Yesterday, I began answering the question I probably get the most emails asking: How I encourage sibling relationships, covering up until B5 was born. At this point everything changed. Life went from being pleasant in every sense of the word to being really rather difficult. Parenting goals and aspirations went right out of the window as Gary and I struggled to cope with all life was throwing at us at the time.
The older ones were eight and nine when B burst into our life. I had been on bed rest for ten of the forty weeks of pregnancy (I had complete placenta praevia and a large bleed at 32 weeks) attempting to keep some sort of normalcy going in our little homeschool. Gary and I were in deep discussion whether or not to get my tubes tied, thus preventing any more pregnancies. I was desperately unhappy at the very thought, but we had five different consultants telling me another pregnancy would kill me. Gary wanted no more. His argument was that he would rather have five healthy children and one healthy wife than be a widower with six children. For me it was the end of a dream and felt like I was denying a deep part of me which cried out for more children. After all, the four we currently had brought us such joy. In the end I was unable to make the decision and agreed to go along with whatever Gary chose. I am so blessed to have such a strong man as a husband, but never more so than during this time. He was gentle but steadfastly firm in his decision. He never once berated me for my tears (which came frequently) and just gently loved me as I gradually let go of that part of me.
B was born safely and I brought her home with me, determined that I would cherish every single moment of her babyhood. Alas, it was not meant to be. For the next two years she cried almost continuously. I had no idea why. Nights were horrible as she screamed her way through them. I would often wake to the screaming and drag myself upstairs to see what was wrong, to be met by three older children who were taking turns pacing and rocking her ‘so you could get some sleep, Mummy’. Having my tubes tied was the most painful thing I had ever experienced and the bleeding was like nothing I had ever known. I have since had an operation to fix it, but very quickly I became anaemic. I was shattered, sad and hanging on by a thread. Gary was exhausted at being woken each night (he has always been a very involved parent) and needing to go to work in the morning, and the older four children were also very tired from listening to B cry all the time.
It has since materialised that B5 has very bad leg cramps, which once she could talk and communicate I was able to help with. She gets them even now and they will still cause her to scream through the night if we can’t relax the muscles.
When B was just 9 months old I was diagnosed with invasive malignant melanoma. Oh, and around that time the hormones hit my three eldest wham bang in the face.
Gary and I retreated into survival mode. All our intentional parenting went down the drain, along with any energy, as we tried to cope with a baby who cried all the time, three hormonal pre-teens and a life threatening disease. We did what was needed to get through the day. My three older children, who had been utter joys their whole lives, had metamorphosed into children I didn’t really recognise. C and T, who were so close growing up, began to rub each other up the wrong way.
T found, at the tender age of ten, his body overrun by testosterone. His voice was breaking, his limbs were growing quicker than his mind could keep up with and he became easily irritated to the point of anger. Hormones floored him. C and L were struggling with similar battles with hormones although for them irritation, anger and long limbs were not the problem. For them, there was a feeling of not being themselves, some days not recognising themselves and their reactions to things. At certain times in the month they would burst into tears for no apparent reason we (or they as it turns out) could fathom! There were many tears. They were worried their Mummy was going to die, didn’t understand why the brother they adored didn’t want to play with them anymore, or why their baby sister cried all night long keeping everyone awake. It was a hard time for all of us.
At about two years old B stopped her incessant crying and some semblance of peace began to settle on our home. Slowly Gary and I came back to the land of the living and went about trying to undo the damage of the past two years.
Encouraging Sibling Relationships When You Have Tweens
For me, I have found parenting the ages between 10 and 12 the hardest. I’m not sure if that was situational or whether it was due to the changes I saw (but wasn’t expecting) in my three eldest. Granted, I’d had it easy up to then, and to be honest they really weren’t that bad. But the change threw me a bit.
I’m guessing hormones affect different children in different ways, and maybe a fourteen or fifteen year old will deal with them in a more mature manner than a ten-year old. I was fully developed by the age of nine so I had already taught the children, in great detail, what was soon to happen to their bodies, on the off-chance one of them would go through it as early as I had, but no-one could prepare us for just how overnight that change was.
T went from being a happy, chatty, easy-going child to a man-boy who could not understand why things were irritating him so much. He had a permanent look of tension in his face, he was tired all of the time, grouchy and reluctant to join in with family activities. Can I just say how incredibly blessed we (he and I) were to have build up such a tender, strong and trusting relationship over the past decade? This relationship enabled me to speak frankly with him about what was going on. Communication between us has always been strong but I was incredibly thankful for it during these couple of years.
Explanations and Reasons
Bickering was one of our parenting definites, up with lying and disobedience. We never let them bicker mindlessly. I have friends who feel that is just part of every day life with a big family. I disagree. Even during these turbulent hormonal times (for us between the ages of 10-12) we never allowed it. By that I mean it was never allowed to go uncommented on. If they bickered we always expected an apology and a hug between the siblings as an end to it. If one child needed some time to cool off, they were encouraged to go to their room and rejoin us when a little calmer, after which an apology and hug was always forthcoming.
We always looked for a reason for the bickering. Mostly it has been hormone related, so we discussed with the children what was going on inside their bodies and helped them deal with their new feelings in a more appropriate way. I always think bickering is a lazy way to deal with feelings. We explained not just to T but also to his sisters the effects the testosterone was having so he fully understood what was going on, and so his sisters could love and support him where he was at. You may have read the post a couple of days ago about A7’s understanding of hormones. This may have only been happening to the older three but we dealt with it as a family. We expected everyone to love regardless of how difficult it was. We made it clear that love is a decision and not a feeling. It is a choice you make even if it feels hard and fruitless at the time.
Expectations and Boundries
T was 11 and still struggling to cope with all the changes going on. We tried to help by giving him clear expectations for his behaviour. We were firm when he allowed his feelings to get the better of him, but we also made sure to help him to find options to deal with all this tension he was feeling. We found huge meals (served approximately 17 times a day), stacks of exercise and the one hour quiet time alone all helped level out the effects of the testosterone. We also moved him to his own room so he could have the breathing space he obviously needed. That said, we never let him spend copious amounts of time in his bedroom. When we went out as a family, he came, whether he wanted to or not. If we watched a family film, he came down and watched it with us, whether or not he wanted to. He wanted to withdraw from the family but, although we gave him space, we did not let him distance himself. He would say, now, that was one of the best things we did during that time.
Helping with Perspective
We also helped him to see that whilst he was feeling irritated with the girls it was actually what was going on inside his body which made him feel that way, rather than the girls behaving in an irritating way. When he understood that, he was much better at expressing his feelings in a less aggressive manner.
With the girls we had to explain their propensity for tears were not linked to any change in us but in them. Their Daddy and Mummy still loved them just like they always had. I had to work particularly closely with the girls helping them to understand the ebbs and flows of the month. The girls were very different from T. They never wanted to withdraw from the family. However, they became less patient, especially with their younger siblings, at certain times in the month and we have worked together to re-educate them to watch their tones at times.
We have also used the freedom of home schooling for warm baths, good books and good music. The girls may start a bath tearful but usually are much more relaxed and buoyant at the end and the effect lasts the rest of the day.
A Firm Hand
I would be more anxious to provide a happy home for my teens than their father. The difference is in our perspective. Gary grew up in a stable home where he knew he was loved by his two parents and his five siblings. His father and older brother loved him enough that if he needed a telling off, a consequence or a good talking to, they gave it to him. As a result he has no concerns about the long-term effects of consequences and hands them out with ease 🙂
Our parenting has always been based on the fact that the children gained freedoms based on how responsible they were. Therefore the more mature they become the more we let go. During this time, freedoms were taken away and natural consequences given. I remember grounding the three older ones for a week. We had never done anything like this before and I distinctly remember the excitement from all three children proudly announcing to everyone at church that they were grounded!
Being Diligent About What Goes Into Them
We have always been fairly careful about what the children watch, read and the music they listen to (although much less so as they get older). When the hormones first hit, I encouraged them to be vigilant about the things they were letting into their lives. Both Gary and I encouraged them to read books with a positive message, rather than mindless romances or sci-fi. We supplied them with good, positive books and as a family decided to avoid the library. I also bought books, which were required school reading, about what God expects from them. I will be doing a post, maybe tomorrow on the books which have particularly been of help to T as he has navigated his way through adolescence. We also encouraged them to be careful about what they were listening to. We encouraged T, who on occasion would get quite down, to surround himself by positive Christian music with uplifting, positive life affirming words. To this day, that is all he chooses to listen to because he recognises how helpful it is.
These days we are very easy-going, but if I see any of the children begin to look on the darker side of life, I encourage them to take a look at what they are letting into their head via their eyes and ears. I want them to have a discerning spirit, able to regulate those things themselves.
Chores and Hard Work
It is my experience that teaching children to be expected to take a role in the running of the home as well as generally training them to be hard workers goes a long way to stemming the effects of the tweenie years. It is around the age the hormones hit that my guys were reluctant to work hard within the family.
But Gary and I never changed our expectations. They were a member of a hard-working family and they were expected to participate as a fully fledged member. This meant they would receive the benefits (hot meals, roof over head, regular fun celebrations) of family living but they were also expected to contribute to the well-being of the family in chores, attitudes and general hard work. T was less than impressed at the time. However, after reading one of the books we had asked him to read, he came down to me and gave me a huge hug and thanked me and Gary for refusing to have low expectations of him. He said, he would have risen to whatever expectations we had, and he was so grateful we had kept them high.
Cherish and Respect
We all want to be loved, but I know that as a woman I like to be cherished and as a man, Gary needs to be respected. We wanted the girls to grow up knowing how they should be treated by men and we wanted them to understand that when they got married the most important thing they could gift to their husband was respect. Likewise, we wanted T to understand that his sisters needed cherishing. Yes, of course he should respect them, but I believed respect would follow naturally if he were to work on cherishing them.
We spent a long time showing the girls what it looked like to respect their brother, and we spent a long time showing T what it looked like to cherish his sisters. And it is in the small inconsequential things that this is seen the most. T always sits in the front seat of the car if I am not there…..he also is the one who takes the Vacuum cleaner upstairs for the girls.
We had to teach and reteach (and I am sure will need to reteach again) T to speak in a tone of voice which cherished his sisters rather than belittled them. This was hard to learn, because we are a family for whom teasing and sarcasm run rife. We enjoy the camaraderie of teasing and joking our way through life together. T had to learn when it was appropriate and when it wasn’t. He had to learn that at certain times in the month he needed to tread carefully, caring about his sisters and cherishing them more in that moment than maybe the rest of the month. Because that is what they needed. We had to train the girls to respect T and honour his need for space when he was going through a growth spurt. All the children offer to do chores if one of their siblings is struggling. Cherish and respect. These things look different depending on the child, but I believe it is very important for family harmony that we take the time to find out what respect looks like for our sons and what cherishing looks like for our daughters. And then find ways to honour each other by putting those ways into practice.
When he reached thirteen the T I knew and loved returned. He was happy and fully developed into a young man. He still has the odd surge of hormones when he feels his voice dropping once more but he is back to his fairly easy-going, loving and joyful young man.
The girls are up and down throughout the month, but bit by bit they are learning to cope with these natural peaks and troughs. I adore parenting my teens! This is such a fun time for all of us, and is thoroughly enjoyable. All that work has paid off. The children are really very good friends. They choose to hang out together. They chat easily and joke their way through their days.
I won’t be writing a post about parenting teens because that is the stage I am right now and to be honest I don’t feel qualified!
I will direct you to a couple of posts I have written about the teens in this house, which will give you some idea of the things we do:
The question of being hands off with teens
Ten things to love about teens
If any of you are going through the tweenie stage now and struggling please know it is a short stage. If anyone has any questions they would like to ask my older children, I am sure they would be happy to answer them. We all have to stick together during these turbulent years and learn from each other 🙂