Brothers in Conflict

Q: I’m writing to you about my two oldest sons, ages 12 and 14, who have an ongoing negative relationship with each other. My wife and I divorced about four years ago. She is very emotional, and I feel she over-reacted to many of the things I did, and didn’t give me much room or hear my opinions (or side of the story). My children, observed her hysterical behavior, and lack of good communication skills.

It is not my goal to defend myself and point the finger at her — I guess my communication skills are lacking, too.

My older son is a compassionate and creative child — and he’s more laid back. He has learning problems and is in a special school that is very supportive and caring towards its students. He is a leader in his class, and is the creator and organizer of most extracurricular activities that go on in his grade. With all his maalos, he feels that I favor his younger brother, as he sees that his brother’s personality is similar to mine.

This second son is more academically capable, more punctual in his daily life habits and is more “slick” in general in his way of interacting with others. He is more nervous, and conscious of what others think of him. He wanted to go to the same sleep-away camp as his older brother (which his older brother definitely didn’t want). My second son resents when his older brother tells him what to do, and he’ll tease his older brother whenever he’s in the mood to do so.

It seems to me that my second son gives his older brother aggravation in order to get his attention — that’s what it feels like, anyway. A new thing is that my older son stops at my home on the way to his mother’s — just to relax — before he becomes the babysitter for his three younger brothers while his mother is working (we have joint custody, split up each week).

My second son has now started doing the same thing, and his older brother feels that he is harassing him by following him. What are your thoughts on improving the dynamics?

A: Your sons are experiencing various challenges simultaneously, making it somewhat difficult to create a comprehensive solution.

Negative communication patterns often start among siblings at a young age and can be difficult to disengage. It sounds like the years that your marriage was becoming more problematic and the difficult divorce process must have affected all family members to some degree. Questions of loyalty to either parent — and who was “right” and “wrong”— has harbored in the minds of your children (which occurs in intact families, as well).

As you stated correctly, good communication patterns need to be seen in real-life role models to be most effective. Severe interpersonal conflicts as you seem to have had with your ex-wife haven’t encouraged compromise or understanding the subjective viewpoint of the other, but rather reinforced an “I’m right and I’m going to win” attitude.

Attempting to mediate between both sons by problem-solving with them is an initial step to take. Try writing down each other’s complaints in list form, giving each one a time frame in which to speak. Neither is permitted to interrupt until the other has completed his time to speak. Each side needs to be heard, and their viewpoint reflected back verbally by his brother (if they are comfortable with this).

Viable solutions need to be suggested (even if many are rejected) until some type of compromise can be reached. Issues of being bossy, teasing, and the creation of appropriate boundaries need to be addressed.

You as a parent must avoid being judgmental, but rather record the words of each child, without emotional involvement. Problem-solving involves trial and error — when one solution is not successful for your sons, another is attempted soon after. Rewards for improved behavior are always helpful.

Your older son may be resentful that he has to continually babysit his younger brothers when at his mother’s house. Due to his mother’s extremely emotional nature, he probably feels that confronting her on this will just cause additional conflict. The time spent at your home alone, before he babysits, can be very healing and helpful for him. Sensitivity is needed when hearing each child’s needs.