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Curing Sibling Rivalry with Angry Four Year Old

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Dr. Laura,
I am really struggling with my four year old son. I feel as if I'm the worst mother in the world. I'm just at a loss with him.

He has often been angry and aggressive in the past toward his three year old brother. Since I have started using the tools you suggest, in some ways he's been a little bit better (less angry), but in other ways he's stayed the same or become more intense. He's been crying a bit more, which is good - but his overall well-being doesn't seem to be improving. His anger still comes out: he gets mad and throws an object, yells, or hits when things don't go the way he wants - but I think it's actually getting better slowly.

What is concerning to me is that he's starting to verbalize that he wishes his little brother was not around. One night this week he crawled into our bed around midnight, which is pretty typical, but this night he wanted to chat a bit. Specifically, he wanted to know if we could sell his brother. When I hugged him tight and asked him why he wanted us to sell his brother, he said he was tired of him ruining his coloring. When I told him that we could never sell his brother, and hugged him and told him how much we love him and that having a brother will never change that he just cried these big, whopping tears and kept repeating that he wanted us to get rid of his brother.

Two days later, in the car on the way to play at the mall play area, he very calmly told me that he wishes he would die. I'd never heard him say such a thing, so I asked him what made him say that and he said he was tired of his brother ruining his coloring. His brother was sitting next to him and was very upset. So I calmly told him that dying meant never being able to color or play or see us, and he said, "I know. I want to be dead since I can't color anyway. And I don't want to talk about it." I just told the boys that I love them both and that we will work on making everyone feel better and the topic changed.

When we arrived at the mall a few minutes later, both boys seemed happy to be there, we got out of the car without incident and were crossing the parking lot when his sandal came undone. He didn't get upset, but he stopped to put it back on, I was holding his hand and I told him to just pick it up and keep going. He said, "I don't want my flip flop to get run over" and I said, "no, of course not, neither do I. I just want you to pick it up and put it on over on the sidewalk so that YOU don't get run over!" He replied with, "but I want a truck to run me over so I'll be dead." I couldn't help it, tears sprung to my eyes.

When we got on the sidewalk I hugged him and told him I love him. We went into the mall and he crawled under one of the play bridges and wouldn't play with anyone. When I crawled under the bridge to check on him he was so happy and he hugged me and told me he didn't want me to go because he "needed a friend." I told him that there were lots of kids there who wanted to play with him, but he said he didn't like "those weirdos." I really didn't fit under the bridge and my feet kept tripping the other children so I had to move and I told him he could come sit on the bench with me, but he didn't want to. He stayed under the bridge until we left the play area.

I've been struggling since I'm feeling so defeated. I've lost my temper a couple times with the boys and yelled at them. But I've always apologized for losing my cool and told them that mommies make mistakes too and that what I did was not nice. I know it doesn't erase the event, but I tried to make it better. I just feel like no matter how hard I try, my oldest is a miserable kid and it's making it so hard to keep trying. I can't take how mean he is. He really hurts his brother, and he really hurts us. I hug and cuddle and love him as much as humanly possible. I play with him, I run around with him, I've cancelled playdates with younger kids that upset him - and yet he says he wants to die. I don't want to be melodramatic, but what makes a 4 year old say such a thing? Can he be serious? Do I pay that kind of statement more attention? Less attention? I don't know. I don't know what to do the next time it happens.


So upsetting, to have him say he wants to die, and to be so hateful toward his brother.

Here's what I think is happening. These feelings are not new for him. He has had them a long time. They were coming out as aggression. Now, since you have changed a bit how you parent, he is feeling more comfortable showing those feelings. He feels safer, which is why he is crying more and being angry a bit less. But the fear and desperation that are under the anger are more obvious now, both to you and to him.

Right now, you are responding to his behavior -- saying that he wishes he were dead, and that he wants to get rid of his brother. Naturally, you respond the way any of us would respond -- you are aghast, and scared, and you feel like maybe he is a demon child and maybe you are a terrible mother.

But let's pause here, and not respond. Instead, let's reflect on the meaning of his behavior. I think the meaning is that he was very young when his brother was born, and reacted to his brother's birth with grief and desperation. And, almost certainly, with terrible fear -- maybe you did not love him as much as this baby. (We know this because most of the time when kids are angry, it is a cover for fear.) He wanted to get rid of his brother but clearly that was impossible. He was so depressed he wanted to die.

But he couldn't express or even acknowledge those feelings, so he squashed them down. They fueled his anger. Of course, he is not the only child who has ever felt this way. Older brothers have often resented their siblings, or made their lives miserable. Sometimes they get closer, but are still very competitive. Sometimes they go through their whole lives without feeling close.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Yes, it is true that all siblings feel a certain amount of rivalry. But they also feel love. Our goal as parents is to heal the rivalry as much as possible so the love can dominate.

We start that process by making it safe for our older child to share his feelings about the younger child. Hopefully this starts early. (I remember my four year old saying about his new sister: "I hate her. I don't know why. I just do." And, asking to send her back. I should add that they are now very close.)

I don't know how much of this (expressing feelings) your son did at the time, but I do know that he was a very little guy when he had a new brother, which would have made it harder. I also know that it is VERY hard for our kids to share us. Harder for some kids than others.

Now, he is feeling safer to show you those feelings.

So it is my professional opinion that it is good that this is all coming up now. It shows that your use of new tools (I assume that means Special Time, empathy, etc) is helping him feeling safer with you so he is trying hard to heal himself of all these feelings he has been carrying around. They have been causing him to act angrily and drive you away. That is not who he wants to be. He doesn't even really want to be hateful to his brother. He just wants to feel better and he can't imagine how to do that unless he gets rid of his brother. So failing that, he thinks he might as well die.

Your job, of course, is to help him heal those festering wounds so he can feel good even with his brother in his life. And, yes, that is possible.

What can you do?

1. Work on your own feelings about this. You won't be much good to your son if you are shocked and frightened by his feelings. He is not actually a mean, miserable kid. He is your precious son who was very little when his brother was born and is struggling with some feelings that are making him miserable, with which he needs your help. Of course, I understand your feelings, and that you need help with them. But you need a chance to work those feelings through, preferably by talking with another person about them, who won't be judgmental or need to solve your problem, but will just let you vent and give you empathy.

2. Step up the special time. The more one on one time with you pouring your love, acceptance, appreciation and adoration into him, the better. It will remind him of what he has lost, and trigger those feelings to come up to heal. And it will make him feel safe enough for the feelings to come up.

3. Welcome the upsets. The more he cries the better. The more he gets a chance to thrash around and sweat and push against something, the better. That fear is locked in his body and needs to come out.

4. Get his rational brain involved. He needs a story to make sense of these feelings. Use the metaphor of the candle. Here is your love (the flame.) You light his candle - here is your love for him. Then you light another candle - here is your love for his brother. None of the flames are diminished by lighting another flame. He needs to hear, over and over, that you love him. You could never love anyone more.

5. When he says mean things about his brother, reflect "Sometimes you wish you had me all to yourself."
What you did when he crawled into your bed was perfect. It is GREAT that he cried those big tears.

If his brother is there, add "We are all a family together. Sometimes each of you gets time with me all to yourself, and that is wonderful. And sometimes we get time all together and that is wonderful to me, too." DON'T let him be mean to his brother. Say "In this house, you can be as mad as you want, but we are not mean to each other. Your brother is not causing these feelings. These are your feelings. I will help you with them, you can tell me all about them, but you can't be mean with them to your brother."

Frequently say things like "You can be mad at someone and still love them."

When he says he wants to die, reflect his feelings: "You must feel so very sad and mad, Sweetie....sometimes you feel that bad, huh? Oh, come here and let me hold you." Hopefully, then, he'll cry.

Hang in there. You're not causing this. Having your second son was a fine thing to do. Your oldest WILL get past this. He just needs a little help from you. I really think the key to this is for you to be able to accept his feelings, which means the real work needs to be done inside your own mind and heart. I think once he feels heard and accepted and understood --even though nothing changes outside -- he grieves and moves on. He's allowed to grieve. That's how our hearts heal.

So the place to begin is with your own anger at him. You're allowed to feel that, too. Under it is your fear that he is at core a mean kid who is miserable and will never change. Under that is your fear that you're somehow a bad mom. Process all that, and you'll be able to be more accepting of his feelings. And, like all feelings, once accepted, they dissipate and we move on. As your son will.

Please let me know how it goes.

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