At Kellen’s two-year well visit, we explained to his pediatrician that Kellen would become a big brother in the summer. He congratulated us, asked a few questions about our planning since I was high risk and then broke into what you could tell is one of his frequently repeated speeches for parents about to have a second child. It went something like this.
When they are about to have a second child, parents wonder how they are going to give equal time to both of your kids. It all works out, you will see, but you probably won’t give 50% of your time to Kellen and 50% of your time to the baby. Kellen is used to 100% and he’ll continue to demand 75% and the baby won’t know different and think 25% is just right.
In a way, that sounds kind of harsh and maybe the math isn’t exactly right, but it does make sense. Baby’s and toddler’s needs differ greatly and toddlers are inherently squeaky wheels. They find ways to make sure their needs are met.
However, when you’re the sibling to a child with special needs, that math can easily get flipped upside down.
When your brother has months and months of hospitalizations and then requires around the clock care when they are home. When you have to celebrate your third birthday in the hospital because your brother was admitted that day. When you, at such a young age, begin to realize that most babies drink from bottles and don’t need oxygen and that most of the other kids at school have no idea what the inside of the hospital looks like. When you’re used to mom picking you up from school and today it’s dad, and you know that it means Owen is sick again. When you can’t visit your brother for days because he’s in a part of the hospital that kids can’t visit and when your mom, the person who your world revolved around for your entire life is suddenly needing to stay at the hospital for weeks at a time, instead of being home with you. When you can read the fear and fatigue in your parents’ faces and decide to only do the naughty things at school…because that’s where you feel secure enough to do the naughty things.
It doesn’t really matter how resilient kids are, when your life for a full year (1/3 of your life) is the life described above. That life takes a toll.
For Kellen, the toll didn’t start showing up until life finally started settling down. Last summer we started to see changes in him that we thought were just “being three” and then the changes became more pronounced. He had raging temper tantrums that would last 45 minutes or more and you never had an idea what little thing was going to set him off. He started hitting, kicking and throwing things and would clear tables in fits of rage. At school, the social boy who loved all his friends was suddenly withdrawing from the classroom and spending days sitting in the corner disinterestedly watching the friends play. Other days he was so full of energy that his teachers couldn’t get him to focus on any tasks. He began to have fears of things he’d always loved. A fire truck would “woowee woowee” its way down the road and Kellen would burst into tears. For hours after seeing an emergency vehicle he’d obsess about who they were going to help and if they were okay. He also couldn’t stand being alone. At four, he could not play by himself. There was a constant, “Mom, look what I’m doing.” ”Mom, do you see the mud on my [toy] trucks tires?” I know these things don’t sound bad, it is hard to explain, but there was constant neediness. Never a moment of silence because he couldn’t stand silence and being in his own thoughts. Of all the changes, the hardest one for me was Kellen no longer looked at me with stars in his eyes. All I could see was anger from my former mama’s boy.
The behavior was exhausting and I had so many feelings of failing as a parent. When I would express concerns to others all I heard was, “he’s a typical boy, going through a phase. 3 and 4-year-old boys are full of energy, it’s a hard age.” Our friends reassured me but the reassurance never sat right. I felt something was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do. All I could try was to change my parenting because that’s how you change kids, right? I clearly just wasn’t a good enough parent.
And then last fall, after particularly aggressive behavior towards one of his friends at school, his teacher gave us a referral to the center’s mental health team. I’ve wanted to write this post for months, but that phrase is what was stopping me, “mental health” when talking about a 3, and now 4, year old….well that’s just not something we talk about in our society. You know, because if a 4 year old is needing a therapist they must have really bad parents. I knew Kyle was a good parent. In my mind, that left me as the bad one.
My starting to see a therapist had nothing to do with Owen. I started going to a therapist because I wanted help to become a better mom to Kellen. I wanted my little boy to have stars in his eyes when he looked at me again. I didn’t want to be in constant fear of the next meltdown every time we were together.
At the same time I started my therapy, Kellen began play therapy with a social worker at his school. She helped me understand that his constant need for feedback and his new-found fears were signs of anxiety. As she described it, the first step was to get Kellen comfortable with what happened and how it made him feel. After that, we can start working towards giving him words and the ability to communicate what he’s feeling.
It’s been about five months that he’s been in therapy. In some ways things got worse before they got better…but we are starting to see improvements. Kellen still struggles to play by himself and his teacher still has to give him reminders to “focus”, maybe more often than what she sees with the other 4-year-old boys in the class. However, the rage seems to be dissipating and recently, I’ve started noticing stars in his eyes when he looks at me. Since he was born, stars have always been my symbol for Kellen. I love seeing them shine from him again.
Slowly, I’ve come to understand that Kellen’s behavior was not me being a bad parent. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the mental health of children, especially small children. However, if Owen has 4 therapy appointments a week to help him overcome the injuries of his traumatic birth, it is reasonable that Kellen might benefit from weekly therapy to overcome the wounds of watching his brother’s traumatic birth.