Dear David Coleman: My 11-year-old says I treat him and his brother differently
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I need help with my 11-year-old boy who feels he is treated differently from his younger brother, who is 10. He is now beginning to size up to me, which I feel is inappropriate. I am learning to walk away and let him cool down and then talk. His granny died last year and he regularly informs me that she always treated them fairly and I don't. When he says this I feel so guilty and like such a bad mum. I also feel hurt because I miss her too. He won't challenge his dad like he challenges me. What can I do with him?
David replies: Justice, fairness and equality are often key themes that underlie sibling rivalry and conflict between children and their parents.
While we may do everything we can to appear fair, and to treat our children equally, their experience of what we do and say may not tally with our intention. Although many parents will claim to love all their children the same, I believe the truth is a little different.
I believe that we love each of our children differently, simply because they are all different. There will be things about them, their personalities and their behaviours which increase our affection for them, and which might decrease our affection for them.
In practice we spend different amounts of time with them, do different things with them and share different likes/dislikes with them. So, for us to then try to persuade our children that we treat them all the same, and love them all the same, is a mistake.
So, perhaps your son is right that he is treated differently to his brother. Presumably some of that differentiation is positive for him and some is negative. For example, as the older brother he may have some positive privileges, like a slightly later bedtime, or access to the front seat of the car.
If he is complaining of being treated differently, though, then it is more likely that he feels, for example, that he is given out to more, or has less privileges, or has a more negative relationship with you than his brother does.
Any or all of that could be accurate from his perspective. Even if you don't think you treat him more negatively he may think you treat him more negatively, and it is his own perspective that will influence his behaviour.
Of course, if he is squaring up to you then you probably do end up in more conflict with him than with his brother. Conflict can lead to its own very negative and expanding cycle, where in quite a short time it does become the case, in reality, that he ends up in more trouble.
He could then feel aggrieved that he is given out to more, and so gets more oppositional or aggressive about it. This in turn creates more opportunities where you end up in conflict.
So, rather than addressing the behaviours, focus on the underlying frustration, since that frustration seems to be the prompt for his misbehaviour or opposition to you.
Some of his anger and frustration might be associated with his grief. Allowing him to talk more about his granny and what he loves about her and misses about her, might actually allow the two of you to connect, since you too will have things that you loved about her and miss dreadfully.
See if you can stay open and curious as you listen to your son. Maybe you can work out what kinds of other situations arise where, from his point of view, things seem unfair, unjust or inequitable. Just listening, without challenging or debating his point of view, can really help. Maybe there is, in fact, something you can do to change those situations.
Perhaps also, you need to find opportunities to balance any perceived negativity by introducing some positive privileges or by finding times where you can praise him and acknowledge the good things about him.
Talk with him about the unique and individual things about him that you love. Not as a comparison with his brother, but simply an acknowledgement of the good in him.
I think that if you can empathise with him more, showing him you can understand that things might seem unequal or unjust, he will realise that you do do your best to be fair to him and his brother.
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