“I cannot believe that you’re treating your baby sister like that, Kate,” shouts her father.

Aghast, angry, and unaccountably sad, Kate’s father Mike reflexively shouted at her when he saw Kate pull a whale-shaped spoon out of Suzy’s hand and push her away, coming close to making her fall.

“Time OUT!” he almost screamed, and marched Kate down the hall to her bedroom. He remembered at the last second not to add to what had become house-wide upset by slamming the door.

Kate’s little sister had been trying her and her father’s patience all afternoon. Relentlessly seeking attention, alternating her demands between them at regular intervals, her behavior was pretty much what one would expect of a two-year-old. And usually Kate’s tolerance for it is pretty high.  In fact, she’s generally willing to let her needs and desires take a back seat to her sister’s. But today both she and her father had had enough, and — both of them snapped.

Both Mike and his wife Hannah are professionals with their own businesses. Since the birth of Kate, they’ve taken extraordinary pains to arrange work and free time to accommodate shared family activities while also giving each parent individual time with the girls. This provides both parents opportunity to develop their own relationships with their daughters. The arrangement also provides each the opportunity to pursue their own social and other interests. By careful management, it has worked well for all of them — not just in sharing responsibilities and providing downtime from the girls; but also in allowing Mike and Hannah opportunity to work together on their own relationship.

But it has not been without its difficulties and even severe trials. Shortly after Kate was born, Hannah was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that required an extended treatment regimen that limited her availability to her family. During that time, Mike rearranged his life to accommodate their altered family life pattern. Hannah’s full recovery played a major role in their decision to have a second child. Kate delightedly welcomed her new sister from the start, and (usually) treats her lovingly and tolerantly.

Now back to the heated scene described above: Mike gave Kate a five-minute time-out, but after less than two minutes, she emerged from her bedroom weeping piteously. Mike’s initial impulse to send her back to her room was derailed by the grievinglook on Kate’s face as she ran to her sister and took her in her arms, almost wailing her apologies. Rather than her usual patterns of defending her behavior, Kate repeatedly told Suzy how sorry she was, promising over and over, “I’ll be a better sister,” and “I’ll try not to be so selfish.” Looking at Mike she said, “I’m sorry: I forgot she’s just a baby!”

A sweet but terrible sadness welled up inside Mike as he silently recalled times that Kate had reminded him, “Daddy, I’m just a kid” when he would find himself losing patience with her.  Both he and his older daughter, he realized, had to learn to allow others to be whom and what they are, meaning, in this moment, that he had to allow his seven-year-old to be a seven-year-old.

And so it gave him pause to see his seven-year-old acting like a caregiver to Suzy instead of as a sister. He remembered noticing similar behavior only a few year since: Kate, a sweet, open child, was even more attentive to her mother during the illness which interrupted some of the flow of feeling between them; even causing her to suppress some of her own feelings and needs that parents are naturally called upon to address in their children.

Mike went to Kate and Suzy and put his arms around both of them. “I’m sorry, Kate,” he said.

Mike, who, with Hannah, had been in therapy for their own individual and joint histories of irrealtionship, had little difficulty perceiving the rudiments of irrelationship in Kate: in her short life she had already been cast as both Performer and Audience when her mother was ill. Now she was playing something that looked very much like Performer for her two-year-old sister. Therapy had taught Mike that the right interventions now could short-circuit the risk of Kate’s developing the habit of irrealtionship. After discussing his observations with Hannah, they jointly committed to breaking the cycle by being watchful and protective of Kate’s right and need to be “just a kid.”

This didn’t stop Suzy from getting on their nerves sometimes, of course; but that subject is probably a better fit for a different blog than this one.

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