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 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