Is my 8-year-old abusive to his sibling, like my brother was to me?

Q: We have two sons who are almost three years apart in age. Our older son, who is almost 9, has narcissistic tendencies, gaslights his brother, rigs games in his favor and shows extreme overconfidence. Our younger son is deeply affected by his brother’s treatment, shows extreme frustration and lashes out at his older brother over many of these negative traits.

The behavior our older child exhibits reminds me of my abusive older brother, with whom I have had no contact for years. Both parents here intervene with our boys’ fights to mediate, remind our older son of the need for self-awareness and encourage our younger son to stand up for himself. We also coach them to be communicative, fair and generous in thought, to no avail.

Our older son does not listen or hear our suggested resolutions and has said he thinks he knows better than we do. Our younger son continues to fall prey to his brother, to the detriment of his self-esteem. I fear their relationship will break, as mine has with my brother, without change from our older child. How do we encourage better self-awareness in a developing, immature boy, and how do we teach him to value relationships via treating people better?

A: Thank you for writing in; you are not the only parent who has two siblings who fight, even quite terribly. There are many different issues in this note, so let’s tackle them one by one.

To begin, it is clear that you have some trauma around the abuse you suffered at the hands of your brother. Using words such as “narcissistic,” “gaslights” and “rigs” to describe your son is painting a picture of a type of sociopath, and he is only 8. Can an 8-year-old be a gaslighting narcissist? Sure, anything is possible, but your past is clouding what’s real and what is not.

I believe the boys are fighting, and maybe the older brother is bullying the younger one (all major problems), but you are having a trauma response to what you’re seeing, which is impeding your judgment. What do I mean? Most people have some kind of trauma or wound from being a child. We got too much of one thing or not enough of another; we come into adulthood with little idiosyncrasies or full-tilt mental health issues. These small-t traumas and wounds can easily cause us to have overreactions or underreactions to our children’s behavior, but big-T traumas are another story.

If your brother abused you for years, you could be triggered into identifying with your younger son, and when the boys are fighting, your brain goes back to when you were abused. Your elder son becomes your brother, and you may find yourself back in your childhood.

Your body is in a trauma response, and your anxiety from your abuse is creating future stories about your older son. Your younger son staying the victim as he “continues to fall prey” to his brother, as well as the assumption that your children’s relationship will be like your relationship with your brother, is completely colored by your childhood trauma.

The coaching and lecturing around the boys’ communication is neither good nor bad, but until you work out your own trauma, you will not understand the arguing in your home. You may stay in a loop of reaction, overidentification, catastrophizing and fear, making it impossible to support both of your children.

I don’t know why your older son is angry and picks fights with his younger brother. I don’t know what dynamics are at play with them, and I’m not even certain of the severity of the arguments. Is your older son truly growing into a narcissist (it happens), or have typical sibling squabbles triggered your trauma?

To get more clarity, I would recommend finding a good family therapist who specializes in trauma. At first, it should just be you who goes. You deserve support to unravel what happened to you as a child, and as you learn, grow and heal, the therapist can also help you connect with both of your sons in ways that move past “victim” and “aggressor.” A new perspective will help you parent them with fresh eyes, more empathy and less reactivity.

As for how to help both of your sons right now, sit with your partner and make a list of the details around the arguments. Get granular about: what time of day this happens, where the boys are, what they are doing, how much they have eaten, what their sleep is like and how much exercise they have had. What patterns are you seeing? How do the arguments begin? Is there always a “he said, then he responded, then he said” kind of back-and-forth? Where are you and your partner when this begins? How bad does it get until you intervene?

You can then begin to problem-solve more effectively. Maybe your older son cannot be trusted to lead the play with his little brother, and an adult needs to be more present. Maybe the younger son is agitating his brother more than you realized. Maybe the boys need more direction, more chores and more support in finding cooperation. Until you really look at the dynamics, reacting after the arguments is not going to help change anything.

Finally, read Ross Greene’s “The Explosive Child” and check out Greene’s approach is refreshingly free from blame and the focus on behavior, and instead meets the child where they are while slowly and steadily finding workable solutions that meet both the parent’s and child’s needs.

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