Thursday, August 11, 2011

Adaptation. Matthew.

One of the common questions I get these days is how Matthew's doing, given the arrival of his brother and sister.  It's a hard question to answer and I've avoided writing about it.  But I'll try to address it now, at least a bit.

Matthew has had a very hard time.  He is still having a hard time.  There's no getting around this simple truth.

It was obvious that Matthew would be in for a major life change once his siblings came home.  After all, he's been the king of the castle, the apple of my eye, the centre of his own universe and usually of mine, too.  He has not been a spoiled child but, being an only child, he could hardly help but become the centre of his parents' focus.  That world came to an end the day we added not one, but two, little people to our family.  And of course, things are always a little more complicated when you bring home older children who have trauma and grief issues to grapple with, and who have fully developed personalities and opinions and needs and expectations and temperaments and quirks and habits and challenging behaviours and likes/dislikes.  It's also more complicated when your oldest child is extremely sensitive.

Matthew has looked forward to having siblings for years.  Really, years.  We have never tried to hide from him our desire to add a child/children to our family, and he has genuinely longed for it, too.  We tried our very best to prepare him for the changes to come, and I think we did a pretty good job of that, but of course it's hard for him to put into practice that which was only theory before.

He was extremely helpful in the first number of days after coming home from Ethiopia: showing the kids 'the ropes;' helping to alleviate some of their fears by doing first things that would be new to them; engaging them in ways that the kids seemed to relate to; and expressing his joy at their long-awaited arrival.  But as the first week passed, and we started to move beyond the 'honeymoon' period, we also started to notice in him the first of the anticipated behaviours:  impatience and frustration; a desire for time alone with Geoff and/or me; a feeling of being usurped; anxiety; and all of the behaviours that accompany having one's nose seriously out of joint.  He began to manifest all kinds of challenging behaviours; it was hard to know how to manage him, and it was even harder to see him struggling.

Usually a very gentle and sensitive child, Matthew has struggled with physical manifestations of aggression: pushing; hitting; screaming at the younger kids; and trying to scare them.  My heart broke so many times over the first four or five weeks as I saw him try to find himself again amidst a family that had changed radically and overnight.  I also noticed, when taking lots of photos of our new family in the early days, that Matthew appeared sad in virtually ever candid photo I took of him.  That was a very hard thing for me to come to terms with.

We tried so many things to make his transition easier:  I tried to arrange play dates for Matthew; we bought him new audio book cds so that he could go upstairs and get out of the chaos for periods of time; we let go of his bedtime routine so that, after Geoff and I put the younger kids to bed, we could spend time with him; we carved out hours of time every weekend so that he and Geoff, or he and I, could have some together time; I let go of lots and lots of behaviour challenges, knowing where it was coming from; we talked as much as possible about how things were going and what different strategies he/we could use to make things easier.  It was just so difficult for him, poor lamb.

Then, about four or five weeks ago, when he again refused to go on a playdate that I'd arranged for him (to give him a break), I asked him again what was up with that and finally I heard him speak a bit of his heart on the matter.  He said "I can't leave the house without you."  I asked why not and he said again "I can't leave the house while you're still here with my brother and sister."  I persisted, wanting to know what was going on.  His next statement was: "If I leave the house, I'll lose my place in the family."

Poor love thought that he needed to be here physically in order to preserve his role in the family.  In the subsequent week of evening conversations, it also came out that he thought that his job as a big brother was to help Geoff and me enforce rules and manage order in the house; and, not knowing how to do this, he tried to use his hands and feet and harsh words to make them do what he perceived we wanted them to do.  He was trying to make my life a bit easier.  Wow - such profound things going on in his head.

Throughout the last few weeks, we have had a lot of conversations about all of these things.  I ended up firing him from his former job of big brother, telling him that he was better suited to a different job with different responsibilities.  We are now working on a new 'job description' so that he understands the role of being a big brother and, frankly, to help him know what his 'place' is in the family.  My hope is that these conversations, and a new written job description, will help him relax into his new life change.

Another turning point was mine, not quite two weeks ago.  I began to see that continuously (albeit usually gently) reprimanding Matthew about some thing or another was not helping.  Once, in a harsher moment after Matthew had been terribly difficult to manage, I asked him in frustration, "Matthew, what is it going to take before you understand that you can't hit your brother?"  His simply, but so profound answer?  "It's going to take time, Mom."  Oh, out of the mouths of babes.  I got up from where I was, went over to him, and hugged him.  I told him that he was exactly right and that I fully believed that things were going to get better for him.

Internally, that one response of Matthew silenced me.  I was reminded of his fragility and sensitivity and uncertainty in light of everything that has changed in his life.  I have now gone back to more of a Gordon Neufeld approach (which I'd gradually been slipping away from in my approach to Matthew, as my frustration level grew).  So, for example, rather than reprimanding him with a "Matthew, don't do that," or a "Matthew, why are you doing that - you're hurting your brother," I have depersonalized it.  I'll now say something like, "Oh dear, Matthew, your hands have the hits in them right now, don't they?" and I will follow it up a minute later with a comment like "Matthew, I know this is so hard for you, but don't worry about it - there's going to come a day when your brain will be able to control what your hands/feet/mouth do.  I totally know it."  I've tried to take some of the pressure off of him and have talked to him a lot about how hard it is for our brains to manage our various body parts when we're angry/sad/hungry/tired/frustrated.  The different approach is slowly helping to normalize things a little for him, I think, and he doesn't feel so badly about himself for not being able to control himself at times.

The other thing I do now (again, I think a little Neufeld-esque) is that I don't require Matthew to apologize to Seth in the moment.  Sometimes Matthew does apologize spontaneously, but I don't require it any more.  I have decided that I will model it for him instead.  So with Matthew by my side, I will say to Seth something like, "Seth, I'm sorry that Matthew's hands got the better of him, and I'm sorry that you got hurt."  Seth now understands this, which is good, and more importantly, I'm helping to teach Matthew some words so that eventually he might be able to own what he does.

I don't know if what I'm doing is the 'right' way, but it's slowly starting to work.  Matthew said a few days ago that he doesn't feel so badly about himself as a big brother (because he simply couldn't understand, earlier, why he was doing things to hurt his brother - he didn't want to).  And I'd say he has clearly turned a corner in the last couple of weeks.  He still has hard minutes, hours and days (especially when he's tired!), but it is getting better.  Both his frustration level, and the outward manifestations of it, have reduced, and that, in turn, has contributed towards a growing bond between him and his siblings.  The difference has been particularly palpable in his relationship with Seth, who is only seventeen months his junior and who is a very driven, competitive, and intense boy.

Finally, too, the two boys are starting to find ways to complement each other in play, and are just these days starting to seek each other out as companions of choice.  Just last week, when Geoff took the two younger kids out for a bit, Matthew expressed after an hour that he really missed Seth and was bored without him.  Wow.  Watching the boys play brings back all of the hopes and dreams I had when we were still hoping for a referral and longing for that referral to include a boy close to Matthew in age...and a girl, too!  Now that the vision is, just maybe, becoming reality, it feels almost surreal.  It is one of my greatest joys as a parent, and an answer to many prayers, to see the boys of my dreams playing together.

Just this morning, all three of them started saying that they loved the others.  "I love you Seth."  "I love you Matthew."  "I love you Lizzie."  "I love you Matthew."  "I love you Seth Asrat."  "I love you Lizzie Senait."  "I love you Matthew."  You get the idea.  It reminded me of the old show The Waltons!  The love is there between them now, without a doubt.

We have a long way to go yet, and I could write another hundred pages on this subject.  The struggles will surely continue as Matthew grapples with the futility of knowing that his longed-for siblings are never going away.  But regularly now, I see glimmers of the boy I know and love so much - the one who has such a huge and sensitive heart and who is (going to be) an incredible big brother to the two kids who both love and need him.


  1. Major life transitions always so unbelievably hard, especially when you have high expectations. And you are right, it is hard to get your body (and mouth and mind) to go what you want it to when everything is feeling out of control.

    I am glad to hear that things are getting better for Matthew (and everyone else too)!

  2. Matthew rocks!

    Ruth, you are rocking as a mom, too!

  3. Can I have you as a mom and Matthew as a big brother !
    Things are coming together love how you did some of the thinking and speaking out loud, Yes those hands do not always match the heart.

    Thinking of you all .
    I do hope you can share more on this as Matthew is on my mind so often.