My younger two kids are both at the start of puberty. It’s a delicate and difficult time for kids. A time of change – not only their hormones and bodies, but with school too. My son is in year 7, my daughter in year 5 – her secondary school future occupying way more of our thoughts than it should do.
It is, sadly, a time when some children succumb to anxiety, stress and depression. For some, it will become a lifelong battle. It is not something any of us want for our own children. But none of our children are unbreakable.
My eldest has come through puberty unscathed. He was a sensitive, nervous child until the age of about 4, but is now the most resilient person I know. He can walk ridiculously long distances, he talks confidently and knowledgeably to adults, whether or not he knows them. He wants to climb mountains. He isn’t remotely put off by nasty weather when he’s hiking.
And he hasn’t stressed or worried about school for a single minute of his life.
The other two are not the same as him.
My daughter has incredible confidence and self-assurance on stage or in a dance class. Dance exams hold no fear for her whatsoever. But going to bed and going to sleep do. At night, when she can’t sleep and she is in tears, she is a very different person. I am aware that this could be the beginnings of anxiety, but I really hope it isn’t.
I also know that dancers can be susceptible to worries about weight and body image, which can ultimately become very damaging.
I always thought my younger son was strong until last year, when he surprised me by getting very upset about both his SATs and leaving primary school. He is a perfectionist, particularly about his art homework, and will sometimes spend way longer than is necessary on it because he has to get it just right. I see him starting to get stressed.
Recently, his school offered a ‘dealing with stress’ course to about 20% of the year 7s. The school asked for nominations from parents and said they would also put some children forward they thought could benefit from it.
My son did the course.
I’ll admit, I was quite surprised. But they had obviously seen what I see in him, what I thought he kept well hidden from the rest of the world.
They are both, in their own way, a little bit delicate. They need to be cared for and nurtured. They need to be congratulated for their triumphs and supported when things don’t quite as well as they’d hoped.
What they absolutely don’t need is a big brother criticising them constantly.
But, sadly, this is what they have.
He doesn’t understand why they’re not like him. Why they can’t cope with everything he can. He forgets they’re younger than him. Forgets that people are different, that people have different strengths and weaknesses. Forgets that parenting his siblings is not his job.
My younger son isn’t perfect. Like most boys his age, he spends far too long on screens and his personal hygiene can be questionable. He ‘forgets’ to do basic things like shower and brush his teeth.
These are issues for me, as his parent, to deal with. I can talk to him quietly about them, I can tell him off and get angry, I can take away privileges or I can reward. I do not need the ‘help’ of a 14 year old giant yelling at his brother that he is lazy or disgusting.
And I don’t need my younger son bursting into tears and slamming his door, retreating further and further into his little world because it feels like the only place he is safe from his brother.
But nothing I say or do can make my son understand the damage he could be doing to his younger siblings. Right now, he just lacks the empathy and understanding he needs.
The other day I yelled at him – yelled that he could be damaging them forever. I used words I’d never used before – depression, stress, anxiety, mental illness, anorexia, bulimia, drug addiction. These are words he is familiar with. Words that scare him. Words that he wouldn’t expect to trouble our little family. I wanted to shock him. I want him to understand that the way he treats his siblings could break them and lead to these things coming into our family.
I hope I’ve scared him enough to think about his actions. His brother and sister aren’t unbreakable and I’m not prepared to stand by and watch them get broken.