Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A special kind of sibling torture

You might think this is a scene typical of many family bathrooms—a chain of cars stuck to tiles, the sort of design a kid would make during tub time. Actually, it is a form of Sabrina sibling torture.

Max can't raise his arms very high because they're stiff (thank you, cerebral palsy). So usually, he'll line up cars way at the bottom of the wall, where he can reach them. Sabrina likes to dart into the bathroom when he's not around and arrange them up high out of his reach. When Max pulls open the curtain at night for his bath and sees this arrangement, he screeches. It's sort of like the shower scene in Psycho, but not.

There's the standard sibling teasing and tormenting. But then there's the kind directed at a sibling with special needs, the kind that involves Sabrina doing things that target Max's physical challenges. Like when she holds toys up and out of his reach. Or when he wants her to write "Max" on a drawing he made and she writes "Sabrina." Or when she gives him a barely perceptible shove and it totally throws him off balance.

I've had conversations with her in which I've explained she has to be kind to Max because she's his sister and and he needs a little extra help, love and caring.

They don't seem to have penetrated.

Sabrina did attend her very first Sibshops session last month. There were about six other little girls there, and I dropped her off then returned three hours later. They did some crafts and played games geared toward opening up conversations about siblings—like "Popcorn," in which the girls sat in a circle and each wrote two things about themselves and two things about their siblings on slips of paper. They crumpled them up, threw them into the center, and then took turns picking papers and discussing stuff. Sabrina's words about Max (can you guess?): "purple" and "spaghetti."

It's gonna take a lot more Sibshops and maturity for her to chill. I'm a little scared because I basically didn't stop torturing my sister till I went off to college. Hopefully, things will be different between Sabrina and Max because there's a very different sort of dynamic.

Meanwhile, they have the occasional tender moment. We got Max a Cars 2 Look and Find book, where you have to pick out objects in a sea of images. They've been sitting on his bed at night and examining it together, and he's doing just as well as she is spotting things. "Good job, Max!" she says.

At times like those, I feel melt-y. And then I'll hear her shouting out to him, as they fall asleep, "MAX! NO SPAGHETTI FOR YOU EVER AGAIN!"


  1. Ellen I think your over-reacting just a teensy bit my siblings do this kind of thing to me all the time ans you know because of that I can now reach foe stuff that I couldn't before. Tell Max to try and get the toy if he can :)

  2. Sibling dynamics are sometimes tough. I often have a hard time figuring out what is just "typical sibling rivalry/teasing" and what is bullying. Sometimes it's black and white, but most of the time we seem to live in that gray area. What to let go, what to lecture over, what to discipline over? It's all just one more facet of navigating the special needs world. I'm glad for the super sweet moments to remind me they do really love each other.

  3. If it makes you feel better, my younger brother totally teased/bulled me specific to my physical challenges growing up and we are really close now. My parents never let him think it was ok and it took time but eventually he got the message. I think it's probably just part of childhood and what is important is that the parents keep sending the message that it's not acceptable. By the time we were in high school, my brother was my staunch supporter against the bullies there.

  4. I think it is awesome that she doesn't treat him with kid gloves. It is going to be a learning process for her (and you!) as to where the line is. But I bet even if she teases him at home, she'll defend him out in the world.

    You've got two awesome kids!

  5. Oh my husband gets SO mad when Jaden takes Malachi's toys away from him. I think it crystalizes for him everything he fears and hates about cerebral palsy — that the world will get to impose its will on Malachi and he'll just sit and watch it happen.
    I think it's just that the thing that someone else is waving around erratically is by far the most interesting thing in the room to a 13-month-old. I often tell Jaden "no" but sometimes I just watch when they think I'm not looking so that Malachi will figure out what's going on when Jaden comes close with a gleam in his eye. I've even caught Malachi taking a toy away from Jaden!! I don't say anything, but I'm definitely rooting for him. Is that awful?
    Anyway, good for you for taking Sabrina to a sib camp, I think that's really important to help her process this too.

  6. Yes, you did torture me somewhat, and I am not sure that it completely ended when you went to college, but I forgive you! I have seen Sabrina be both kind and not so kind to Max, but I think deep down she really loves him and would do anything for him.

  7. I do hope Sabrina comes through this before her teens. Our problem was the opposite - it was Paul who would torment his younger sister.

  8. Ahhhh, teasing!!!

    As you know, Ellen, I grew up with a brother with a few physical challenges. At school, I would beat the crap out of anyone who was mean to him. At home, I would like to say I was a caring, sweet, adorable, loving sister...but that would be a TOTAL lie. The worst thing I did was steal his teddy bear (he was too old for it but clung to it nonetheless) AND hearing aid and stick them in our tree house. I can't remember what I was pissed about, it was probably something where I wanted to be the Golden Child and thought he was getting the lion's share of the "attention," but that was a real doozy--lots of whining and screaming and drama before I fessed up! I got my behind smacked for that one (and my parents weren't real smackers, either--so you know they were annoyed, those hearing aids cost money, doncha know!).

    I think it's important to let Sabrina know when she's stepped over the line, while at the same time let Max know that she's teasing him and that is what siblings do, and he needs to not let it get to him, see it for what it is, and tease back a little every so often--maybe call her a poopiehead if she's mean to him, or something (anything to increase verbalization, huh?). Not to encourage them, but you might want to recount a few stories about you and Judy, assuming you have a few examples where everything turned out OK and you didn't totally murder one another!

  9. I think Sabrina could have a future as a physical therapist! She's tough and caring at the same time...

  10. Nisha, I try not to overreact but I can't stand when she zones in on his challenges! Max does stand up to her. He is very good at hair-pulling!

    Jennie, I wouldn't mind just a little more nice-ness but, hopefully, that will come.

    Kelly, I live for the super-sweet moments. :)

    Felicia, I laughed out loud at the thought of you swiping your brother's hearing aid! That is awful and so funny, at the same time. I do call Sabrina on it when things go too far. That is an excellent idea to try and conjure up some stories of my own rivalry with my sis.

    Speaking of which, Judy, I thought I got nicer after college but maybe not? :) Yes, she loves him deeply. Thought sometimes it's like the death grip of love.


Thanks for sharing!