Is my 8-year-old abusive to his sibling, like my brother was to me?

Q: We have two sons who are almost three years old. Our older son, who is almost 9 years old, has narcissistic tendencies, burns his brother, manipulates games for his benefit and displays extreme self-esteem. Our younger son is deeply affected by his brother’s treatment, shows extreme frustration, and lashes out at his older brother because of many of these negative traits.

Our older child’s behavior reminds me of my abusive older brother who I have not had contact with in years. Both parents here step in to mediate our boys’ struggles, reminding our older son of the need for self-knowledge and encouraging our younger son to stand up for himself. We also train them to be communicative, fair and generous in thinking, to no avail.

Our older son doesn’t hear or listen to our suggested solutions and has said that he thinks he knows better than we do. Our younger son continues to fall victim to his brother, to the detriment of his self-esteem. I fear her relationship will break up like mine with my brother, unchanged by our older child. How do we encourage better self-esteem in a developing, immature boy and teach him to value relationships by treating people better?

A: Thank you for writing to us; You’re not the only parent to have two siblings who fight, pretty horribly in fact. There are many different issues in this note, so let’s tackle them one by one.

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First of all, it is clear that you suffered trauma from the abuse you suffered at the hands of your brother. When you use words like “narcissistic,” “gaslights,” and “rigs” to describe your son, you paint a picture of some sort of sociopath, and he’s only 8 years old. Can an 8-year-old be a gaslighting narcissist? Sure, anything is possible, but your past obscures what’s real and what’s not.

I think the boys are fighting and maybe the older brother is bullying the younger one (all big issues), but you have a traumatic reaction to what you’re seeing that impairs your judgment. What I mean? Most people have some type of trauma or wound from their childhood. We have too much of one thing or not enough of another; We come into adulthood with small peculiarities or massive psychological problems. These minor T-traumas and wounds can easily cause us to over- or under-react to our children’s behavior, but major T-traumas are a different story.

If your brother abused you for years, you might be prompted to identify with your younger son, and when the boys fight, your brain reverts to the time you were abused. Your older son will become your brother and you may find yourself in your childhood.

Your body is in a trauma response and your fear of your abuse is creating future stories about your older son. That your younger son remains the victim while he “continues to be a victim” of his brother, as well as the assumption that your children’s relationship will be like your relationship with your brother, is shaped entirely by your childhood trauma.

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The boys’ coaching and teachings about communication are neither good nor bad, but until you work through your own trauma, you won’t understand the arguments in your home. You may remain in a cycle of reaction, over-identification, catastrophizing, and fear that makes it impossible to support both of your children.

I don’t know why your older son is angry and fighting with his younger brother. I don’t know what the dynamics are at play with them, and I’m not even sure about the seriousness of the arguments. Is your older son really turning into a narcissist (that happens) or did typical sibling fights trigger your trauma?

To get more clarity, I would recommend finding a good family therapist who specializes in trauma. At first it should only be you who goes. You deserve support to unravel what happened to you as a child, and as you learn, grow, and heal, the therapist can also help you connect with your two sons in ways that go beyond ‘sacrifice’ and ‘ aggressor”. A fresh perspective will help you raise them with fresh eyes, more empathy, and less reactivity.

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How to help your two sons now, sit down with your partner and make a list detailing the arguments. Get detailed information: what time of day this happens, where the pups are, what they are doing, how much they have eaten, how they sleep and how much exercise they have had. What patterns do you see? How do the arguments begin? Is there always a “he said, then he answered, then he said” kind of back and forth? Where are you and your partner when this begins? How bad is it going to get before you intervene?

You can then start solving problems more effectively. Perhaps your older son cannot be trusted to lead the play with his little brother and an adult needs to be more present. Perhaps the younger son is stirring up his brother more than you realise. Maybe the boys need more guidance, more housework, and more support to find cooperation. Until you really look at the dynamics, a post-argument reaction isn’t going to help change anything.

Finally, read Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child and watch this Refreshingly blameless, Greene’s approach focuses on behavior rather than picking up the child where they are while slowly and steadily finding workable solutions that meet both the needs of the parent and the child.

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