Navigating sibling squabbles

Arguments between siblings are inevitable. The question many parents face, is how to best handle the situation?

I’m sharing one recent instance that unfolded in my own house in hopes of helping some of you in search of that very answer — also to show you that it can be done in a way that respects both parties and sets a foundation for growth in all involved:

Last night, we had our most violent sibling-on-sibling encounter yet. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate to that mama/papa bear instinct when you see one of your babies being hurt, even when it’s by one of your other babies. That instinct to protect our young is so strong that we may sometimes lash out on one of our own children in defense of another.

Well, last night, we were heading up to bed late. Everyone was exhausted. Everyone was dysregulated. We had been out of town for 4 days, and there were many potential triggers in play that I was well aware of. My goal was to get everyone up to bed as quickly and calmly as possible before someone — and then inevitably everyone — fell apart.

My oldest two ran upstairs to brush their teeth while I brought the baby and my husband grabbed our bags. The boys had been bickering back and forth and getting in each other’s space the entire way up the stairs. I had requested that they each give the other some breathing room and focus on keeping themselves in control while we prepare for bed.

As my husband and I began walking upstairs, we heard it. The scream that alerts you that someone is very badly hurt. My second child ran out of the room crying so hard he couldn’t breathe. My husband sat down and wrapped him up in his arms. My son took a deep breath and screamed and screamed. My husband asked him what had happened. He told us that his brother had hurt him.

With my second son securely being comforted in the arms of his daddy, I calmly and quietly walked into the bedroom, and just as calmly and quietly called out to my oldest son. He slowly walked out of the closet with his head down. I asked him what had happened and he said, “Mommy, I got so angry. I forgot to walk away.”

“I see.” I replied. “Your brother seems very hurt and upset. What do you think we should do now?”

He responded that we should go and check on him and see if there was anything he could do to help. However, once he walked up to his brother and asked, my second son screamed “no” at him and told him to go away. My oldest took this hard and ran back into the bedroom clearly upset. I followed him. He angrily told me that he was never doing that again. I explained to him that, while he felt calmer and ready to help, his brother was not yet calm and ready to accept that help.

My husband and I began getting everyone ready for bed. While he was helping my middle son into his pajamas, I looked over to see 4 very dark red, bloody streaks down at least half of his back. It literally took my breath away. Until this point, we had not known the offense or the extent of it. This truly looked like wolverine had attacked him. I had to take a gigantic deep breath and settle down that mama bear within me. I told my husband to look on his back. He looked back at me with eyes wide open.

My oldest son said, “I wonder how he got those marks on his back.”

“Your hands made those marks on his back,” I calmly responded.

He looked down at his hands turning them over and examining them, “I must have really sharp nails.”

“Yes,” I said, “and you have very strong hands.”

He looked at me for a moment. I told him, “It’s a great thing to have very strong hands like yours. But they are to be used for good things, like carrying heavy grocery bags in from the car, or holding heavy doors open so others may walk through. They should not be used to hurt others. The next time you feel so angry, I want you to walk away. When you feel so angry that you want to explode, you can go and scratch the pillow, or the mattress, or pound your fists into the ground. But you cannot hurt someone else.”

“I will try, Mommy,” he said. “It is very hard. But I will try.”

“I know you will,” I told him, “because you are not a bad person. And you are not a mean person. You are a very kind boy with a very loving heart. And because of that, the next time you are so angry, you will remember to walk away.”

I could see the internal thoughts racing across his eyes. I could see his mind doubting, but I could also see his heart believing. And then, his body softened. At that moment, I knew he fully embraced that he is a loving and kind person — that his actions do not define him, that he is in fact capable of self-control…and of fixing things when he makes a mistake.

So often, whether because of our parental bear inside or because we are responding in the way we think we are supposed to, we yell, blame, and punish in these situations. However, what current brain research tells us is that this does zero good, but actually a great deal of harm.

You see, children do not choose these emotions or the reactions to their emotions. They aren’t developmentally capable. And if you question this, I ask you: Have you ever felt so angry that you thought you were going to snap? Or maybe you did. Maybe you punched a hole in the wall or threw something across the room or lashed out in anger screaming profanities or insults at those around you. Looking back, did you choose to feel that angry? Did you choose to lose complete control of yourself? Or did it come upon you like a sudden tidal wave and crash into you before you could realize what was happening?

Children’s brains are far less developed than ours. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid-20s! These emotions are not at all conscious on their part and actually are very frightening and overwhelming to children. They need our loving guidance and support in these moments, not an iron fist. When we come down on children in these moments, their brains interpret these emotions as unacceptable and bad.

They then internalize the idea that they, too, are shameful and bad people…and that when they have these feelings — of which they are not in control of and do not know what to do with — that they are not worthy of love. This is the last thing I wanted my son to think of himself. What good was that going to do? I’m not trying to raise a bitter and resentful adult whom feels unworthy. I am working to develop a kind and loving one.

Related: The Attached Family’s “Parenting Without Shame” issue

Is it permissive what I did? Do you wonder, how is he going to learn anything from this without punishment? Looking back on my example, you can see very clearly that I made it known that it is OK to feel angry and that there are appropriate ways for us to express and expel our anger, but I also made it very clear that it is never OK to hurt someone else in the process.

This way, my son was able to internalize the idea that he is indeed a kind and loving person, and he can therefore feel empowered to make a better decision the next time these feelings present themselves. He also is now equipped with tools to assist him in making a better decision next time. He now has other ideas of what he can do with his anger that won’t result in someone being hurt — mentally, emotionally, or physically.

Based upon his responses, both verbal and nonverbal, it’s clear to see that he felt terrible about what he had done. It was not his intent to harm his brother. He received a natural consequence — he felt what is called natural or healthy guilt. This is very different from shame. Have you ever felt very badly about something you had done? That is natural guilt. It is not taught — it is developed through the brain and the conscience. This internal guilt he felt is enough of a consequence for him. It is also going to be the driving force in helping him make better choices in the future. But in order for it to come through, he has to feel my unconditional love and calm presence supporting him through this difficult time.

Before we finished up, I said to my oldest son: “Now that your brother has calmed down, it may be a good time to try and talk to him about it again.”

I could see the hesitation on my son’s face — which could have been that he needed some more time to process what we had talked about, or it could have been nervousness of being rejected again. Either way, I quickly reassured him: “When you are ready. Listen to your body, it will tell you when you are ready to talk with your brother. And I am right here to help you if you need it.”

Sometimes, especially in kids over the age of 5, children need some time and space to process the event as well as their feelings surrounding it. It’s very important that we give them this space and time.

I observed their play throughout this morning. This afternoon, I found an opportunity to approach my oldest and ask him if he had a chance yet to talk with his brother about last night. He told me that he had, though I knew it hadn’t yet come up. I waited. About 5 minutes later, he went to his younger brother and asked if he could see the scratch marks from the night before. Consent was granted, so I helped lift up his shirt. My oldest son commented on how they were healing but the fact that they were still there.

The two of them then launched into an entire recount of the event ending with my oldest son saying, while making a scratching motion, “And I did this and that was not OK.”

His younger brother responded with, “Yeah. You hurt me. That was not OK.”

“I’m really sorry,” my oldest son said. It was genuine, and his younger brother knew it.

That was the end of it. Off they ran to play. All fear, anger, and sadness lifted; the relationship renewed and restored; and both kids with a bigger heart and deeper connection than what existed the previous day.

Related: How Secure Sibling Attachments Happen

What is peace to children?

logo that hopefully doesnt change colorAPI hopes you have found AP Month 2016 to be enlightening and inspirational as we explored this year’s theme, “Nurturing Peace: Parenting for World Harmony.” On this last day of AP Month 2016, we bring you insight to what our children are internalizing as to what peace is:

Emily, 8: “Calmness.”

Noemi, 8: “Peace means that everything is relaxing and calm.”

Emily, 10: “Quiet and relaxed.”

Violet, 10: “When people are calm, kind, peaceful, and respectful.”

Jacqueline, 7: “Love.”

Takumi, 7: “When I think of peace, I think of T.R.A.C.K.: Tolerance, Respect, Appreciate, Care, and Kindness. So if we have TRACK in heart, we can stay in peace.”

Zaiah, 10: “It is not war. It’s kindness. It’s being kind to each other. Peace is showing love to one another. Peace is having gratitude. Peace is love and gentleness.”

Remy, 14: “Peace to me means no child anywhere would know violence.”

Sophie, 5: “Peace means that I love my sisters.”

Rachel, 10: “Like not fighting, like what Martin Luther King, Jr., did with having people come together in peace, between different people. Like quietness and being calm.”

Thank you to Rachel, for suggesting this post for AP Month 2016. She is a 4th grader at Sandy Creek Public Schools in Clay County, Nebraska, USA. Contributions came from children around the world, thanks to the wide reach of the parents who volunteer with API.

Nathan, 5: “Not fighting. We should all work together as a team. No one, boy or girl, is better than another. We are all special.”

Camille, 18: “Peace is love, patience, truthfulness, kindness, and gentleness, and something we must achieve together.”

kids-peace-word-cloudLuke, 10: “Peace is not war. It is peace. It is being kind to one another. It is sticking together, staying together as the world.”

Ethan, 8: “Happy and the only way people can get along.”

Alexandra, 11: “Peace is something that is almost impossible. There are always fights, problems, and stress. Big things like wars and small things like bickering always happen. But every once in a while, the world may have a minute of peace.”

Shelly, 11: “Everyone getting along and respecting one another.”

Daniel, 14: “All nations and religions will be tolerant of one another.”

Anna, 8: “Peace means to get along with everyone no matter what they look like.”

Juliana, 13: “Peace is everyone working together and no war. People helping people.”

Brook, 10: “It means not fighting and being kind.”

Bennett, 9: “Peace means no terrorism, no war, and no murder.”

Harrison, 11: “Harmony.”

Oliver, 9: “Peace means that the people get together and have a good time, and get through the bad times, and have a bright and sunny and peaceful world.”

Samantha, 13: “Peace is hard to explain since it has many interpretations and definitions, as well as having peace in many shapes and forms. However, the best way to explain it is when people learn respect, tranquility, simplicity, and equality within everything.”

Miranda, 9: “People getting along and the world being a happy place for everyone. Everybody is friends and doesn’t hate each other ever.”

Coby, 11: “When people aren’t angry and people are friends.”

Luke, 14: “Rather than fight each other, orcs and humans team up.”

Hiroto, 3: “Peace? I like peace. Mama, what’s a peace? I like peace. Yes, I accomplished!”

Nurturing children for a compassionate world


Each day of our lives…


Stay patient while teaching toddlers how to handle strong emotions

kelly shealerOver the past few months, my 3-year-old son has been going through a phase of hitting his brother and sister when he’s angry.

I’ve been working a lot with him, telling him that his angry feelings are okay but that hitting isn’t, and trying to find better ways for him to express that anger. But still, every time he was provoked by his brother or had a toy stolen by his sister, he was quick to hit them.

It has been frustrating for me.

Sometimes, it feels like we keep trying to get the same messages across to our children with no results. We wonder, Why aren’t they getting it? It feels like we’re failing or doing something wrong. But it’s just that it takes time and consistency with young children.

I remind myself of how many times I had to redirect my 1-year-old daughter from pulling books off the shelves. She didn’t get it after the first or second time. It took a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of consistency on my part. It’s the same with a toddler who’s learning to manage emotions.

We may feel sometimes that our children aren’t even listening. But they are. And they’re learning from what we model to them, too. Every time we stay calm when we’re angry, they notice it. Every time we allow strong feelings while stressing limits, they notice it. And this will pay off.

Recently, my oldest son did something to upset my 3-year-old, and I saw my younger son run after him, ready to hit. Even before I could intervene, he stopped. Instead of hitting his brother, he hit the bed. I saw the brief pause — that moment where he gained control of himself and channeled his anger into something that wasn’t going to hurt his brother. That moment was huge.

But even when our children do finally get it, it won’t be 100% of the time. There will still be emotional fights over toys, and times during the day when they’re tired and more easily upset. Even adults have difficulty managing emotions at times, and we don’t always handle our own anger the right way. Our children won’t always, either — because they’re human and because they’re still learning.

We just need to remember to be patient with the process of teaching them.

How else does Attachment Parenting look like in your home?

Editor’s note: Attachment Parenting International (API) advocates for a parenting approach rooted solidly in research, and continuing research further validates and builds upon API’s foundation.

Debbie Vinall of Upland, CA - hi rezIn June, you were asked to help tell your story through a survey created by Southern Methodist University (SMU) researchers in collaboration with API. We are thrilled to report that more than 1,200 parents participated in this first-ever survey on what Attachment Parenting (AP) actually looks like in the home! THANK YOU! This essential data will help expand our objective understanding of Attachment Parenting. Parents from 49 states and 37 countries responded, and we can’t wait to share preliminary data in early 2016.

Have more to say? Many of you told us that the multiple choice was too limiting, so we’ve created a short, open-ended set of questions designed to hear everything you want to tell us about the first survey and your AP experience. As always, responses are anonymous.

Thanks again for helping us tell the AP story!

Artimesia Yuen, API Leader
Editor, Journal of Attachment Parenting
API KnowledgeBase Coordinator

What does your family’s attachment look like?

Editor’s note: Attachment Parenting International (API) advocates for a parenting approach rooted solidly in research, and continuing research further validates and builds upon API’s foundation.

Stephanie BrownPlease complete a brief, anonymous survey (access using your API Forum login) regarding your experiences with family members and relationships. It is hoped that the information gathered will help move the psychological research and therapeutic community forward regarding the complex needs of today’s families.

The survey should take no more than 10 minutes of your time, and will contribute to a more detailed understanding of what helps — and hinders — familial relationships. Should you desire, the principal researcher will be happy to share the findings with you.

In addition, if you know of any other individuals who could offer input through participation, please feel free to share. Email me with any questions.

Thank you for your time, consideration and help with providing a more current and detailed understanding of family needs today.

Jenn Lewis, MS
PhD student at Northcentral University in Arizona, USA