say to myself, you can still be something different on Purim this year.
With the frame I placed around my son’s choice the picture doesn’t look right. In my frame a person should have a different costume every year. In my frame my son is limited, has no creativity. My frame does not compliment the picture within. It is negative. It limits the joy I have in my son’s celebration; I am not likely to pretend to be a “bad guy” and get caught by my son the policeman. Or take pride that my special son wants to celebrate Purim. My frame also blocks me from appreciating how expressive my son really is. It is right here, when I saw the negative Frame I’d made that I needed to Reframe the picture.
“What do you like about dressing as a policeman?” I asked my son.
“I can catch a thief if he comes to our neighborhood. If I have a gun and handcuffs he won’t get away.”
So I asked myself: why does a boy to want to be a policeman? And why year after year? Policemen have power. They use it to save good people from bad people. Their gun and handcuffs are tools to control situations that are out of control. When I understood who a policeman is I was able to Reframe my son’s costume choice. It was easy for me to see that my son, who has an obvious speech impediment, has experienced social ostracism, and does not read or do numbers very easily, would like to imagine himself powerful, in control, skilled and giving to others.
Now in my Reframe I can see that my son made exactly the right choice of costume for him. I take pride that he is celebrating Purim in exactly the right way. I can even be playful with him now that I understand his choice. And on that deeper level, my Reframe reveals to me that there is work to do to build my son to discover the power within.
If I can help my son discover his power, who knows, maybe next Purim he will be a thief.
4 Sept 2013
He Sings Off Key
Just before Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) a father consulted me about his nineteen year old developmentally delayed son.
We have been through so much with our son. He was born prematurely and needed incubation for over a month. His immune system is weak and he’s been hospitalized for pneumonia many times over the years. He was very late in walking and was in diapers until almost age six. And of course he has always needed special schooling. Growing up without real friends has been so painful for him and for us. I am not complaining. I honestly love my son. I know that G-d has given our son especially to us, and that my wife and I and his siblings have all grown into being better people with our son’s help.
So what is the question, I asked.
I’m a bit embarrassed to even say it, but even though I have learned to accept that our son is a special gift from Heaven. And even though I can appreciate that what may appear to others as small challenges are for my son colossal victories. And I know that while my son will never live independently, I see him growing and developing. With all my acceptance of him and my seeing him progress, there is something about him that I absolutely cannot stand. It drives me crazy.
And what is that?
He sings off key at the top of his lungs.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but you try sitting next him at the Sabbath dinner table. For just one moment I’d like to hear the sweetness of our singing fill my ears. But I literally cannot hear myself singing with the din that comes from him. He has his own ideas about where he should begin singing a song and often belts out his version at the peak of a song’s tenderness. With all of our efforts to sensitize our son to consider the needs and feelings of others, in singing he is always a soloist. Hand gestures to lower his voice have no effect. If I am not in an accepting mood his singing can almost drive me to clamp my hand over his mouth for a moment’s relief from the din. Why can’t I have one little place where everything is “normal”?
And in the synagogue? Can you imagine how embarrassing it is to sit next to my son while he sings Lecha Dodi (a song welcoming the Sabbath) at a volume matched only by the singer of the Star Spangled Banner at the opening of a baseball game? Every Friday night in synagogue I expect the gabbai (sexton) to ask me to quiet down my son so the prayer leader can pray with concentration and devotion. People may possibly accept that my son is special and excuse his behavior, but I don’t think they excuse me for not shushing him up. Maybe I just shouldn’t ever bring him to services. But that is no answer. Do you hear the question now?
I certainly do. That really does sound difficult. You work so hard to care for your son and encourage his growth and all you want is a moment of quiet, a moment of normalcy. This may be one of the biggest challenges you have faced with your son.
Try the following for a reframe: Listen to your son’s spirit rather than his voice. Didn’t you once tell me that your son’s Rabbi said of special children that we have no idea where their prayers can reach; that five minutes of their devotional prayer may be worth all the devotion of our morning, afternoon, and evening prayers? See him serving G-d in the way he knows.
And what should I do about my embarrassment in synagogue?
Give the gabbai (sexton) permission to quiet your son if need be. He will probably be more effective than you doing so. Until then, when you are in synagogue with your son frame yourself as a servant of G-d, and not manager of your son’s behavior.
In this new year may we all learn how reframe our challenges so that we come closer to being the person G-d intends us to be.