Plain Old Sibling Rivalry

Many children, especially young ones, lack the language and self-awareness to express their negative emotions in productive ways. Siblings become convenient targets for our feelings of jealousy and anger, and our dawning awareness of how unfair life can be.
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Last week my 7-year-old son Henry threw his brother's laptop out the window of our ninth-floor apartment. Needless to say, the computer didn't survive the fall. The screen was shattered and one corner bent violently, disclosing the circuitry inside. Since this all happened around 5:30 a.m., we learned about it only when a man who worked in our building rang the bell to tell us he had recovered the mangled computer, along with two throw pillows, a baseball glove, and baby doll.

As I collected our property, still half asleep and apologizing profusely, I felt my world caving in. I was grateful for the child safety bars that kept Henry from following the computer out the window, but I cringed to think of how easily it could have hit somebody down below. I also worried that Henry would be unable to understand the consequences of what he had done. He has Down syndrome, and he often acts impulsively. He loves attention, positive or negative, so when he breaks the rules it's hard to find a punishment that sticks. When we learned our son had Down syndrome, we accepted that there would be delays in his physical and cognitive development. But this seemed like a much more challenging and potentially dangerous gap in his understanding. Of course we could spend the summer with the windows closed, but that wouldn't address my more global worries about how Henry's behavior would impact his brother and our family.

All day, I walked around in a fog of worry and shame, feeling like our home was uniquely chaotic and perilous. How could we go to sleep without worrying that our child might destroy property, hurt himself or someone else? How would it affect his brother to live in fear that his things would be damaged or destroyed?

Over dinner a few nights later, I finally told a friend what had happened. Instead of being shocked, she burst out laughing. "We've been there!" she crowed. In her case it wasn't a computer. Her son's prized possession was an autographed portrait of his favorite soccer player. One day my friend realized her daughter had opened the frame and scribbled all over the picture with an indelible marker. It had been weeks, maybe even months, before anyone noticed. So much time had gone by the girl could hardly remember what she had done, let alone feel sorry about it.

My friend's story was a revelation. Her daughter had no disability, but she too had destroyed her brother's most treasured possession. Like many younger siblings, she felt jealous and resentful. She was unable to express her feelings in words, so she acted out by damaging something she knew he loved, leaving her parents fumbling to come up with an appropriate punishment and to appease the wronged older brother.

The next day I conducted an informal Facebook poll, asking friends to tell me the worst thing their siblings had ever done to them. Responses poured in. There were the obvious ones like telling a brother or sister they had been adopted or found in a garbage can. There were many stories about being threatened, chased, or stabbed with knives; spit in the face; and shot with BB guns. Lots of siblings endured regular beatings, sometimes involving rocks and bricks. One woman was repeatedly locked in the trunk of her parents' car. Another was put on a big wheel and rolled down a steep hill. Someone's brother put him in the dryer and turned it on. A younger sister was folded inside a sofa bed. My sister reminded me that I put a blanket over her head and held it tightly around her neck, and I gave her "manicures" where I poked a needle into the quick of her fingernails. Some friends messaged me privately because their memories were too painful to share in a public forum. A few said these experiences had sent them to therapy or caused them to become estranged from their siblings. But as adults, most were able to laugh about crimes past, and some even have warm relationships with their siblings.

Maybe its perverse, but I found it healing to read about all this violence and suffering. It reminded me of how common it is to hate, resent, and want to harm our siblings. Many children, especially young ones, lack the language and self-awareness to express their negative emotions in productive ways. Siblings become convenient targets for our feelings of jealousy and anger, and our dawning awareness of how unfair life can be. In our case, I don't think Henry acted out of hostility or rage; I think he finds it fun to drop things out of the window, all the more so if he can provoke his parents or his older brother while he's at it.

I've come to realize this isn't a story about Down syndrome, the failures of my parenting, or the uniquely anarchic qualities of our household. It is actually a pretty clear case of sibling rivalry, albeit one with expensive consequences. Like so many sibling relationships, it involves an older brother who is more capable, independent, and has more grown-up toys, and a younger brother who tends to express himself with his body rather than words. Our older son is right to feel angry and wronged. But I've overheard him talking to his friends and know that the-day-Henry-threw-my-computer-out-the-window is already becoming a story to laugh at. As for me, I'm planning to sleep with the windows closed for the rest of the summer.

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