Hi Dr Justin,
My husband and I have twin 7-year-old boys and a 3-year-old daughter. Our issue is with one of the boys. He has become depressed, anxious, and scared at night, and is extremely sensitive to anything anyone says to him – especially his twin brother and little sister.
They all do the usual teasing and bickering as all siblings to but Riley takes absolutely everything to heart and gets terribly upset. He has started having nightmare, and the smallest sounds in the night scare him. He is doing fine at school with his work and his friends.
I am worried that my parenting may be a contributor – I struggle a lot with yelling and cursing at the children. My temper is quick and I feel lately that the way I am handling their behaviour is too negative and leaving a terrible impression on them.
Dr Justin responds:
There are three central issues we need to address before looking at solutions: your son’s sensitivity, his nightmares, and the challenge of sibling rivalry.
Some children are naturally more sensitive than others. They have a sensitive temperament and struggle to shrug off the painful barbs directed at them from those around them. It seems your son may have a naturally soft and sensitive disposition. Some people will claim that we need to toughen up our sensitive children to make them more resilient. But that softness and sensitivity is beautiful. It is kind. It encourages empathy and respect. A favourite author, L. R. Knost said,
“It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
Instead of toughening our children up, let’s develop that sensitivity and find ways to support their resiliency at the same time. It is possible to be sensitive and resilient.
It can be hard to know why your son is having nightmares. Sometimes children have recurring nightmares for no reason, and sometimes for very good reasons. If this is new and if it has only begun since the challenges you’re writing about have begun, then the stress and anxiety associated with the tension in your home may be related. If this is the case, then we obviously need to help reduce that challenging behaviour, and reduce the fear your son is experiencing.
There is only one great solution that I know of to prevent sibling rivalry – and that is to not have siblings! Sibling rivalry is often particularly challenging with twins!
Since it is too late to change that, let’s look at a few other ways to work through your son’s challenges.
It starts at the top
You’ve suggested your parenting may be contributing. This is probably a fair assessment. If your son has a gentle disposition and temperament, being yelled at or cursed at will increase his anxiety and sensitivity. Research has shown that yelling at least 25 times in a 12-month period can have a negative impact on children’s self-esteem, increase the likelihood of depression and promote aggression in children. And being yelled at is associated with low self-esteem, poorer behaviour, worse outcomes at school, and so on.
Here are some suggestions to help.
I call it “puffer-fish parenting”. When we are upset, we blow up as big as we can, like a puffer-fish, and shout to make things happen. Yelling can be an automatic reaction. But your children are not deaf. Rather than shouting, go to your child, get down on their level, and speak quietly. They will listen more closely. (This applies to all your children. When your sensitive child is not the target of your outburst, he will still fear that he could be next.)
Set clear limits
Being soft does not mean there are no limits. It means that we work things out with them with empathy, with perspective, and with kindness. To do this, we stop what we are doing and drop our agenda for a few minutes, and do the following three things:
- We gather information from our child so we can properly understand their difficulty.
- We share our expectations.
- We invite our child to collaborate on a solution with us. This is best done by asking, “What is the best thing to do in this situation?” or “Where to from here?”
This process will work with issues around sibling rivalry. It will teach your children to resolve issues in a calm, mature, empathic manner. It will reduce stress and anxiety. This should lead to your child feeling more safe and secure, improved relationships, less teasing, and fewer nightmares (if they are related to this issue).
In short, it will help your family feel loved, and loving.
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