Jun 132013

Look closer, stuff is happening.

A preschooler comes home from school; he is edgy and vulnerable. Maybe something happened at school. Maybe a friend made him sad. Maybe the work was hard. We may never know. But we do know that he is poking and prodding and pushing and pulling. We can feel it rise. We are on guard. If we only look at the surface, we may try to shut down behaviors: “Don’t do that.” “Be nice to your brother.” “Find something to do.” We engage in reactive parenting with the goal of avoiding a meltdown, of avoiding our own discomfort. We are focused only on the immediate behaviors we can see on the surface.

But look closer, stuff is happening. When we observe more closely, we may see sadness or tenderness. Our preschooler doesn’t have the words to express deep complicated emotion. So he moves his body around, waiting to crash into something or someone, emotionally or physically, that can help him “get it out.”

Inevitably, if we don’t look closer, if we can’t make space for the bigger, deeper issues, it will happen. And sometimes, even if we see that there is more there, it will happen anyway. Explosion. Sometimes a kid just needs to blow up.

If we react to the surface behaviors, we may miss the real action.

Look closer, stuff is happening. Children’s behavior is not random. It is the physical representation of what they are feeling and thinking. Just like adult behavior. Just like you and just like me.

It’s our job to use the child’s behavior as clues. Use their actions to remind us to look deeper. What is happening? What are they telling us? What do they need?

Our preschooler starts throwing stuff around the room. Our instinct tells us to stop him. But instead we look closer. We see that he is actually choosing objects carefully. Things that won’t break. He is making a mess, but not doing damage. He looks angry. He looks lonely. He looks sad. He is, also, very much in control.

We choose not to stop him. Instead we say, “You look angry, you look lonely, you look sad. I am here if you need me.” We step back and give him space, watching closely and prepared to intervene if the behavior becomes more out of control or unsafe.

He continues to throw things, clearly choosing carefully. The mess is pretty big. We control our own instinct to intervene. Messes make us uncomfortable, but that’s our process, not his.

We wait, keeping the house quiet and still, keeping ourselves available from a distance.

Eventually, he comes to us, saying, “I need a hug.” “I can see that,” we say and wrap him in our arms. The living room is a mess. He melts into our arms and cries and cries. We can feel his sadness. Life is hard. It really is. Sometimes, we just need to explode. His body changes, but he isn’t done yet.

Look closely, stuff is happening.

“That’s a pretty big mess you made in there. You were really angry. What happens next?” we ask.

His crying escalates. “I have to clean it up!!!” he wails.

“Seems like the right thing to do. When I break stuff or make a mess, I like to leave things better than I found them. It helps me feel better,” we say.

“No one will help me! I have to do it alone!” he sobs.

“Seems like it, I know you can do it. I have faith. I will be right here if you need me.”

His sobbing continues as he slowly moves to the living room. Bit by bit. Block by block. Game piece by game piece. He struggles to put everything back in order. He is crying loudly. Sobbing. But we look closer, stuff is happening. He is taking meticulous pride in putting things in order. He is organizing things that he didn’t mess up.

He works. And works. And cries and cries. Every few minutes, he comes back to where we are sitting and asks for a hug. We give them freely. There is no time limit. This is his process. There is no need for him to be calm or be quiet or do things our way.

The mess is cleaned up and he is breathing deeply and slowly. He sits down in the middle of the room and looks around. “I think I will clean the windows.” We smile. “That would feel good I bet. Leaving things better makes me feel good, too.” He cleans them and then pushes a candle into the center of the table. He stands back and smiles.

Look closer, things are happening. It is his living room. It was his mess. He went from angry and furious to sad to calm and proud.

We may never have any idea about what he worked through in that time. But he worked through some feelings that were pretty big. A closer look allowed us to interact rather than react. It allowed us to give him space, to stay close and supportive without interfering.

Look closer, things are happening. All the time.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
May 272013

If there is one thing that is true about families, it is that families, all families, are constantly in transition. They are changing all the time.

And family is always family. No matter what it looks like.

By Aron Nels Steinke, http://www.aronnelssteinke.com

Some families have two parents, a mom and a dad, and everyone lives together in one house. Some families have two moms or two dads, or one mom and no dad, or one dad and no mom. Some families have two parents who live in different houses. Some have parents and grandparents in the same house, and some kids live with grandparents. Sometimes two families with kids and parents join together to form a whole new family.

And family is always family. No matter what it looks like.

Sometimes families start out one way, and change into something that looks pretty different.

Even if families don’t look like they are changing, they are. As kids get older their relationships change. Rhythms and traditions and schedules change. Some relationships get deeper and closer, some grow more distant. New siblings are born. Older siblings move out. Relationships with extended family members change as new cousins and nephews and nieces are born and grandparents, aunts or uncle die. Life changes and families change.

And family is always family. No matter what it looks like.

When a new baby is born, everyone in the family has to shift around and find their places within the dynamics and structure of the changing family system. When parents divorce, shifting and reorganizing the family is one of the biggest challenges. When two families come together to form one, each person has to figure out their new role within both their old family structure and the new blended one. It’s like a thousand rays of light, all intersecting.

Life is tricky. Parenting is tricky. And change may be the trickiest of all. Put them all together, and it’s no wonder we struggle. We are worried about the unknown. When we can’t see the path ahead, we tend to assume it must be dark. But just because we don’t know what it looks like, doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Change brings growth. Growth brings new possibilities. New possibilities bring beauty we never expected. As long as we embrace the change.

So how do we help our children embrace the change in their families, whatever that looks like?

1)   We have to trust the change ourselves. We have to believe in it and move forward with love and light and trust that the path, although unknown to us, is the right path to be on. We can communicate with our children that we don’t have all the answers yet, but that this path (whether it is the path of divorce, or blending two families, or moving in with grandma, or having a new baby) is the right path for our family right now.

2)   We have to honor each person’s relationship with every other person in the family. Relationship dynamics are multifaceted and boundless. Each child should feel safe and supported to interact with each of their family members in the way that is healthiest for them. So, mom and dad may work better if they live in separate houses, but they are still mom and dad and they are still the center points in the child’s family. Over time, as the child’s relationship with each parent changes and morphs, these relationships should be cherished, nurtured and supported by everyone. In the same way, two families coming together need to remember that this same thing is true, but times three or four or ten! Each relationship is different and separate, and at the same time connected to each of the other relationships. Make time and space for each to be honored, nurtured and supported.

3)   We have to maintain old traditions and build new ones. With all the change that happens in families, how is it that we can feel so stable? Traditions, routines, habits. As families change we can find comfort in our traditions. Our family may look really different now, but Sunday is still always blueberry pancake day. And, embracing change can allow for new traditions to be built on top of old ones. Blended families can share traditions, allowing each core family group to bring something special to the table. Honoring these types of traditions, while building new ones, is a great way for families who are moving into two separate households to bridge the change, too. These traditions, patterns, habits and routines tell the story about who our family is.

Family is about relationships. Some relationships are formed through genetics, some through choice and some through the choices of others. Regardless of how a family comes to be formed, one thing is true: It is always changing. Families that thrive do so, not because they look a certain way, or because they stay the same, but because they embrace change and the relationship growth that can happen when change is allowed to occur. Our children are not just along for the ride, they are active participants, in relationships with every family member. When we remember this, we can embrace our changing families and, as a result, find a deep level of stability within a constantly changing world.

How is your family changing? How do you talk about it?

 Posted by at 1:01 am
Apr 162013


Photo Credit: Boston Marathon 2013

We agonize over how to talk to our kids about tragedy. We grapple with comprehending these types of events ourselves, and the idea that we can somehow find the words that would make the events reasonable for a child to integrate seems daunting at best.

There are numerous posts and articles swirling around that give advice on how to talk to kids about incidents such as the Boston tragedy. Turn off the TV, offer just enough, answer questions but don’t add gratuitous details, let them know they are safe. Rather than doing all the talking, I like to focus on asking three main questions to find out what kids need in times like these:

  • What have you heard about it?
  • What do you think about it?
  • What do you wonder about it?

What have you heard about it? Finding out what kids know and what they already have floating around in their heads is an important first step. If your child is away from you for any part of the day, it is impossible to know what others may or may not have told them. Finding out where they are at is a great place to start. Rumors, exaggerations, dramatizations grow and swirl and take on a life of their own. Kids build on these ideas in their imaginations. Helping them sort through all the thoughts they are already having is important. If we just add to what is already in their heads, rather than helping them sort through it, we may just be making things more complicated for them.

What do you think? Before you share what you think with your child, ask them what they think. Get an idea for where they are at emotionally and then go from there. Don’t assume that they are feeling a certain way or thinking certain thoughts. Connecting with them based on their thoughts and feelings will be much more meaningful than assuming and adding to the confusion.

What do you wonder? Answer their questions as they have them. Not before. Kids will ask for information they are ready to handle. Anything more will at best go over their heads and at worst overwhelm them. Take it slow.

Allow their lives to go back to normal. Turn off the radio and the TV. Talk about the event openly when they bring it up, but do your own processing away from them. Respect the child’s privilege to have their world stay as protected from the information as possible. It is a privilege they won’t always have, and one we should strive to keep as long as possible. If your child’s life was touched directly, go from there. In short, give them what they need and not more.

But even with all of this, we still struggle with what to say. And it is important that we are deliberate with our response because the story we tell matters. The narrative that we tell about our lives, our selves, our world defines how we see our lives, our selves, our worlds. If we give the good more attention than the bad, our narrative, our experience and, hence, our future can be hopeful rather than bleak.

When I was a boy...

Original Source Unknown

We could spend our energy talking about the tragedy. The fear, the pain, the devastation. But after every tragedy we can also talk about the countless stories of human connection, inspiration and hope that arise. People loving and caring and healing and helping. This is the true human spirit. One person wreaks havoc. But that is not the narrative our hearts need to embrace. 1000 people save lives. 1000 people react with love and grace and compassion. That is the story I want my children to know. That is the story I want them to connect to. That is the story I want to resonate with them and define their world, their future.

There will always be the one who brings pain. The sad truth is that there will be more events like these in our children’s future. But for every act of pain, there are 1000 points of light.

So when my children ask, I will tell that story. I will look for the articles and stories that focus on the acts of hope and inspiration. And I will hope that their narrative will evolve to embrace the positive even in the midst of such negative events. Because maybe, if we can help a new generation of adults build a narrative of connection, the acts of pain will fade into the past.

 Posted by at 10:56 am
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
Jul 312012

Life. Death. Babies. Love. Sex. Relationships. Bullying. Guns. War. Racisim. Politics. The list is endless.

No matter how badly we want to shield our children from harmful or scary or uncomfortable topics, these issues will undoubtedly touch their lives. Parents wonder and agonize over how and when to talk about these things. We want so badly to believe that our children can be protected from these issues and we mistakenly think that by talking about them we are somehow making them lose their innocence. Heading for a “big talk” can feel like embarking on a long, stark road to nowhere.


A recent death in our family left me anxious about “having” to talk to my preschoolers about death. The loved one was unknown to my children and they would not be attending a funeral, but I knew it would not be possible to hide the loss from them. After ending yet another phone call, I was notably emotional. My son approached me, offered me a hug, and asked his questions. The conversation went like this:

Him: “Mama, did someone die?”

Me: “Yes, I’m pretty sad. I have been on the phone a lot this morning.”

Him: “Who was it?”

Me: “My grandmother. You met her once when you were very small. Would you like me to show you a picture?”

Him: (Ignoring my offer to show him a picture.) “Do you mean my grammy?”

Me: “No. Not grammy. None of your grandmas died.”

Him: “Can we talk to my grammy today?”

Me: “Yes, of course.”

Him: “We saw a dead bird at school yesterday.”

Me: “What did you think about that?”

Him: “It was kinda sad, but I don’t really know about that.” He paused and asked for a hug and then asked, “Do you know where my truck is?”

He got what he needed in that moment and ended the conversation. He recognized that a big issue was happening and that it was laden with big emotion. He wanted to connect and make sure that he understood that the people he was close to were all right. He related it back to the concept of death that made sense for him. He told me clearly when he had reached the limit of what he needed (by ignoring my offer to show him a picture and then changing the subject to trucks).

Topics like death are big. They are multifaceted and complicated and intricate. Understanding and processing them requires us to use many parts of our brain, multiple coping skills and a lifetime of acquired knowledge. We integrate our memories, understanding of social codes, belief systems and interpersonal dynamics to draw conclusions, formulate ideas about the situation, and relate emotionally. When big things happen in a child’s world, the child is doing all of this, too. Children just do it more slowly, in smaller chunks, and by relating it to what they know. If we support them in their process, rather than trying to process these issues for them, the idea of “talking” to our kids about these issues becomes much less daunting. Here are some basics.

What You Need to Remember

Kids are always getting information about these topics. It may just not be on a level that resonates for us as adults. When a child squishes a bug, she is learning about death. When children play house, they are learning about relationships (the foundation of learning about sex). If the radio or television is on in the home, children are learning about guns and violence and war and sexual objectification. These underlying themes are in books, cartoons and movies. Disney movies are full of lost parents and broken families and death and bullying. Literally every day there are multiple opportunities for children to take in and process information about these things.

Kids are always getting information from us on 1) how we handle these types of topics and 2) whether we are safe to talk to about these topics. Over time, they learn if we get anxious, or angry, or distant. They learn if we offer too much or too little. We may inadvertently give signs that their questions scare us or make us feel uncomfortable. We may avoid or shut down conversations. Or, on the other hand, we may have a habit of giving long-winded lectures or overly detailed information that overwhelms children and discourages them from engaging in future conversations. What we say about the little stuff matters.

Kids will ask for more information when they need it and are ready to process it if they have a safe venue for doing so. This means that, rather than determining when and how we should bring the information to them, we should strive to build a culture of openness and safety around dialogue within a family that allows a child to ask for what she needs when she needs it. Kids will often ask for little bits at a time. They will ask a small question, take time (maybe days or even weeks) to process it, and then ask a little bit more. Giving them the information at their pace will help them to incorporate hard truths without feeling overwhelmed. A few days after our conversation, my son asked, “Is your grandma still dead?” It may not have looked like it, but he was still processing and needed a little more information.

Processing does not necessarily mean talking. A kid’s work is play. When children play, they are processing, integrating, learning, feeling and thinking. It would not be unusual for a child to incorporate recent big issues into his play, and in fact it is healthy. Younger children may need to move their bodies and may need space for large, physical movements. They often incorporate heavy themes of love, death and life into their imaginary play. Children may pick out books that relate back to the theme. After the death in my family, I noticed my son asking to read Charlotte’s Web, which deals with death on various levels. I don’t think this was a coincidence! Older children may retreat into music or video games that mirror back their emotional state. All of this is processing.

What You Need to Do

Be open and responsive to all questions – Helping kids with the big issues starts with being there for the small ones. If a child wants to talk about his bug that got squished, it is important to remember that this is in fact a conversation about death, about loss, about grief. Responding in a respectful and open way to these little questions not only helps children process big issues in small stages, but also allows us as parents or caregivers to practice talking about these things as well! Think of it as baby steps for all parties!

Don’t over-think or plan big lectures – Keep it simple. Answer their questions. Give them the information they ask for, and not more. Think about it. If you went to your first math class ever, asked about addition, and the teacher went into a lecture on trigonometry, you would feel anxious, overwhelmed, and incompetent. You probably wouldn’t want to go back. If you have built a safe relationship in which questions are respected, you can trust your child to ask for just as much as she needs.

Give them a chance to process – Remember that kids process at different rates. Don’t push them into processing something too quickly. Be patient, both in the moment and in the bigger picture. Answer the question and then pause. Take a breath and wait for the child. Maybe he will ask another question. Maybe he will tell you a story. Maybe he will change the topic. All are okay. If he changes the subject, it’s okay. It just means that he has gotten what he needs in that moment. He will undoubtedly bring it up again in some way in the future.

Make yourself available – Occasionally telling our children that they can always talk to us isn’t enough. In fact, it may be pointless. Children will know whether or not they can talk to us because of the countless number of interactions, responses, and opportunities that they have experienced with us over the course of their life. More importantly, opportunities to process big issues are not planned-out,-sit-down, formal affairs. They happen in quiet, surprising moments. They happen during work, during play, during downtime and up-time. In short, we need to be available to our children on their terms. For younger children, this may not even look like talking. It will likely look like play. If you hear your children playing with big topics, don’t interfere or stop them, but be available. Sit down in the room and observe. If they invite you into the play, join in!

Phrases to Memorize

Sometimes (maybe even most of the time) helping children process is less about talking to them, and more about helping them talk to you! Asking them questions can help you determine what information they need, what they are thinking about and what level of processing they need at the moment. Rather than give advice, ask:

What do you think of that?

How does that feel?

What do you think you need?

What could you do?

How did it work?

How can I help?

What would you like to know?

So take the “big talk” off the to-do list. We don’t need it. If we do this today, tomorrow, and every day, we will be building a foundation of communication and a relationship that allows our children to feel supported in dealing with life in all its glory. They will be able to come to us, we will be available, and processing will happen. We won’t even have to plan it out.

 Posted by at 6:29 am
Jul 182012

Parents of multiple children often struggle with how to handle sibling conflict. Often times, our homes  can be filled with high-pitched cries of “Mom! He took my toy!” and “Dad! He hit me!” Parents find themselves in the role of arbitrator, judge, and referee. In an effort to restore quiet and sanity to the home, tired, overwhelmed and well-intentioned parents end up responding with “Share the toy” and “Don’t hit your sister.”  And while this may result in momentary peace, the lesson for the child is, “He who screams first (or loudest) gets Mom on his side.” The unfortunate result? More screaming and fighting.

But beyond momentary household peace, what do we really want our children to learn? We want them to be able to communicate their needs, negotiate, tolerate, plan, and maintain their own boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others. We want them to be flexible and kind and empathic. We want them to learn to interact with others in a pro-social and responsible way.  We want them to think about others without sacrificing themselves and we want them to explore and gain a solid understanding of themselves in relation to others.  These are difficult concepts that require practice. And what better place to learn and practice all these skills than in the safety of our own home with our siblings? Unfortunately, when we referee as parents, we take away these opportunities for growth and interpersonal exploration. What if we embrace sibling conflict as an opportunity to grow, rather than a hassle to eliminate?

So how do we encourage and allow our children to benefit from sibling conflict rather than suffer from it? Rather than solve the problem for them, set the stage for them to negotiate it themselves. Here are three go-to responses to use the next time you hear conflict arise.

1)    “I hear you’re upset with your brother.  What do you want to communicate to him?”


Healthy, thriving individuals are able to communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs with others in a way that is respectful to both themselves and others.  When a child hits, screams, pushes, takes a toy, cries, etc. she is communicating. Our job as parents is not to quiet the communication, but to help shape the child’s ability to communicate in an effective way. When we support our children in slowing down and trying different ways of communicating with each other, they learn not only how to do it, but also that it works. In the long run, kids learn that screaming for mom to intervene won’t solve the problem, but that communicating with their sibling will. Kids learn to identify their own thoughts and feelings about a situation, practice communication skills and build empathy.


2)    “Wow, you both have different ideas of what should happen here! I wonder if you can make a plan that works for everybody.”


So often, a parent will respond to a scream of, “He took my truck!” with, “Give the truck back!” only to find the truck abandoned by everyone a moment later.  The conflict  between the children and the parent was pretty meaningless, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and agitated. That’s because it’s not about the truck. It’s about the process. Forcing the children to own the process allows the moment to become about the relationship rather than the object. When this happens, it is amazing what plans kids come up with. “I will be done in two minutes.” Or, “I can use this one and you can use that one.” They employ a variety of skills including creativity, problem-solving, empathy, and self-awareness. The children usually share a sense of satisfaction and pride in having come up with a solution and working together. Often the object-focused outcome is the same and the truck is soon forgotten by everyone. But this time, instead of a frustrating moment when a triangular power struggle led to a meaningless decision, the children feel connected, capable and satisfied. They practiced negotiation, empathy, listening, creativity, and teamwork. Success!


3)    “Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here while you guys work this out.”


Leaning social interactions is hard work. It can feel scary and overwhelming, not only for the people struggling (presumably the child), but also for those who are observing the struggle (presumably the parent). Sometimes, as parents, we create a sense of urgency when conflict arises. We need peace to be restored quickly!  Much of this has to do with our own lack of tolerance for distress. It’s hard to listen to our children fight. Our days are long and our patience runs short. But, over time, this sense of urgency can create anxiety for children around these types of conflicts. Sending the message to our children that we are willing to be patient while they work out their conflict (and that we will support them in the process) allows kids to learn to tolerate conflict as they work through it. It also sends the message that we are not going to step in and solve the conflict for them. This is especially important when we have adopted the pattern of stepping in to referee.

These three responses can be used effectively across ages. The difference may be in how closely involved the caregiver is in the interaction. For toddlers or pre-verbal children, the caregiver may need to do lots of interpreting: “You’re telling your brother you are so angry! You want the truck back!” For preschoolers, it may mean sitting closely to help ground the children in the moment or keep bodies safe. Reflecting back what each child says and modeling a rhythm for communication and dialogue may be necessary. For school-age children or adolescents, it may be simply making the statement and then getting out of the way.  But whatever the age of the children involved, we as parents definitely need to be able to tolerate distress and conflict. Rather than responding with the thought of, “Oh, no! The kids are fighting again!” we can practice thinking, “Oh, yes! Another opportunity to practice communication!” We need to give up the immediate and momentary goal of household peace in exchange for the long-term goal of empowering children to develop the skills needed for peaceful conflict resolution.  The results may just blow our mind.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm