Oct 102012

Questions about sibling conflict often go deeper than how to help children learn how to share. Parents wonder how to negotiate and support interactions between children when the kids are just on different pages. A parent asks:

“I’ve been trying to find approaches for taking on a particularly frustrating dynamic that’s happening between my boys. When they grab each other’s toys or both want my attention, I’ve used a number of strategies that I think are working, as long as I have the patience to employ them (-:  Standing by and encouraging them to work it out, teaching them to take turns, introducing other options for play, etc.

Here’s the challenging scenario though: One child is playing and the other just bugs him, gets in his way, drives his train into his brother’s, sings annoying songs, crosses into his space, crawls on him, etc. David, the twin who always seems to get bugged by the much-higher energy, intrusive Sam, is surprisingly learning pretty well to “use his words.” Instead of calling for me all the time, whining and collapsing, he may say, “Sammy, please don’t do that. I don’t want you to do that.” But no matter what he or I say to Sam, Sam doesn’t stop. I’ve also encouraged David to get up and walk away, but of course Sam runs right after him, which David points out to me, “But if I move, Mommy, Sam will just run right after me.” I can talk to Sam, scold him, separate him, find him a different toy, but he keeps coming back. (When I’m alone with them, it’s obviously hard to physically separate them.) Out of exasperation, I end up resorting to threats for “time out” for Sam, or actually doing a time out, but I’d love to find something else to solve the problem.

As I type this I do realize that I don’t really have a good sense of what’s going on for Sam with all this. Perhaps he is just more social and wants to play together more? Maybe by now he knows this behavior rapidly gets me showing up at the scene, showing him attention (negative albeit). Maybe I just need to whisk him off and play with him for a bit to give David space. (Not always possible, but perhaps I should make it a priority for a while?) Anyway, I’m at a bit of a loss. As I said, they are making progress on sharing, but not on learning how to resolve respecting each other’s space…”


One of the biggest parenting challenges is figuring out how to intervene when needs are colliding. One sibling needs quiet time, one needs engagement. One needs to connect, while the other needs space to work on focused tasks. It gets even more tricky when ages and developmental milestones mean that kids are on different playing fields all together. A toddler has loud angry feelings, while an infant sibling needs to nap in a quiet space. A toddler needs to have routine, structure and quiet time at home, while an older sibling is engaged in numerous activities and team sports that keep a family running around between school and bedtime. A preschooler needs attention, while a younger toddler nurses in mother’s arms.

And then you add in the needs of the parents (oh yes, we have needs too!). We need a space to decompress after work. We need to get dinner on the table. We need to go to the bathroom by ourselves, just once.

A family is a melting pot of needs. Everyone has their own unique issues, desires, needs, boundaries, buttons and cues. Each member has a bubble of needs that is bouncing around the family system, bumping into (sometimes crashing into) the needs of others.

In the perfect situation, we can find a way to meet everyone’s needs with one plan. Maybe David needs to have quiet focused work time, and Sam really needs to connect. The plan becomes that Sam can ask David for a “job.” David offers Sam a job of lining up rail road tracks. Quiet work commences for David, Sam feels connection. Everyone’s needs get met.

But what about when it isn’t that pretty? What if David really needs alone time and Sam really needs connection? What if a toddler really needs a space to be loud, and the baby is sleeping. What if dinner really needs to get on the table or mama really needs a break, and the preschooler really needs to process frustration, and the baby needs to eat NOW, and needs just keep crashing into each other until everyone is frustrated and crying and loud. What then?

Family is about needs colliding, and hopefully merging and melding and meshing, rather than crashing. Family is about learning to express our own needs, recognizing and respecting the needs of others and working to find a solution that works for everyone. This is what we want our kids to learn how to do right? So in order to do this, we need to work towards a couple of things:

1)      We have to know what it is each person needs. – It seems like we know that David needs space and quiet time, but do we really know what Sam needs? If we as the parent can’t identify the need, then chances are that the child doesn’t know either. We want to help each person really understand what it is they are asking for. The parent may say, “It looks like David really wants quiet time. Sam what do you need right now?” Chances are, he may not know. It may take time, practice and communication to help him figure out what he needs. Maybe he needs his brother’s attention. Maybe he needs his parent’s attention. Maybe he needs help calming down. Sometimes out of control behavior is the child saying, “Help me control this body of mine, it’s crazy in here!”


2)      Once we have an idea of what each person’s needs really are, we can then help the child to communicate them differently. – “Oh, I see you are trying to get your brother’s attention. Do you want to ask him something?” or “Oh, you’re doing that thing with your body again, do you think you want me to help you find a way to feel in control?”


3)      When we know what each person really needs, we can help them say what they DO want, rather than what they DON’T want. – So, rather than David saying, “Stop doing that,” he can say, “Right now I need to be in a quiet room” or “I need space!” When David says this, the parent can help Sam process the request. “You said you want your brother’s attention, but he says he needs to be in a quiet room. I wonder if there is a plan that works for everyone?”


4)      As different need patterns emerge for different family members, we can set the stage. Much of negotiating needs happens, not during times of crisis, but during thoughtful and calm times. – For example, the family who knows that one child has a need for quiet, protected space, may work together to identify “David’s quiet spot.” While not in conflict, everyone can talk about the spot as David’s spot that he can go to whenever he wants and it is his spot alone. That way, when conflict arises, and David announces he is going to his “spot,” the concept is already familiar and understandable.

In the end, sibling conflict is going to happen. Often. Over and over again. Their needs will conflict, and our needs will conflict, and we will have many opportunities to practice conflict resolution, negotiating, compromise, empathy and engagement. It is the essence of figuring out how to interact with others that matters. When kids are crashing into each other emotionally, physically or otherwise, we can remember that what is really crashing is their needs. If we can help them to identify what those needs are, we can help them to communicate them better and then work together to find a plan that works for everyone. That’s the goal, right?

*Thanks to Tumbleweed Infant House for the amazing photos!*

 Posted by at 6:55 am

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