March 26, 2024

Molly & Alastair Part 1 of 4: When your Kids Need Different Kinds of Support

This is part one of the four part series with Molly and Alastair. These parents have 2 children who are very different.

Elizabeth is 8 years old and is an easy going kid. Katherine is a high energy 4 year old with intense emotions and more challenging behaviors. While the parents originally reached out to Leslie for help with their youngest, this episode ended up focusing a little more on their eldest. How exactly can a parent make sure they’re still there for a child when they don’t need literal support? Turns out children may not need the same level of support but they do need the same level of connection. Leslie also discusses sibling dynamics, the myth of the “oldest sibling,” mom guilt, and more. 

Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.

Resources: 

  • Newsletter on myths that may be guiding your parenting that you may want to question, titled “ Have you Outgrown your Childhood Beliefs?
  • Video on how to deal with conflicting needs or wants using a metaphor of which store you choose to go to
  • Video: Orchestra Metaphor on how need to treat each instrument differently and with respect

Leslie-ism: Remember to use “if I had a magic wand”

TRANSCRIPT OF SHOW:

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

0:02  Molly:  How much of that is she doesn’t want to hurt her sister’s feelings. She doesn’t want to disappoint her sister, or she doesn’t want to be in the presence of those really big feelings. And when Catherine has big feelings, she expresses them in really big ways.

0:23  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:   I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. And this is, Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m a parent and a therapist with 38 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

Today, we meet Molly and Alastair, who have two young daughters, and they reached out for help navigating sibling dynamics. Eight-year-old Elizabeth, while generally easier to parent, is struggling with her role as an older sister. She feels like it’s her job to take care of a four-year-old Catherine. Believe it or not, even an eight-year-old can start to feel guilt and pressure to do what she thinks she should be doing. Surprise, surprise: this is also how the parents are feeling. 

Molly experiences mom guilt, and Alastair is dealing with frustration about what he thinks he should be doing as a parent. And they’re both concerned that they are expending too much energy on their youngest at the expense of their oldest. And this happens in a lot of families. Often the focus is on the child with the highest needs. And there are strategies to deal with this very common dilemma, that you can use to help connect with all of your children. 

Now as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. And this show is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s begin. 

Leslie:  Hi, Molly. Hi, Alastair. It’s nice to have you here today.

2:18  Alastair:  Hi, good morning. 

Molly:  Good morning.

2:19  Leslie:  Okay, you’re here to talk about, I think, both your girls, but maybe if you can give me a little background, what you’re looking for, and how I can help you today? 

2:31  Molly:  Yeah, we’d like to talk about both of them. So, we have two daughters. Elizabeth is eight, Catherine’s four and a half. And a lot of the questions we have are kind of about how they interact and how we interact with the two of them together, particularly when it’s just one parent and both kids. Elizabeth is definitely…has always been more laid back, kind of easier-to-parent child. And Catherine’s a bit more active, energetic, opinionated. That’s how I describe it, at least. 

Alastair:  Yeah, I would agree. 

3:07  Leslie:  Okay, so you have two very different children. 

Molly:  Yes. 

Alastair:  Yeah. 

Leslie:  That’s great. keeps you on your toes. But it sounds like there are some challenges with that. Is it the number, two, that makes it challenging? Or is it their different personalities? And the way you need to parent, like, go more into that a little bit more, because I’m curious. Well,

 3:32  Molly:  Well, my perspective is it is a little bit the number, two, that makes it challenging. A lot of what I would do to parent them is the same if it was one-on-one, but sometimes I’m not sure how best to parent Catherine, when I still want to keep Elizabeth in mind and her needs in mind. I find myself feeling like I’m devoting an inordinate amount of attention to the second one. And I don’t want the older one to feel ignored. 

And I also…if Catherine is being loud or insisting on getting her way, or kind of tantruming or yelling, Elizabeth will step in and try to kind of appease her, maybe give her what she wants. It almost seems like step in and almost tried to parent her herself. And I don’t want her to have to be in that role.

4:28  Leslie:  Excellent. And Alastair, do you want to share what it’s like to have two children, two different children?

4:35  Alastair:  I mean, it certainly added to the degree of challenge, for sure. Our younger one, Catherine, is so much more straightforward with asking for what she needs and doing so emphatically, sometimes. And so I think making sure that our oldest, Elizabeth, really doesn’t feel like it’s on her to make everything right for her younger sister: I think it’s kind of what we’re mainly focusing on.

5:09  Leslie:  Okay, so I have a question for you. Just to further assess and explore what the relationship is…your older daughter, Elizabeth, does she ever say, you’re not disciplining Catherine? Or you’re not doing this, or you’re not doing that? Do you hear her complain about your parenting? Or is she stepping in, anyway?

5:33  Molly:  Usually what I hear is one of two things. Either it will be her saying what she wants, like, “I want some more attention. I want you to spend more time with me. How come Catherine always gets to have more snuggles, gets to have more this? 

Or once in a while, she honestly will criticize my parenting from the other direction. Like, say I’m being too harsh with the younger one. Or she’ll kind of step in that role of a protector. And Catherine likes to play up her babyness—she’ll sometimes use a baby voice with her little sister. Alastair, and I find it a little grating. But Elizabeth will say, “Oh, it’s so cute.” She’ll step in and do things, whereas the parents are more likely to say, “You could do that yourself. Let’s put on our socks by ourselves today.”

6:28  Alastair:  I feel like they’re oftentimes where I’m trying to sort of hold the line where Catherine is asking for something that really…she’s more than capable of doing herself. I’ll be, like I said, trying to stay firm on whatever she’s asking for. And then Elizabeth will swoop in and try and fix the problem for her. So

6:51  Leslie:  This is multi-layer, right? I mean, it’s their dynamic. They are siblings, and their dynamic is showing up as a very real, “My older sister can get me what I want, she can help me.” They probably both feel really special in that dynamic. 

7:11  Alastair:  I do think there are definitely very good parts of their relationship as well. I think it’s certainly good that Elizabeth cares and wants to help her younger sister and that Catherine feels like she can depend on her. I also want to make sure that Catherine is learning to be independent, and advocating for herself. And that Elizabeth doesn’t feel like it has to be her responsibility all the time.

7:39  Molly:  And I think that’s the fine line that we’re kind of cut trying to figure out because we like, sometimes they kind of have a, “We’re the kids. We’re a pack, we’re a group of two,” and I really liked that about their dynamic. And I don’t want to discourage that. If they’re going to say us against the adult sometimes I think, in a way, that’s, that’s good for their relationship.

8:01  Leslie:  I love that, too. Okay, so this is a yes, and situation. “Yes, isn’t it lovely that they’re creating a bond.” And the other part is, there’s a piece for Catherine to speak up and make sure she meets her own needs. It sounds like she speaks out, but she might not be the one to meet her own needs. 

And the other thing is for Elizabeth, to be able to say no, for Elizabeth to be able to not feel responsible. And Elizabeth is the firstborn. So we have some birth order issues, where parents tend to look at the firstborn as: it’s your job to be this. It bothers me—it’s a little pet peeve of mine—when we say, “You’re the big sister,” because why are we setting them up for that expectation? 

8:53  Molly:  Yes, exactly. And you can kind of tell, watching her sometimes, where the day starts off—say it’s a weekend day—and we’re all doing something together. Or the kids with one parent or doing something together, and they’re interacting, and she might enjoy that role at the beginning of the day. But you can kind of tell as time goes on, maybe it’s not serving her as well. She needs a break. 

9:17:  Leslie:  I love that: I love the idea that you see a difference. That means you’re really tuning, in and tuning to our children is very important. The more we are tuned to our children, the more attachment they may feel. So that’s a beautiful thing. So if you’re tuning in that her behavior in the morning feels different than in the afternoon, can you actually describe that to me so that you can then one day describe that to her?

9:48  Molly:  So, I notice in the morning, for example, she’ll be enthusiastic about playing games, they’ll jump into whatever make-believe game they have going on, building forts, creating little worlds together. Catherine will be relatively prescriptive as to what her role is, what we’re playing, what’s happening. But Elizabeth will also sometimes play the big sister card and kind of assert her wants and needs. 

They’ll do that for a while. But in response to the same behavior from Catherine later on, “I want to be the queen. I’m the girl and you’re the boy, this is my magic elephant,” whatever it is, Elizabeth will get frustrated, or start saying, “You don’t always get to choose, you don’t always get to do this, you don’t always get to do that.” Or she’ll physically…even if…they’re outside playing, or we go to the park, or whatever, maybe she’ll try to extricate herself. “Okay, now I want to write in my notebook. Now I want to run around.” 

I noticed this happen the other day, she made another friend with a kid her age. And Catherine melted down a little bit. It was in the evening. But she kind of went off with someone else instead of her little sister; which she doesn’t do as much as a lot of her friends who have siblings. But she definitely did it the other day.

11:17  Leslie:  Okay, so noticing all that, if I was Elizabeth, I would say, “Wow, my mom, my dad,, they really know me.” Because when someone sees you and can describe, that is a very powerful way of being seen and understood. And that’s an important need that we all have. So before, when you said Elizabeth is often saying, “Mommy, you have more cuddles,” or, “You have more time with Catherine,” or whatever. This is one way of saying, “I noticed that in the morning, you two like to play,” or, “Elizabeth, you like to sit down and you play together and you let her choose the characters. And in the afternoon, I noticed that you went off to play with your friends. Those are both pretty cool qualities.” You don’t have to even say that, you can just say, “I noticed this in the morning, I noticed this in the afternoon.” And you might just leave it at that. 

And she’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I did. I went off and played with my friends.”  We want to help her become aware that there are differences. It’s a perspective that you’re giving her. So we don’t have to fix her right there—there’s nothing to fix. But giving her that awareness, that one, you see her, and two, you’re giving her the insight so that she can say, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. I do play with my friends. And I do do this”. She might then even share, “Well, I went to play with my friends. And I felt really badly that I left Catherine because Catherine got upset.” “Oh, that is such a dilemma for you.” Now I’m seguing into this idea that Elizabeth probably feels a lot of pull, pull between…you’re both nodding your head. So you agree, she feels this pull between wanting to be independent, on her own, with her friends, and wanting to be the big sister, wanting to be there for her sister. And probably does not want her sister to get upset with her—which is the third area I might come back to. So before I go there, what about this dilemma? Let’s talk about this dilemma that she will probably be in throughout her childhood.

13:34  Molly:  Absolutely. I can see that. [Laughter] I don’t see that ending. I think for her, the role of Big Sis—I think that’s how she sees herself as being a big sister and being caring. I get the feeling that that is a big part of her sense of identity.

13:52  Alastair:  And she’s really good at it. I mean, you could not ask for a more supportive big sister, I feel like, too,

13:59  Molly:  Right. But as she gets older, she is going to get pulled away more. They are three and a half years apart. So there are differences in interests, absolutely. And I think the third thing you said is the thing I think that’s really…that’s the concerning part for us, I guess.

14:16  Leslie:  I forgot what I said. What…help me out: what’d I say?

[Laughter]

14:22  Molly:  The guilt part. I don’t know if that’s what you said exactly. But something like the guilt. 

14:27  Leslie:  I didn’t use the word, “guilt,” but that’s a great way to describe it. So before we move on to that, this idea that she’s got this dilemma, this dialectic dilemma. And I just want to define that a little bit for you, is that they are two seemingly opposite things that can both be true at the same time. There’s an essence of truth. So the essence of truth is, “You do like to go off and play with your friends. And you do want to be with your sister and you don’t want her to be upset.” Those can all be true. And you can almost make it a concrete activity with her. So you can either take a piece of paper and write it on three different pieces of paper and say, “It’s like  three different stores. You’ve got the shoe store, and you’ve got the grocery store, and you’ve got the drugstore, and you need things in all three stores.” 

“Well, they’re all true at the same time, you can’t do it at all, you can’t be in three places at once. So you get to decide: which store am I going to go into at this time? Well, you know what, I have no toothpaste at home. So I’m going to go in the drugstore, because I know I need that. Whereas the shoes, I don’t really need those until next month, when I go hiking in the snow, and I have no snow shoes.” So you can point out that we have different priorities, they may all be really important. Importance and priority are not the same thing. So you can say, “These are all important to you, being with your sister, not getting your sister upset, or not hurting her feelings. And being with your friends are all really important to you. Right now, it was four o’clock in the afternoon on Thursday, when you went and played with your friends. It seems like you went into that store—in that moment, that was the one that was important to you at that time.” And so all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, right, sometimes I do need to go into the drugstore, and prioritize the other store.” So, I like to use metaphors. I like to make it concrete. Do you think that would work for her?

16:35  Alastair:  I think that probably would be pretty helpful as a way of like, yeah, helping her sort of parse it out in her head, is a good way to describe it.

16:45  Molly:  Yeah. And I think it might also help her realize that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Even if you do one thing, then it doesn’t go to whether or not you are generally a good sister.

16:57  Leslie:  Right, because no, we can’t do all these things at the same time. And we face many, many, many dialectic dilemmas in our life. And we do choose, “Right now, what is the path I’m going to take. What am I going to choose to do, in this time?” And then we remember, we zoom out and realize, “Wait a minute, I do play with my sister. I do care about how she feels. I can go to my friends and I can still care how she feels.” And we want to acknowledge, “You’re in one of those dilemmas again—that’s not easy. Oh, good luck with that.” You don’t have to solve it, but just like, “Good luck with that. I know it’s not easy.” 

17:38  Molly:  It’s hard as the parent sometimes to figure out, and it’s probably both things. But how much of that is, she doesn’t want to hurt her sister’s feelings. She doesn’t want to disappoint her sister, or she doesn’t want to be in the presence of those really big feelings. And when Catherine has big feelings, she expresses them in really big ways.

18:01  Leslie:  Yeah, and what you’re saying to me would be very comforting for you to say to Elizabeth. So you can say to her, “I get it.” You express both those. “I think that there’s part of you that doesn’t want to disappoint your sister. And there’s another part of you that doesn’t want to be around those big feelings when she’s expressing it or having big reactions. And they’re both valid feelings.” 

This may not have come out—but I wonder if she even feels, which means you can ask her—”Do you ever feel like you are a bad person? Because you see your sister get upset, and you don’t feel like you want to be around her when she has this. Like, you want to move away from her, you want to, in a way, get away from your sister when she’s having those big feelings. Does that make you sometimes feel like you’re a bad person?”

18:54  Molly:  Yeah. And it’s also interesting, this has reminded me of something that happened the other day for probably the millionth time, which is Elizabeth was upset about something. I think she was also tired and maybe hungry. And it was towards the end of the day. I don’t remember what she was upset about. But she was kind of crying, sitting. She was upset, she wanted cuddles from me. Of course, as soon as I go over and I’m kind of giving her that attention, Catherine starts to cry. She starts to cover her ears and say very loudly, “I don’t like the sound, that’s too loud for me.” Which as Elizabeth kindly pointed out, is a little bit rich coming from her, since she’s usually the one making all the loud noises. And so they got into kind of a back-and-forth. I think Elizabeth’s feelings were actually hurt by her sister’s response to her. And also she made that point herself which is, “I have to listen to you making these noises, being upset all the time. I can be allowed to do this, to. She felt the need to kind of assert that.

20:10  Leslie:  And I’m really impressed by that, that she spoke up and said that. She’s not just people-pleasing. She’s not just taking care of her sister, she is taking care of herself. And dealing with siblings is like, “Do I say something? Do I not say something?” You’re throwing up your hands, likeI don’t know. And it’s not like I have the answers. But a little bit of everything is probably a good idea. So every once in a while, I might say, “It’s nice to hear that self respect. That’s called self respect. You just spoke up for yourself. How cool is that?” And then done, period. 

So I’m sure Elizabeth, when she said that, would love her sister to say, “You’re right, I do make a lot of noise.” And Catherine’s not going to know how to say that—she’s not going to do that. You’re both shaking your heads, no. So yes, the idea is that we know that Catherine is not going to be able to say that. But we want to say, “You used your voice, you’re not going to get the answer you want. That’s understandable. That’s not where Catherine is growing up right now. And you used your voice, which is so important in life.” We want to reinforce that. 

21:16  Alastair:  Yeah, definitely. I think the thing that I need to work on most is I do find a lot of the time because Catherine takes so much more just to get her going and get everything organized for her that I often don’t have the bandwidth to give Elizabeth as much support as she necessarily needs. And it’s very easy to—because she’s older, and because she’s a very relatively easy-going kid—to sort of think of her as older and not provide that extra support that she does need, at least not in the moment. And that isn’t really fair, necessarily to Elizabeth, I think, so…

22:04  Leslie:  Beautiful. And I think the way I would word that is that she may not need the same level of support, but she does need the same level of connection. All children. We do that with teenagers, we say they should be able to do this on their own. So they may not need the same support, whatever age or whatever birth order or whatever we’re talking about. But all children need that connection. And I think you’re picking up on that. I love it. I’m just giving you the words, to reframe it as connection. Because all kids need that. And that’s a different way of thinking about it, which may make it easier for you. She doesn’t need support, but she does need connection.

22:43  Alastair: When you were talking about that kind of clicked with me. There have been times where, as you said, she doesn’t really need the same sort of direct support. And I feel like the times that’s gone better is, like you said, just acknowledging that, yes, you’re older, so you’re not needing as much of the support. And I feel like sometimes just sort of acknowledging and saying that I think helps her. It seems to help her feel a little better about it.

23:26  Leslie:  Yeah, she’s seeing that you’re seeing her—that’s the connection. 

23:30  Alastair:  Yeah, I think that’s a good thing to remind myself to do, but I don’t always think of, in the moment.

23:40  Molly:  And I wonder, too—hearing you say that—it could be applicable to Catherine, too. So I’m thinking of this morning, for example, getting her ready to go. Obviously, in terms of getting dressed for her at four and a half. She doesn’t actually need the support. She is, as Alistair mentioned earlier, she’s fully capable of putting on her own clothes, putting her dirty clothes in the laundry basket, getting on her socks and shoes. She wants someone to be with her, helping her. 

She says, very often in the mornings, “I need help.” She’s big into negotiation. I will do this. if you are here and help me. I’ll do this, if you stay in with me.” And then sometimes when her parents say, “No, you need to do this on your own,” she’ll get her sister to come do that. But maybe what she’s really asking for isn’t us to actually help her. I think it’s the attention, the care to pay attention to her.

24:46  Alastair:  Yeah. And I do think I sometimes take stands as far as insisting that she does things on her own, that I know she can do, and I should probably be a little more selective about when I when I choose to make those stands, I think.

25:03  Leslie:  Yeah, and—I’m going to play devil’s advocate—what’s the point? What are we trying to accomplish? Because she will, at times when it’s real, have to do things on her own. And when someone grows up feeling well-connected, they’re more likely to be able to do the hard things in life. They’re better equipped when they feel like they’ve had the connection. A house stands better on a firm foundation than on a shaky foundation. So when we’re raising our children, and I love that you said that because that’s the way…that’s often a good intention with unintended consequences that parents often have, which is, I’m going to give my child all this practice of doing it on her own. Because we know she’s going to need that in life. And I agree with you 100%. But a slight shift in that perspective is, if I give my child a secure foundation of feeling safe, feeling seen, and feeling connected and feeling capable, then when that hard thing actually happens, when she has to do it on her own, she’s going to feel the stronger foundation underneath her to step up to the challenges. 

Alastair:  That makes a lot of sense. 

Leslie:  Research shows that when children come from this secure environment—a validating, secure environment where they feel like they’ve been seen—then they’re the bird that will fly the coop and feel the ability to go out. It’s from an insecure place where they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel secure, they don’t feel seen, where getting out in the world makes it much harder for them. It’s really the opposite of what we think. Because we think if we came from a really tough place, that kid’s going to want to leave and get away as far as they can. Well, there may be a temporary leaving, but not strong, emotional.

27:01  Molly:  Well, and it’s not like she can’t do those things. She does them all day at school.

27:05  Leslie:  Exactly.  So it’s also a good point that you’re remembering, “Wait a minute, she’s getting plenty of practice to do this.” Maybe she’s asking for connection at home.

[Music: Acoustic Motivation by Coma Media]

27:27  Leslie:  By the way, our conversation today is a lot about the differences in children. When you actually called me for the session, you actually called about Catherine. I know there were a lot of things you wanted to talk about. But the main thing was, “Okay, we’ve got this high energy independent kid who has big, big emotions,” all that. And I love that we’re focusing a little bit more on Elizabeth, because I have said to so many families who come in with the loud child who has big emotions, I say, “They know how to get attention. Let’s talk about the one that is the easy-to-raise and the one we’re not giving attention to because they have the same needs as your high-attention child.” So I love that we’re talking about both of them. 

Alastair:  Yeah, that does… 

28:11  Molly:  Yes, and I think both of us probably relate more to being “the Elizabeth.” I mean, I think I, as a kid, was always very capable. Like, that was…

Leslie: That was your narrative. 

Molly:  That was my narrative. That was my narrative. And so, for me, the thing that resonated a little more was when you mentioned the difference between support and connection. Because I think what I worry about a lot is those situations where Catherine’s getting the attention, I’m the only parent there, I want to be able to also reassure Elizabeth, and give her what she needs and give her attention and give her a kind of support. And it’s hard to know how to do that. 

And I think what I heard you saying was, as long as we’re creating connection by explaining to her what’s going on, what I’m seeing—what I’m seeing in her—that goes a long way, even if I can’t, at that moment, spend one-on-one time with her. Am I getting that right at all?

29:21  Leslie:  Yes, but I actually want you to have a whole toolbox of ideas for what to do.

29:28  Molly:  I need a whole toolbox. Yes. 

29:31  Leslie:  So let’s talk about that whole toolbox. So, we’ve got the idea of connecting to her by noticing, acknowledging what you say, “I can see you’re getting yourself ready for school, you’re putting your shoes on, you’re…” doing this, you’re doing that. I do want to take one moment to go back to something that you said, Alastair, which was back to my pet peeve about the big sister. If possible, can we get rid of the older sister, the bigger sister, the implication that, “You should be doing this on your own,” because of that, I just would love to take that out of the narrative, because she’s going to be told, “I was the oldest sister, I had to do it, I should be doing it.” And it’s just, “You’re getting yourself dressed. Not because you’re the older sister, not because you’re the one more capable. You’re just getting yourself dressed. You’re getting yourself ready for school. How cool. How’s that going? I see that you decided to wear your green sweater today. Is that a comfortable sweater for you?” 

So get rid of the narrative that she’s the older one or the big sister, and just go with noticing. So in the toolbox, we have—this is a form of validation—is: acknowledge what you see, notice what you say. So a second tool would be validating the hard parts. “Well, this feels so unfair that I’ve just spent an hour with Catherine, and I’m still asking you to get yourself ready for school.” So acknowledge the hard parts.

31:00  Alastair:  Yeah, I think that will be definitely helpful for me to do is to acknowledge and recognize that it’s not entirely fair. Like I said earlier, I think on the occasions where I have done that, I do feel like you can kind of tell that helps her feel a little better about it, if it’s not entirely fair. 

31:24  Leslie:  Okay, excellent. So I want to also…I’m coming back to the toolbox. But, Molly, you mentioned that both of you also had the experience of feeling like you were “the Elizabeth.” Alastair, did anyone acknowledge that it was hard to be the capable one, or whatever your situation was? 

31:43  Alastair:  Well, so, my older sister was pretty severely disabled. I think my parents did a very good job of trying to find ways to not have that affect me growing up. Although I do think…I don’t know if this is necessarily entirely a product of that, or is just sort of my personality, innately. Probably it’s some combination of both. But I definitely tended to be fairly low-maintenance, not really needing too much, just because in a physical sense, she needed a lot more as far as day-to-day care.

32:27  Leslie:  Right.

32:28  Alastair:  I think that’s certainly contributed to it, yeah.

32:32  Leslie:  And you’re saying your parents did acknowledge that it was the reality that you’re not getting the same attention that your sister’s getting? Because from the eyes of a five-year-old, or four-year-old, or even a nine-year-old, I don’t care that my parents acknowledge it, it’s still hard. 

32:51  Alastair:  I don’t know that I remember them particularly talking about it, when I was a kid. Talking to them, once I was older, they have talked about how they tried really hard to make sure that it didn’t. Not that it didn’t affect me, but it wasn’t necessarily my responsibility to do…

33:14   Molly:  Correct me if I’m wrong: you wouldn’t, you didn’t really talk about it explicitly, with your parents growing up that you can remember?

33:19  Alastair:  No, none of us are particularly talkers, per se

[Laughter]

33:26  Leslie:  Okay, so we’re just putting that in the toolbox. We’re just adding the idea that you may acknowledge her experience. At some point, you may even share, “Growing up, I thought I had to be the capable one.” Or, “I thought I had to be the easy going one. Because my parents were working so hard to take care of my sister.” So, kids don’t love those stories, and they like those stories; so sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. They don’t usually work in the moment that they’re upset. That’s my trick. Save those stories of parallel, and I-know-how-you-feel, not for in-the-moment when she’s saying, “It’s not fair”, or whatever, even if she’s being quiet about it. So just save it when she’s not in one of those moments. That’s when I tend to share those stories. 

34:15  Alastair:  Don’t bring up the uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow stories when they’re already upset.

34:21  Leslie:  Yeah, there you go. You got it. You got it. Excellent.

34:24  Molly:  So one question I have about that is when it’s in the moment, Elizabeth’s upset, and I’m trying to validate or acknowledge the hard parts about spending more time and energy that particular day with her sister. How do I say that when Catherine’s in the room? Do I say that when Catherine’s in the room? 

34:43  Leslie:  Great question. So the answer may be: you can say it later—not a problem. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong, say, in the moment, but I would be very sensitive. So I wouldn’t say, “I know you would like some attention as well, you would like my company as well, but I’ce got to be with your sister right now.” We don’t want to play it out that way, we just want to say, “I’m here with your sister. And I bet there’s a part of you that would like me to be with you as well. There’s no good or bad about me being with…I’m with Catherine, I’m going to be with Catherine for the next 15 minutes, I imagine that you would also like some attention now, I get that.”

This is where it gets to use, “If I had a magic wand,” so put this in the toolbox. “If I had a magic wand, I’d have two of me. And one would be over there with you helping you get ready for your day. And one would be here helping Catherine.” So there’s actually a way to say it that actually lets both girls hear that they both have needs. And another way I might do it is, “Hey, in the moment, I am giving you each respect, I’m respecting each of you in different ways.” 

Now, there’s many ways of sharing that, that might be a thing. And then at dinner, you might say, “You know, having two children (or having three children or having four children), we, as parents, have to realize that you’re all individuals, we are a family, and you’re all unique.” And then you can find another metaphor, but I tend to use the metaphor of an orchestra. “So, in an orchestra, we’ve got the drum, we also have a harp, or we have a piccolo and I am going to treat each instrument differently. Because I am not going to treat the harp the way I treat a drum. Or I’m not going to treat the piccolo the way I treat the harp. And so our job as parents, which is really confusing to kids, is to treat you with respect for both being an individual and being part of this family.” And then you can have a conversation about that. How are you different? How are you similar? 

36:57  Molly:  Right, that’s going to come up in response to the fairness arguments. 

37:03  Leslie: Absolutely. Just want to think a little bit more about that toolbox. So now you’ve got the magic wand in the toolbox…you can use that. And then some other ideas for being able to acknowledge what’s going on, we have the validation, we have the validating the hard parts, the positives, and, “We’re going to make sure we teach you both with respect. You know, you have different individual needs.” 

The other thing that often came up for my two girls is when Dale was having the big emotions and maybe even directing it at Carrie and being mean, or something like that. Does Catherine ever get mean? 

Molly:  Sometimes, yes. 

Alastair:  Yeah, occasionally. 

Leslie:  When one sibling is mean to another, I often put it back on, “Wow, Catherine must not be feeling very good at this moment.” As opposed to what Elizabeth is supposed to do to help her sister not be mean. It’s like, “No, that’s not your problem. That’s your sister’s problem.” And I did have to repeat that many, many, many times; so that Carrie could understand that Dale’s big emotions and Dale’s sometimes mean behavior was actually a reflection of Dale. And she would be responsible for that. Maybe one day she will own that and be responsible. “But right now, it’s your job to know that that’s Dale’s problem, and not yours.” Because what some children want to do, whether it’s Carrie or her brother, whatever, or what maybe Elizabeth would want to do is, “What can I do to make sure she’s not mean to me? Can I be nice? Can I get her something? Can I do things like that?”

38:39  Molly:  She definitely will do that. Especially if she’s upset generally. Or just take it really personally, which is, of course, understandable. But go off and cry, you know, that, “My sister is saying these things to me.”

38:54  Leslie:  And that’s where I do want to acknowledge both that it is hurtful—it doesn’t feel good–and whose problem is this? 

Alastair:  Yeah… 

Molly:  Catherine’s. 

Leslie:  Elizabeth may have a part in it. Because Elizabeth may have said—and this gets back to that guilt—Elizabeth may have said, “No, I don’t want to play with you. I don’t want to play queen, I don’t want to play…” you know. And so then she feels guilty because, “If I had only played the way she wanted, then she wouldn’t be upset with me.” And there’s a belief system that she can end up growing up with, which is, it’s not okay for people to be upset. Elizabeth might grow up believing that. That’s a little bit of what I’ll call a stuck point, a sticky point. That’s terminology that comes out of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, where we have a myth about ourselves that we start to believe. But I don’t want her to believe it’s not okay for people to be upset with me. 

“Can Mommy and Daddy be upset with me? Can my teacher be upset with me? Can a friend be upset? Can my sister?” So we want to say it’s a really good thing to learn that people can be upset. And you’re okay. And that’s going to take many, many, many years and many situations to practice, “So-and-so’s upset with me and I’m okay. It’s okay for people to be upset. They can handle that. They get over it. It’s not my job to fix somebody else’s upsetness.” 

40:24  Molly:  I feel like that’s the hard part. Because that’s not a lesson that we practice in my family of origin. [Laughter] So it’s something, honestly, that I still struggle with. And I don’t want my kids to feel the same way. But it is a lot of resetting. 

40:42  Leslie:  I love it. You know, this is where I like to go with parenting is: let’s go back to modeling. You guys start practicing this. So, there are things I’ve given you, ideas that you can go home and practice with the girls. And very important, I want you to focus on this core belief that you might have in your world is not okay for people to be upset. And starting to realize, however, you’re going to work on that, that, “They’re upset and I’m okay; they’re upset, and they’re okay. They’re upset, and they’re going to get over it. They’re upset. And this is a passing feeling.” So I’m making a lot of dialectic statements. I’m changing the core belief and rewriting it. Try that, practice it. It’s not going to feel comfortable for a long time, until you say it and live it about a thousand, maybe two thousand times. So are you ready to start practicing that? 

Alastair: Yes.

41:43  Molly:  Yes. Well, and the funny thing is, I’m so used to that. And it’s not an issue in the workplace. But it’s still something I struggle with in everyday life. And it’s something that I’ve noticed too. It’s interesting, sometimes watching grandparents interacting with our kids, and you kind of get that view as to what it was probably like, for us as kids, not in a horrible way. But, “Oh, my gosh, this kid’s upset, I need to fix it right now.”

42:12  Leslie:  Right, right. This is so important. I love the idea that you will both work on it. I love the awareness that you have that, “I do it in the workplace, but I don’t necessarily do it in my family of origin.” Well, you learned it in your family of origin, so no wonder why it’s a little harder. And you have the skill. Now, it’s called transferring the skill. You want to transfer this skill to this other environment with your children, maybe with friends and with your family. So, practice, practice, practice.

42:44  Molly:  Do you feel the same way? 

Alastair:  About which part? 

Molly:  Do you feel comfortable with people being upset with you? 

42:52   Alastair:  I think maybe I find that slightly easier, once the initial someone who’s upset with me happens, I think maybe I find it a little easier to sort of set that aside and let it, sort of ,wash over. Maybe, yeah. 

43:15  Leslie:  Okay, we call that recovery. So you might have an easier time recovering. We all have core beliefs that are mistaken beliefs, because we believe something from our childhood, from our society, or whatever. And it’s okay for us to outgrow them and replace them—have replacement beliefs. 

So, this is what you can notice, you’re going to work on that. Sometimes it’s not okay for people to be upset with me. Sometimes it’s not okay for people to be upset at all. And sometimes it’s my fault if people get upset. This is a whole big topic of what we’re told when we’re growing up. There are so many messages from society, from ourselves. So, we’re going to stick with just this one, we’re not going to get overwhelmed. I’m good at overwhelming people. So let me not overwhelm you here. And you guys go home, try some of this stuff. Okay? 

Alastair:  Alright.

Molly:  Sounds good. Thank you.

[Music: Forest of Dreams by Olexy]

Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  Molly and Alastair are experiencing something so many of us have experienced as parents: Our good intentions can have unintended consequences, and you have no idea that it’s happening. I love Molly’s and Alastair’s ability to see how their perceptions might need to shift from future-oriented to present-oriented. 

Another part of that perception shift is challenging the myth of the oldest sibling and that means not telling children that they should step up and act like the big sister or the big brother. Older siblings need to know they’re not responsible for their younger siblings’ emotions. And while your children may have different levels of needs, they do need the same level of connection. So let’s not forget to connect with our easier children, too. 

Join us next week for our second session with Molly and Alastair, where we talk about power struggles with their kids, and de-escalating conflict. 

Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend. You can find a full transcript of this episode or subscribe to my newsletter at ismychildamonster.com. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, AJ Moultrié, Camila Salazar, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury and Mia Warren. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, remember to use, “If I had a magic wand…”

Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury

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