Younger Siblings -- being of use

Older children often count on their younger siblings as the very safest place to show their hard feelings. Remembering that the older one was hurting to begin with, we can pre-empt, protect and intervene more strategically.

I thought the goal of our walk was to enjoy the evening in the beautiful mountains. But clearly there were other agendas. The twenty-year-old whose family we were visiting had had a hard day. She'd done what was required, done it pleasantly and with good grace, but it hadn't been what she wanted. Now, away from her parents, at the end of that long day, the real feelings began to show. We knew her well and invited her to show more--but she couldn't quite figure out how.

The solution, when she found it, surprised me in its simplicity. She got up close behind her sixteen-year-old sister--and tripped her. Naturally her sister turned to retaliate--all in fun, and the older one ran away laughing and screaming. A few minutes later I watched her prepare her next move. She dropped back behind with a gleam in her eye, untied her sweatshirt from her waist--and whomped her sister, who obligingly whomped her back, amid more screaming and laughter.

I could watch the tension loosen as she laughed. I watcher her shedding the constraints and irritations of the day and reclaiming her good humor and equanimity. All it took was a dearly-loved and accessible little sister with whom she could pick a fight.

Now this was an unusually clear sibling fight. They were both in touch with liking each other. The fight obviously had nothing to do with their relationship, or even with anything they were both upset about. And the tone throughout was playful enough that there was no danger of anybody taking it seriously, no danger of hurt to either body or feelings.

Perhaps the very clarity of it was what allowed me to see the underlying dynamic. Older children often count on their younger siblings as the very safest place to show their hard feelings. I've watched my oldest son say something about feeling mad or frustrated, turn around and look for his younger brother, and do something mean to him. The awareness is not nearly as high, perhaps, and there's a clear potential for hurt. But the dynamic is just the same: "I want relief from my feelings, and I'm counting on you, who I know will not go away, to provide that relief."

Just seeing the dynamic puts me in a stronger position to be helpful. Rather than just going with the knee-jerk reaction of protecting the victim and blaming the perpetrator, I've seen that the first one to be hurting was the older one. Something was not going right for him. Whether I can address it right at that moment, I can remember that it is the causal issue--one that has to be addressed ultimately to solve the conflict (unless, like this older sister, the laughter of the fight was what she needed to dissolve the tensions of the day).

In the meantime I can remind them both that the younger one is not the problem. This won't provide guaranteed protection from hurt in the future, but it will clarify the situation in both their minds--and information is power. Finally, I can look for opportunities to set up the kinds of fights that are fun for everybody--offering myself as a target, being silly, getting out the pillows, being in the middle, to help insure that they get all the advantages of the fight without anybody having to get targeted, blamed or hurt.