It’s a shame that N.A.S.A. discontinued the Space Shuttle program in 2011 and, as far as I know, we don’t have another space program in the works. You see, there have been 23 American astronauts who have gone into outer space, and of those 21 were firstborn children and the other two were only children. As a firstborn child, I had a pretty good chance, if we had a program, of getting into outer space. At least, a better chance than you middle born et al. There’s something about being first that just about beats everything else. It’s like a boost of victory when you’re first. Just ask anyone who has been the first to reply to any sort of forum post or major thread with their victory cry of, “first!” All the hard work, the expectations from parents and other family members, the visits to the therapists, the broken relationships, health problems, and general anxiety of always having to prove to yourself that you’re, “the best” can be seen in every single letter of, “first!” You know that a person’s family couldn’t feel any more pride. Just thinking about how Neil Armstrong felt when he first stepped onto the moon and said, “first!” just sends shivers up and down my spine.

I’m reminded of when I was nine years old, and we were learning to swim in elementary school. We didn’t have a pool at the school but we were fortunate enough to travel to a nearby University with a pool and the first high diving board I had ever seen. Seriously, I had never even seen a diving board in person. To this very day, I can remember being the first person selected to jump off of that high dive board. I was so excited as hand over hand, I climbed the ladder to the top. I think the only person more excited was the kid behind me. When I reached the top, all I could hear were the cheers of the people below. Since we were at the University pool, there were other classes there as well as adult swimmers. I walked right up to the end of the board and stopped. It was so high, and I suddenly became afraid. Everyone was yelling, “jump!” and I couldn’t. There I was, the kid who wore a motorcycle helmet and thought he was Evel Knievel, standing there afraid. I walked back and the kid behind me jumped to the cheers of those below. I jumped second. Second. There were still cheers but I had been second. Something changed in me on that day.

A part of me would like to tell you that I vowed to never be second again. That’s not what happened. Instead, I heard this thunk sound as another nail had been hammered into the coffin of being second. You see, even though I was first born, I didn’t know how to feel about my role in my tiny world. I felt the burden of firstborn. The one who didn’t live up to parental expectations. Unbeknownst to me, I had experienced early childhood disrupted attachment. 

Before my sister was born, I remember being the only child. I remember walking into the living room on Easter Sunday and finding the entire room filled with streamers, baskets, eggs. It was a cornucopia of all that was “Easter” to a young child. I remember going out on Halloween with my Dad. The family bike rides and our stops at the local 7-Elven to pick up a Slurpee. Feeding donuts to the backyard squirrels, playing with Baby, our dog who was really the firstborn since Mom and Dad got a dog first. I remember my mom freaking out when I would get hurt on my bike, I was Evel Knievel, remember? I remember feeling special. When I was born, you know I shouted, “first!”

My sister was a confounding joy to me. I was her big brother and her protector and she needed one. I remember the last time we went on a family bike ride. My sister was strapped into one of those seats that sit on the back of a ten-speed bike and the seat fell off while we were passing a tall drainage ditch. It was on my Dad’s birthday and she couldn’t have been more than a year or so old. They put a butterfly stitch on her forehead, and we never went riding again. I felt guilty. After all, my parents had been telling me that I had to, “watch over” my sister. It was this mantra my Mom had when we were growing up, “You two are the only two you have in this world, so stop fighting.” I think about how we fought as children and I laugh now. My beloved sister.

I watched over my sister constantly, well, for a six and a half, maybe a seven-year-old child. She had one of those 1970s baby swings and I would wait for her to fall out so I could catch her. Be the hero and save my sister and perhaps, if I were lucky, get my parent’s attention.

Which brings me to Tim and his new sister, Nell. It didn’t take long before Brad and Janet conceived and gave birth to Nell. Tim was five and had blossomed into an outgoing young boy who loved school, reading and playing with other kids. When we last saw Tim his parents saw him as a perfect little boy who:

  1. Spent most of his time alone in his room playing with his toys or in the backyard in the sandbox and making up games to play.
  2. He was conscientious of his behavior, always confirming whether he was “doing it right” or not.
  3. All of his toys were properly organized. He was so cute, he would give them a stern talking-to if he found them out of order.  Sometimes though, he would become upset when he couldn’t find one of his toys and had to have Janet or Brad help him locate it.
  4. He was very smart and would sit quietly reading to himself.
  5. He loved to draw and was very creative. He even picked up after himself gathering the crumbled and torn pages that had mistakes on them.
  6. He was shy around other kids, they knew it was just a phase that he was going through.

Each behavior listed above can be associated with the communication between Tim and his parents. Tim exhibited the following behavioral traits before his sister Nell was born. These are listed below in association with the behavior his parents observed. Duplicates have purposely been included.

  1. Introverted and creative while unable to relate to peers.
  2. Perfectionist, self-conscious, insecure, people pleaser and self-critical.
  3. Perfectionist, “bossy,” emotionally cold and distant. Critical of others.
  4. Anxiety, co-dependent and impatient.
  5. Intelligent and unable to relate to peers.
  6. Creative, self-deprecating, volatile temper with extreme perfectionistic behavior.
  7. Unable to relate to peers.

Tim’s behavior is a result of the persuasive negative reinforcement that his parents used when disciplining him. These observations of his behavioral traits and the associated behaviors could either be reinforced through time and communication or not. We’re looking at a snapshot in time of how one could interpret Tim’s behavior.

The introduction of another sibling, however, changes the communication between Tim and his parents. Isn’t that logical, you might be saying to yourself? Yes, it is logical. As adults, we can, hopefully, adapt to changes in our environment because we have previously experienced changes in our environments. There is a reason for people not liking change though. Where does that stem from, I wonder?

For our purposes here, we are examining the role of speaking life and death into a person. A child is a person. Brad and Janet consistently promoted two basic forms of communication to Tim before Nell was born. He was either “right” and thusly, “good” in his behavior or he was “wrong” and therefore, “bad” in his behavior. While Brad and Janet thought that they were focusing on the behavior and communicating this to Tim they were, in fact, communicating to Tim that he, the individual, was either “good” or “bad.” Let’s review the perfect little boy and his behavior as viewed by Brad and Janet with Nell at age two (Tim is now six years old).

  1. Tim spends too much time on his own when he’s at home. He needs to spend more time with his sister. He’s selfish and self-absorbed. He’s too rough with her with the games that he makes up to play. Doesn’t he know that she’s too little?
  2. He’s a big kid now and needs to stop acting like a baby always trying to seek attention by asking about every little thing. He needs to start acting his age.
  3. He’s selfish and mean. He doesn’t want to share any of his toys with Nell even though most of them are older toys that he had when he was a baby. He needs to grow up and be nice. Yelling at his baby sister for playing with his toys (and leaving them on the floor) is inexcusable selfish behavior. Where did he get this from? What does it matter if he can’t find all of the toys? He has so many already and he needs to share with his sister. These temper tantrums and outbursts need to stop.
  4. He used to love to read. Now, we can’t even get him to read to his sister. He’s so selfish. When he does read to her, he becomes mean and starts telling her that she’s bad when she doesn’t pay attention. Doesn’t he know that she’s just a baby?
  5. He used to draw such lovely pictures and was always patient and loving. Now, if Nell even comes near him, he pushes her away. If she tries him help, which is so cute, he behaves like an enraged animal, tears up his paper and stomps off to his room.
  6. Every chance he gets, he wants to go out and play with the other kids. He hardly wants to spend any time at home and when he does, there are all of these other kids running around screaming and making noise. Don’t these kids have their own homes to play in?

We’re really at loss as to how to handle Tim. Where did we go wrong? He used to be so sweet and loving.  He doesn’t even listen to us anymore. The only thing that seems to get his attention is when he thinks he’s going to get a good spanking.

This is how Brad and Janet communicate with Tim now. He is still “right” or “wrong” and “bad” or “good.” He’s also, selfish, mean, a “baby” and a brat. He’s a terrible role model for his little sister and their best hope now is that she doesn’t become like him.

For the last two years, Tim has tried to live up to his parent’s standards of behavior that they deeply instilled in him. He still tries to do the “right” thing but the “right” thing isn’t the same anymore. Now, the “right” thing is the “wrong” thing and no matter what he tries to do to please his parents they still get mad him. He’s so afraid to do the wrong things that he spends as much time away from home as he can, playing with his friends. At least his friends listen to him. Well, most of the time. There’s this one new kid who doesn’t always listen, but when they call him names and threaten not to be his friend, he does what they want.

In the next part of this series, we’re going to review how Brad and Janet’s communication with Nell starts and then changes by the time she is two years old. Although I briefly introduced early childhood disrupted attachment in this part, we’ll look into it further and discuss how speaking life into a disruptive child can bring healing and health. If there’s time, we’ll take another look at bullying and cyberbullying, the impact on Millennials and what we can do, as a society to stop the violence and hate that surrounds all of us each day. In the meantime, speak life, speak love, hold the door open for a stranger and, instead of judging other people, think about how you would like to be judged.