New ideas that will transform your children’s relationship with each other
Many parents of more than one child say that sibling fighting is the most frustrating part of parenting. No matter what they do, their kids fight—over toys or turns, or just because the child had a hard day and their brother or sister is the easiest person to take it out on. Spending one-on-one time with each child is still one of the most effective ways to reduce sibling rivalry. But here are three tips you may not have heard, that can work wonders to reduce sharing squabbles, facilitate sibling bonding, and help kids with the big emotions that drive fighting.
1. Teach your children that it’s ok not to share. I know, you’ve spent so much time badgering them to be generous. But children don’t learn to be generous when we force them to share. They learn to hang on tightly to whatever toy crosses their path, because it may get wrenched away soon.
What if you tried self-regulated turns? Let the child with the toy decide how long to play with it, so he can give it to the other child with an open heart. He actually gets to experience that wonderful emotion that comes when we give someone else something they want, and we see how happy they are.
The problem, of course is that the sibling waiting for his turn will drive you crazy. But is this policy really so bad for the child who has to wait? Let’s consider what he learns.
If we tell the first child he’s had the toy long enough, take the toy away, and give it to the waiting child, the waiting child learns:
- If I cry loud enough, I get what I want, even if someone else has it.
- Parents are in charge of who gets what when, and it’s arbitrary, depending how dramatically I beg for my turn.
- My sibling and I are in constant competition to get what we need. I don’t like him.
- I guess I’m a greedy person, but that’s what I need to be in order to get what I deserve.
- I had better “play fast” because I won’t have this item for long.
- I won! But soon I will lose again soon. I had better protest loudly when my turn is up to get every minute I can. And then start protesting again as soon as it’s my sibling’s turn. If I make my parent miserable, I’ll get more time with the toy.
Notice that this child’s attention is barely on the toy he’s won. All he can do is feel the clock ticking. So the conventional approach of forced sharing undermines the ability of children to lose themselves in play, as well as undermining the sibling relationship by creating constant competition. Neither child gets to experience the generosity of having their fill and giving to the other.
Now what happens if we tell the second child that he can ask the sibling when it will be his turn, and assure him that we’ll help him wait until the sibling decides he’s done with the toy. This time, the second child learns:
- I can ask for what I want. Sometimes I get a turn soon; sometimes I have to wait.
- It’s okay to cry, but it doesn’t mean I get the toy.
- I don’t get everything I want, but I get something better. My parent always understands and helps me when I’m upset.
- After I cry, I feel better.
- I can use another toy instead and enjoy it. I’m getting better at waiting.
- I don’t have to whine and cry to my parent to convince them to get me a turn. Everybody has to wait for their turn, but everybody gets a turn sooner or later.
- I like the feeling when my sibling gives me the toy. I like her.
- I can use a toy for as long as I want; nobody will make me give it to my sibling at a moment’s notice. When I’m done with the toy and give it to my sibling, I feel good inside. I’m a generous person.
As kids learn that they’ll eventually get the toy, and that their right to a toy they’re using will also be protected, they get better at managing their impatience. In fact, every time you support a child through the wait, they build the mental muscle to delay gratification. And fairly quickly, you’ll see your children start asking each other when they can have a turn, and offering the toy to their sibling when they’re done with it.
2. Roughhouse with children. Nature has designed humans with a great way to reduce anxiety and clear the stress hormones from our bodies: laughter. Laughing also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin, so every time you laugh with someone, you’re building trust. That means that when your children laugh with each other, they’re bonding, which helps head off sibling squabbles later in the day. Figure out what gets your children laughing, and schedule in at least 15 minutes of belly laughter daily, whether it’s playing peek-a-boo, chasing them around the house, bucking bronco rides, or a kids against grownup pillow fight.
3. Initiate scheduled meltdowns. What's a scheduled meltdown? It's the same meltdown your child would have had at the supermarket, except you give him a chance to have it at home when you’re ready to pay attention, while the baby is asleep. It may seem odd to welcome a meltdown. But your child will have those upset feelings whether you welcome them or not. The frontal cortex is still developing in young children, and they’re easily overwhelmed by emotion. Tears will reduce the stress hormones circulating in your child’s bloodstream, and evaporate the upset.
So next time your child is whiney, rigid, demanding, or intentionally misbehaving, think of it as a red flag. She’s scared, sad, or stressed, and she needs your help. Fortunately, children are “designed” to heal themselves by surfacing their hurts, just like their immune system will push an infection to the surface to heal. All you have to do is support her natural process by creating safety.
Acknowledge any irritation you’re feeling, and try to shift yourself to a more empathic frame of mind, so you can be compassionate. This isn’t easy, when she’s being provocative. It helps to use a mantra to remind yourself that “Children need love most when they deserve it least.”
- Create safety using physical affection, warm and empathy.
- Invite the meltdown by setting a kind limit about anything, such as saying gently “You're yelling, and that hurts my ears. Can you tell me what you want in an inside voice?"
- If she gets angry, increase your compassion. Children often get angry when we empathize. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. She’s snapping at you because when you offer understanding, it puts her in touch with her feelings, which at the moment are threatening to overwhelm her. So she does what we all do when we feel threatened—she lashes out. Your goal is to help her feel safe enough to go beneath the anger. "Oh, Sweetie, I see how upset you are…I'm sorry this is so hard.” If you can stay compassionate enough—which is the challenge for most of us—she'll cry. That's what's therapeutic, not her anger.
- Welcome the upset. If you can respond to your child’s anger with compassion and a softening of your heart, she’s likely to cry. She may thrash and sweat and want to push against something; that all helps her body let go of fear. If she lashes out, move back so she can’t hurt you.
- What if she yells at you to shut up? Stop talking. The deepest healing is always beyond words, so don’t ask questions, and don’t say much. Just help her feel safe enough to cry. “You’re safe…I’m here…Everybody needs to cry sometimes.”
If you can stay with this process, you’ll be amazed at the difference in your child after she has a good cry. Once she’s showed you all that raw pain and felt understood—even though nothing changes outside—she’ll feel closer to you and more emotionally generous toward her sibling. And since you've gotten this meltdown out of the way at a time when you can really listen, you've just dodged the tantrum that would otherwise have happened—yes, you guessed it—exactly when the baby next needs you.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. You can find her online at AhaParenting.com.