This child shall remain anonymous, for every child has his or her bad moments. Some have uglier bad moments than others; some you need to worry about and others you don't. This was a pretty extreme incident, and I had a hunch what was going on. You see, Big Guy has been erratic lately. And while there have only been a few incidents where safety was truly an issue, the on-and-off blasts of anger make life feel uncertain. The child who fell apart had been not been feeling safe. Unpredictability in life can lead to strange reactions, most of which you'd rather avoid.
* * * * *
A while back I visited a friend whose older teen has been clinically depressed. I'd never seen the domino effect mental illness has on family life from the outside before. Teen A (the depressed and highly irritable one) snapped harshly and unnecessarily at Teen B; Teen B (wounded, and tired of getting picked on) snarled back with venom. Adult A came down on Teen B; Adult B worked frantically to re-establish peace. In less than a minute the entire family went from having a normal dinner to being in a state of high anxiety and agitation.
Whose fault was it? I think that's the wrong question; the point isn't to find someone to blame, but a way to prevent the situation from arising again. Assigning guilt improves nothing, because even though the instigator knows he shouldn't snap at others he probably isn't capable of behaving differently right now. Child A can be taken to a therapist and started on meds, but those approaches-to-a-solution aren't going to kick in before suppertime rolls around again tomorrow night.
A better question is what kind of firebreak can be constructed to prevent Child A's irritability from spreading. One can talk to the sibling at a calm time, and explain what is going on. One can ask the sibling not to take the irritability personally (good luck with that!), to detach, and choose not to let the nastiness get under his skin. It will work -- a bit. But practicing detachment is difficult even if you're an adult. And there's a fine line between teaching kids not to react to provocation and teaching them to ignore and accept abuse.
* * * * *
It is work to parent a child who is mentally ill. It is just as much work to parent children whose sibling is mentally ill. There are wounds everywhere, all the time. One tries -- hard -- to create oases in each child's life where he or she can thrive, grow, find confidence and peace. But still, there are wounds that sometimes fester and grow out of sight.
On New Year's Eve, while I was empathizing with my melting-down child (once the child was in a state which allowed for communication), the child demanded, "Why do we have to have such big problems?"
I responded, "Honey, everyone has problems. And if they don't have them now, they'll have them some day. Life isn't always easy."
The child responded, angrily, "Yeah, well none of my friends have to call 911 on their brother!"
Huh. Got me there.
And there's no pat answer, is there? Why us? Maybe because we're strong enough -- or can grow to be strong enough. Maybe because Big Guy needed a family that would care. Maybe because this experience can make us into better people. Maybe it's the plain old brokenness of the world, and we drew one of the shorter straws. And maybe it's none (or all) of the above. Maybe asking why me is the wrong question. It doesn't take us anywhere except in circles. And that's not where we want to go.
Maybe the right question is something completely different. Like What kind of person do I want to be in the midst of this difficulty?