Troubleshooting Sibling Disharmony: the Acquiescer and the Demander

The Problem:
Gleek is a full-steam-ahead person. She always has been. When she has an exciting thought, she wants to tell everyone about it. The only way to get her to stop is to confront her and say “Not right now.” Even then, she often feels hurt that we don’t want to hear all about the story she is writing instead of working on homework (or making dinner, or watching a movie, or whatever other activity her burst of needing-to-share has interrupted.) In contrast, Patch is a natural peacemaker. In order to not cause problems for others, he will give up things he wants. Sometimes he’ll do it without actually making a conscious choice to sacrifice. It is only later, when the game is done or the treat is eaten, that he realizes what he wanted. Then he is sad and frustrated because the chance is gone.

These two are good friends. They play together all the time. Yet we are beginning to see an accumulation of frustration in Patch. Because when they have an argument, it isn’t just today’s incident of Gleek not listening to Patch that is the problem. Patch will declare “You never listen to me!” and he’s got a lot of supporting evidence. Gleek is honestly shocked at how quickly Patch gets upset over such a small incident. She doesn’t see what went wrong and she is hurt that he got hugely upset over a small thing. They both feel like the other one ruined the game.

It took me quite a while to see the dynamic that was causing the trouble. Patch is eleven and Gleek is thirteen, this has been part of how they interacted since they were tiny. I guess it became more apparent because puberty has begun to turn up the volume on Patch’s emotions. Right now he is less able to just shrug things off and let them go. Or maybe the pool of accumulated frustration finally got big enough to send out geysers that we could see.

I mediated a conversation between Patch and Gleek where I outlined what I was seeing. Sometimes clearly defining a problem is half way to solving it. Unfortunately in this case, it is going to take many conversations that take place over time. I know this because at a moment when Patch was feeling sore and un-listened-to, Gleek entered ready to tell Patch all about the story characters she was creating. She was angry when he turned away and asked “Why don’t you want to hear about my characters?”
I pointed out that Patch was full of emotions and needed to feel like she cared about him. I mentioned that a better conversation opener would be “Are you okay?” followed by a lot of listening.
Gleek looked at me confused. “But I did ask him what’s wrong.”
“No you didn’t, you wanted (demanded) to know why he didn’t want to listen to you. That is very different from ‘are you okay?’”
At that point Gleek got a bit defensive and angry, so we let the subject drop for a while. Gleek’s full-speed-ahead approach to life means that she gets corrected and criticized a lot. That hurts her. A single correction is one thing, a barrage is another. It accumulates in her in the same way that Patch’s frustrations accumulate in him.

I strongly suspect that on Gleek’s end we just have to wait for some additional brain development to provide additional comprehension. Gleek is in the middle of the early teen stage where significant brain remodeling takes place in the frontal lobe. Most teens become socially clumsy and tactless between twelve and fifteen. In Patch’s case this tactless phase will work to our advantage. He’s going to have less ability to squelch his own wants. This means more conflict in his life, which he won’t like, but will force him to see that wanting things is not inherently bad. Neither is conflict.

Applied changes:

1. I will continue to speak out loud about the dynamic I’m seeing between the two of them. I will continue to state that Patch needs to speak up about the things he wants and Gleek needs to practice stopping and listening to the game suggestions of others, even when they feel like an interruption of what she has planned. Perhaps my verbal repetition of the dynamic will help them learn to see it.
2. When I mediate a conflict between them, I may have to separate them and listen individually. Even when I’m trying to enforce “Now it is your turn to talk” Gleek still manages to do 70% or more of the talking.
3. It might be good to have Gleek learn some active listening techniques and get her to practice them. When she sees the emotions of others she is naturally empathetic and a champion of the downtrodden. She just can’t always see where she is treading and who might be under there. I don’t know that I have the emotional resources to tackle this right now. Too many other things are going on. But it is good to note it as a possible course of action for the future.
4. I will encourage the pair of them to pray for each other. Prayer gets inside where I can’t go. It creates compassion and understanding in ways that I have no power to do.