One of the most common questions/comments I get on Instagram stories is…"Your kids seem to get along so well! They don't seem to ever fight with each other!" Umm….ha. That is not true AT ALL. They are just like any other set of siblings and do sometimes argue and don't get along. Some days are better than others.
Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright (who wrote my favorite sleep book, The Happy Sleeper) just came out with a parenting book called Now Say This. When I received an advance copy back in December, it came at a time when my kids were starting to play so well together, but also arguing more then ever. Not only did I learn some other amazing parenting techniques from their book that I use everyday with each of my kids, their book also helped me figure out what to do when sibling rivalry does occur. Since the sibling aspect is one area I think a lot of parents struggle with, I asked them to share some tips for us! Take a look at some common questions they often get asked, and I hope this helps some of you parents out there, too…
Q. Why are my kids nice to their friends but mean to each other?
A. Often little kids skip along brilliantly with their buddies, but lash out at their siblings. Out in the world they hold it together, while home is a safe place to work things out, test relationship dynamics and cause and effect (how can I elicit a reaction from this person I’m so close to). They are able to express their true feelings, however irrational. The trick is to see this as a good thing. Your kids have a lot to work out and understand. Fighting with a sibling is like a dress rehearsal for all the complex, nuanced relationship skills they need to acquire to get along with everyone.
Q. How can I get them to enjoy each other?
A. By letting them not enjoy or feel good about each other too. Let them have intense and complicated feelings, hear and understand all of these feelings without trying to convince or correct. Let’s say one tells you, “I hate him! He’s the worst brother. I never want to play with him again!”
Instead of, Don’t say that! Apologize to him. That’s not nice. He’s your brother and he loves you. You DO love him, you’ll see.
Say, Wow, he made you super mad it sounds like. You are absolutely furious with him right now. I can see that. You want space from him.
If you try to repress the negative feelings, they will come out in other ways, like resentment or physical aggression. If you let the negative feelings be what they are (of course while also keeping everyone safe and holding reasonable limits), the feelings of affection and closeness will naturally resurface.
Q. What do I do when they’re nagging and blaming each other?
A. Turn complaints about each other into proactive requests. Tell them to say what they do want, not what they don’t want (you have no idea how helpful this is for the whole family to practice).
If your daughter is trying to escape her younger brother, who is following her around, and she says, Stop following me. You’re always doing that. Mama! Tell him to quit it (negative complaint). Instead of trying to fix it yourself, prompt your daughter to communicate what she wants in a specific, proactive, strong way, like, I need space. I want to be in my room by myself for 15 minutes. I’ll check in with you after that (positive, specific request).
Q. What do I say when there’s a conflict?
A. Pretend you’re a sportscaster, and your job is just to narrate or give a play-by-play, without judging. The sportscaster is one of the best tools you have as a parent, because it lets everyone know you hear them and you’re there, but you’re not issuing judgments or solving conflicts for them. Of course, if someone is about to get hurt, you’ll want to intervene immediately. Otherwise, try to sportscast to see if they can do the work of conflict resolution themselves. For example,
Instead of, Hey hey, settle down here. Joey why did you take the spoon from your brother? Give it back. He’s mixing first. Wait your turn.
Say, Whoa, I see. Joey you took the spoon. Miles you’re telling me you were still using it. Hmm, this is a toughie. What could you guys figure out as a plan?
We teach parents to use a 3-step communication approach (it can be applied to so many areas of life, not just siblings): Attune, Limit set, Problem solve. Attuning is the first step, because it lets kids know you see them and are trying to understand. Setting and holding limits is when we state rules or realities as parents, and problem solving helps kids fulfill their needs or solve their dilemma in an acceptable way. Lets say your daughter Jamie gets mad and yells at her baby brother, Harry, who is playing with one of her toys:
Attune – Jamie, it upset you when Harry started playing with your toy. Did you know that when you were Harry’s age, you didn’t know how to ask to play with someone’s toy yet? Harry, you wanted to hold Jamie’s toy, I get it. Let’s look at her face; she looks upset.
Limit set – Yelling at a person is never ok, because it scares them and makes them feel sad. Harry is too little to be able to ask to play with one of your toys. He can’t talk yet.
Problem solve – Harry, let’s find you another toy to hold or you guys can roll balls to each other if you’d like. Jamie, what could we do if there are toys you don’t want Harry to play with? Hmmm… Put them up high? Great idea. I can help you do that.
Q. I’m worried they won’t be friends in the future. What can I do?
A. Think about their ratio of enjoyment to conflict. Research shows that if we can help our kids have a higher ratio of positive encounters to negative ones, they are more likely to be close as adults. Your target ratio will be about 5/1, meaning that they have 5 good moments for every 1 unhappy one. If your kids are really struggling, start out with lower expectations and build towards this goal. Don’t fear or dread the difficult moments and the good news is that many of those can be turned into constructive opportunities to learn how to communicate more effectively, with your help and guidance. The negative moments are the necessary building blocks to the positive ones.
Q. Should I separate them when they’re fighting?
A. Separating kids often feels like the only solution, or at least the easiest one, but try to save this for emergency times when everyone desperately needs a cool down. Siblings need to bicker and fight to learn what they need to learn! They have a very special relationship. The very things that make them more likely to fight, can also bring them closer, if we help them understand each other.
Heather Turgeon, MFT and Julie Wright, MFT are the authors of the new book Now Say This:The right words to solve every parenting dilemma (TarcherPerigee/Penguin RandomHouse), as well as the popular sleep book, The Happy Sleeper). Based in New York City and Los Angeles, they frequently speak and offer parenting consultations to families on communication, setting limits with empathy, sleep, and more.