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

Core beliefs and parenting

Editor’s note: Today, April 30, is SpankOut Day — an annual observance founded by the Center for Effective Discipline, working to eliminate physical punishment of children and to promote nonviolent discipline. This can be a different change in perspective for parents accustomed to spanking their children. It can be tempting to shift from hitting to other shame-based forms of punitive discipline. This post explores the beliefs and thoughts behind motives for human behavior and subsequent discipline of our children:

Shame was a mainstay of parenting in past generations. Many of us parents can remember feeling shame, probably often, while growing up — along with threats, intimidation, and other forms of coercion. Although parenting trends have made great strides to align with what research shows to be the healthy way to discipline our children, remnants of shame-based parenting still remain.

Shame-based parenting behaviors may be subtle, hidden in seemingly innocent messages meant to encourage cooperation from our children, like “You should know better than that,” “Nice girls don’t do that,” “Good boys do this,” or “You already had enough; you shouldn’t want more.” But if you were to turn these phrases around, how would you feel about yourself?

These phrases, while not abrasive, are still implying that a child is having thoughts that are “wrong” or “bad,” when actually, anyone can have whatever thoughts they desire — what we as parents really want is for children to be able to discern which behavior would be more aligned with the values we hope to be passing down to them.

Attachment Parenting International‘s Eight Principles of Parenting guide parents in setting appropriate limits on behavior while promoting a secure parent-child attachment, empathy and emotional literacy, and peaceful conflict resolution.

It’s important for parents to continue working toward knowing themselves better and how this affects their parenting and relationships with their children. Especially for those who were raised themselves with a shame-based parenting approach, becoming stagnant in personal growth can cause regression back to the parenting behaviors they were raised with.

Without intentional parenting, the shame-based parenting we experienced as children will be reflected in how we relate to and discipline our children, even if only through words we intended to be gentle reminders or even through expectations we have in mind of how our children are “supposed” to be behaving.

While shame, as a normal emotion, is felt from time to time by everyone — being the result of conflicting interactions within a social group — it generally doesn’t have long-lasting effects on a child’s self-worth as long as the child is able to lean on a supportive, unconditionally loving parent to help him process his feelings.

However, there is a distinct difference between a relatively fleeting feeling of shame from unconnected incidences and the long-standing, pervasive feeling of shame at a child’s core that is the result of shame-based parenting. Shame-based parenting instills a pattern of thinking in the child that she is unworthy and, inflicted by the parent, there is no unconditionally loving support person to help the child process her emotions and be able to see herself as separate from the ongoing messages of shame.

Many parents who grew up in a shame-based home may worry that they are inadvertently instilling shame in their own children, despite their best efforts to not do so. It’s understandable where this concern comes from — a parent who is conscious of the emotional wounds in his or her life is also conscious to not want to pass down this family legacy.

Examining Shame-Based Core Beliefs

Healing from a shame-based view of oneself is best done with a professional counselor, but there are various ways that adults can help the healing process along. One way is to examine their core beliefs.

Core beliefs are the messages our brain tells us about our self-worth. Core beliefs “color” how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, and even how we react to situations in our lives. Think about core beliefs as the color of who you are:

Negative Core Beliefs —
I am unlovable
I am not good enough
I am a bad person
I am stupid
I am ugly
I am abnormal
I am boring
I am worthless
I don’t deserve love or good things in my life

Positive Core Beliefs —
I am lovable!
I am good enough
I am a good person
I am smart
I am beautiful
I am extraordinary
I am very interesting to be around
I have a lot of worth
I deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and love

When you have the same situation as someone with the other color of core beliefs, you actually both look at the same situation in different ways. For example, let’s say you meet a mother at the park and think about asking her to go with you to your local API Support Group.

Negative Core Belief: I’m boring, I’m not good enough, I’m worthless.

  • Thought: “Why would she ever go to the meeting with me?”
  • Behavior: You don’t ask the mother to go with you.

Positive Core Belief: I’m very interesting to be around, I’m good enough, I have a lot of worth.

  • Thought: “We might have fun together.”
  • Behavior: You ask the mother to go with you.

The behavior that results from your core belief reinforces that core belief. If you think the other mother wouldn’t want to be friends with you, and then you don’t ask her to come with you to the group meeting, you will then feel even more like you’re not worthy of having friends.

Of course, there is a possibility that if you do ask the other person to go to the group meeting with you, that she will say no or she may say yes but you find that you two don’t click. This may stir up more core beliefs, but it can also empower you to ask the next person you meet that might be a better fit.

How Core Beliefs Affect Parenting

Likewise, when you encounter the same parenting scenario as someone with the other color of core beliefs, you both look at and react to the same scenario in different ways. However, there is a complicating factor in the case of parenting. It’s all too easy to unconsciously transfer your core beliefs about yourself to your child. People who grew up in shame-based homes, who haven’t addressed their emotional trauma may unknowingly project what they see as the “bad” qualities of themselves on others. This natural act of self-protection is the emotional brain’s way of avoiding the original, unaddressed issue — that the parent himself is “bad.” It’s much easier to continue not feeling the pain of this “realization” by passing the blame onto someone else.

For example, let’s say your 6-month-old baby just started waking up at night several times after previously sleeping through at least 6 hours.

Negative Core Belief: I am not confident in my parenting ability.

  • Transferred Core Belief: My baby is manipulating me.
  • Thought: “My baby should be sleeping through the night.”
  • Behavior: You try cry-it-out with your baby. Your baby may be very distressed, and you may react with anger or anxiety, reinforcing the core belief.

Positive Core Belief: I’m a good mother and a good problem-solver.

  • Transferred Core Belief: My baby must be waking at night more because of a developmental need.
  • Thought: “I need to learn about why my baby is waking more at night and what to do about that.”
  • Behavior: You learn that your baby may be going through a growth spurt, teething, or otherwise needs your comfort at night and adjust your expectations to continue providing a sensitive response.

Let’s look at another example: No matter how many times you have talked to your 2-year-old toddler about “gentle hands,” she still hits when she’s upset.

Negative Core Belief: I am not confident in my parenting ability.

  • Transferred Core Belief: My toddler isn’t learning from this discipline approach.
  • Thought: “I need to be more forceful to teach my toddler to not hit.”
  • Behavior: You yell at or hit her when she hits. She may feel angry and act-out by hitting more, or she may be confused and hurt. You may then react with anger or guilt, reinforcing the core belief.

Positive Core Belief: I’m a good mother and a good problem-solver.

  • Transferred Core Belief: My toddler’s hitting frustrates me, but there must be a reason for her behavior.
  • Thought: “I need to learn more about what to expect developmentally at this age and what to do about the hitting.”
  • Behavior: You learn that your toddler is acting very age-appropriately and is still developing her impulse control. The best way to address this is to continue telling and modeling to her to not hit, while teaching her other ways to express her anger.

With this final example, let’s look at a teenager who has side-swiped a mailbox with his car, breaking a headlight and scratching the paint.

Negative Core Belief: I am not confident in my parenting ability.

  • Transferred Core Belief: Teenagers are careless, rebellious, and irresponsible.
  • Thought: “He doesn’t care about anything. He thinks he can get away with anything.”
  • Behavior: You take away his car keys, demand that he pay for the damages, and punish him by taking away privileges. He may act-out. You may then react with anger or guilt, reinforcing the core belief.

Positive Core Belief: I’m a good mother and a good problem-solver.

  • Transferred Core Belief: Teenagers sometimes make mistakes, as we all do.
  • Thought: “He needs to learn from this situation, but he also needs understanding and help with problem-solving of how to address it.”
  • Behavior: You talk with him about what happened and his feelings, and help him problem-solve what his next steps are.

Whether you have negative or positive core beliefs, the thoughts that come from these will transmit to how you feel toward your child and her behavior. Negative core beliefs are linked with shame-based responses.

Turning Negatives Into Positives

If your core beliefs tend to fall in the negative list, remember that each negative has a positive option. If you encounter a situation where you don’t feel worthy, you need to get into a practice of positive self-talk and coming up with positive options other than the negative default that may naturally arise in your mind.

Here are 3 ideas of how to begin turning your negative core beliefs into positives:

  1. Tell yourself that you are awesome! Start repeating positive statements, like “I am smart” or “I am a good mother (or father),” to yourself many times a day. You can try writing them on sticky notes and stick them to your bathroom mirror, your desk, or other places around your house, vehicle, or work space to give you reminders throughout the day.
  2. Turn the negative into a positive. When you begin thinking negatively, take a deep breath and intentionally turn the thought around to a positive. If you make a mistake, when the thought “I am so stupid” or “I am such a bad mother (or father)” comes to mind, tell yourself: “No, I am smart. Everyone makes mistakes, and I can learn from this.”
  3. Join an API Support Group. It is incredibly empowering to be surrounded by like-minded, supportive parents who are all working toward the same parenting goals as you. The opportunity to ask questions to a nonjudgmental group and to receive ideas that are in line with your values and that can apply to your parenting situation is invaluable. There is great positive power in a parenting support group when they can be both a sounding board and a source of validation, while encouraging your personal growth.
  4. Respond to yourself in the way you would ideally want to sensitively respond to your child in the same situation. Since negative core beliefs are often grounded in thought patterns from our childhood, such as from shame-based parenting or another emotional trauma, it’s not such a stretch to address the “child you” in your mind — the emotional part of you that is trying to protect itself with the negative core beliefs. That “child you” has to heal for the “adult you” to be able to move forward — toward a healthy self-worth and more confident, positive parenting.

Photo source