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

Bringing peace to sibling rivalry

Q: When my son hurts my daughter, I feel enraged, especially when he is grinning as though enjoying her pain. Still, I try to explain gently why he should not hurt his sister. Nothing helps. I would appreciate guidance on sibling rivalry.

naomi aldortA: No matter how gently we tell a child not to hurt another, he cannot hear us. He can only hear that he is “not all right” with us and therefore not worthy of love. Feeling rejected, the child is then likely to lash out even more at his sibling, seeing her as the cause of losing parental love. Our disapproval reaffirms his worst fear that he has lost his place in our heart, and he has no control over his inner drive to act as he does. He may be bored, needing a sense of power through play, trying to get your attention in the best way he can or he may have a deeper anxiety associated with his sister. Whatever his inner drive, he needs you to see the validity of his need.

Siblings are often left to their own for too long and simply fail to get along. Social skills take years to develop. Considering that we adults have not mastered relationships yet, we may as well focus on improving ourselves, especially as we respond to children’s rivalry. Much of this kind of sibling rivalry can be prevented by setting up things in a way that is more supportive of children’s ability and needs.

Bring love, not justice.

When we take sides, admonishing one child and rescuing the other, we cause jealousy, animosity and future aggression. Turning our home into a courthouse, we lose the children’s trust. Instead of helping, we join and increase the struggle.

The child must feel safe to seek your help, knowing he will be cared for and not judged. It is not your job to teach justice. It is your job to love and to facilitate kind solutions that meet each child’s needs. Children who are treated with kindness and observe peaceful, non-judgmental solutions grow up to be kind and peaceful adults.

Instead of saying, “We don’t hit,” interrupt the hitting gently as you validate with, “I see you need to hit.” This creates instant connection and trust. These words do not endorse hitting but instead validate feelings, teaching kindness and compassion. Amazingly, you will also help yourself to shift from anger to care, and you will be able to focus on understanding the valid cause of your child’s action. You can then listen to each child without taking sides. They each have a valid reason for their actions.

If you take sides, children will learn this divisive technique from you and fight even more. If you judge, not only is your son hurt, but Little Sister is learning to see herself as a victim. If she hasn’t used this victim strategy yet, she soon will. She will provoke her brother so he will mistreat her, only to turn her parents against him. Unfortunately, she is also formulating the self-image of a victim. Meanwhile, the grin on the aggressor’s face is nothing but a cover-up for insecurity. He sees himself as failing to be worthy of your approval and is fearful of the “verdict.” His original action was a way of taking care of himself when not trusting that you would help him.

We don’t have to intervene if the children seem to resolve their struggles, and no one is hurt. But we want to prevent setups that tend to bring on rivalry. And we must be tuned-in, so when we are needed, we can show up promptly. Once we enter, we must not exacerbate the division but bring in connection and empathy.

An Example of Listening Without Taking Sides

Sierra grabs her brother’s pile of paper, so he cannot continue to draw. Theo runs after her. He catches her, but she throws the paper all over the place. He hits her. She cries. A parent arrives on the scene and is likely to see the boy as the aggressor.

Let’s look at a couple of peaceful ways to show up as a solution and not as a judge:

  • You can notice the need and pick up the papers, handing them to Theo. Because Sierra tried to get her brother’s attention, you can offer to spend time with her.

No, this is not a reward but a kind response and a correction of your mistake when you did not notice her need sooner. There is no reason for guilt, just for correction. The problem is solved kindly and without useless analysis or futile lectures.

Both children’s needs are met. They are less likely to do any of it again, because it produced no parental “fireworks.” They now have a teacher of peace. The children learn that “who is wrong” is not the issue and that the worthy goal is a peaceful solution rather than a judgement. They learn to ask for your help rather than hit.

  • If Sierra and Theo have already learned to seek justice rather than solutions, be the listener. Listen to the child who is bursting out with his story. Let the other child know that she will get her turn to talk.

Theo: “I was drawing, and she grabbed my papers.” Mom, validating the facts without drama: “You were drawing, and she grabbed your pile of paper and took it away?” Theo: “Yes, and I need it.” Mom, modeling responsibility and creating trust: “I understand. I am sorry I wasn’t here to help right away. Do call me next time, so I can help you.”

Meanwhile, Sierra wants to talk, too. If Theo is done, you can listen to her, assuring the boy that he will be able to talk again as much as he needs. Sierra: “He ran after me, and he hit me. I was going to give it back anyway.” Mom: “So you ran with the paper, and he ran after you and hit you?” Sierra, very satisfied: “Yes, he hit me. So what are you going to do?”

  • At this point, it is tempting to go into a moral lesson: “If you do that, what do you expect? Why disturb your brother?” But then you are taking sides, and your child won’t trust you. She will not be able to discover her responsibility in the matter, because she will be too caught up in feeling hurt by your rejection. Your job is to understand and care for her, not to judge her. She will learn better when she comes to her own realization at this or another time. To be able to see her responsibility, she must be emotionally at peace, secure in your love. With a mind that cares, you too will be able to feel connected and learn how to prevent such struggles.

Mom: “I will spend time with you next time. Just ask. Lets do something together now.” Sierra: “Yes, but he shouldn’t hit me. Do something.” She is very intent on turning Mom into a weapon against her brother. Mom: “I will ask Theo to call me next time.” Sierra: “OK. But you won’t need to, because I won’t take his paper.” She comes on her own to notice her responsibility, without mom’s lecture. Mom: “Good. You will come to me when you need someone to be with.” Sierra, emphatically: “Yes.”

Theo may need to talk again, justifying the hitting. Theo: “If she didn’t take the paper, I wouldn’t have hit her. I had no choice.”

  • This tells you that you have not been responsive fast enough when a need arose — which sometimes happens, as we can’t always meet children’s needs immediately — and your son concluded that he has to solve his own problems in his own immature way.

Mom, modeling responsibility: “Yes, I know. Next time I will pay more attention and be helpful faster. Will you call me?” Theo: “Yes, but she shouldn’t have grabbed the paper.” Again the child has learned to seek justice and to want to see his sister scolded or punished. Mom: “Yes, you are right. I wish I noticed that she needed attention. I will check more often and not get so deeply into my chores.” Theo: “I will call you if you don’t notice.” Mom: “Thank you, Theo. That would be helpful.”

It may not go so smooth, but no matter how long each child has to battle, keep listening and affirming his or her experience. There is never a need to judge, and no matter what a child says, his experience can be affirmed and understood. Your children will not only fight less, but will learn to feel compassion and to get along without winners and victims, seeking peace rather than justice.

Forgive yourself.

You may read this and feel regret or guilt for the way you have handled sibling struggles so far. You are not alone. These ways have been with us for generations. Guilt, however, comes from self-judgement. There is no judgement in finding out a better way. We learn something new, and we take new actions. If your flowers are wilting, you don’t feel guilty — you go water the flowers. Forgiveness, knowing you always did your best, is the compassionate default for all progress.

Attachment Parenting and siblings

Siblings cover for TAF.comI am often amazed at how well my children get along. They are 9, 7 and 3 years old and each have very close, warm, secure and unique bonds with one another that very much enhance our family.

My 9-year-old and 7-year-old daughters are 16 months apart. They are each others’ best friends, whether at home, softball practice, 4-H contests or school. They protect one another, tell each other secrets, share many of the same interests and respect each others’ differences.

Yet, neither ever leave their 3-year-old brother out of the mix. Though my 9-year-old tends to take more of a protective, teacher role in her relationship with her brother, she isn’t overbearing, letting him explore the world at his own pace. My 7-year-old daughter is as drawn to physical play, from playing tag and climbing trees to building forts and making tunnels in the sand, as her brother…while my 9 year old is more likely to be found reading books to her brother, guiding him on how to plant the beans in the garden or teaching him how to use the insect net.

Oh, my children still have conflict. This is inevitable in any relationship, but it is important to remember that conflict can be healthy. As children learn how to manage their strong emotions in an attachment-oriented way, conflict grows relationships. Through conflict resolution, each child’s needs can be met while each learns more about the other as well as how to accept differences without threatening the bond.

I am intentional through Attachment Parenting (AP) in raising my children to have strong attachments to one another, and I will continue to be intentional as they move into their teen years and eventually adulthood. It is my goal that when they leave my home, that they continue the friendships they are starting now in their early and middle childhoods — and have the skills to quickly re-establish their sibling relationships when strained by life changes — in order to enjoy secure sibling attachments lifelong.

In the latest issue of The Attached Family, we at Attachment Parenting International (API) explore “Attached Siblings” with features on:

We hope that this issue of The Attached Family will inspire your efforts in encouraging secure attachments among your children.

We welcome your stories of Attachment Parenting in your family, including the benefits and challenges in your children’s sibling relationships.

If you are seeking support in this area of parenting, begin by reading through API’s Sibling Bonding resource page and API Reads’ archived Siblings Without Rivalry discussion. Also, feel free to contact your local API Leader (or API Warmline for parents without a local API Support Group) or start a thread on the API Neighborhood forums.

Giving presence to the firstborn

Editor’s note: The post was originally published on Oct. 15, 2008, and it continues to serve as a reminder to parents expecting another baby:

894905_curiousFor several weeks, I’ve been thinking about ways in which I give my children presence. I’ve thought about different ways I spend time with my kids, the talks we’ve shared, the games we’ve played. Time and time again, my thoughts returned to one specific incident:

When I was pregnant with my second child, I wondered, as I think most second-time parents do, about how my first was going to react to having a sibling. Will he be jealous? Welcoming? Will he regress? Am I up to parenting two? How will I cope if he’s resentful?

My husband and I did all we could to prepare him, of course. We talked about the new baby. We read books to him about new baby siblings. I even bought him a baby doll so that he would have a new baby, too. But as he was only 2 and 3 years old during the pregnancy, I didn’t know how much of it he was fully understanding.

My son was 3 years and 4 months when his sister was born. He didn’t seem interested in holding or kissing or hugging the new baby, and I never pressured him to.

Above all else, I wanted to give him permission to not like the baby. I knew it was not in anybody’s best interest to force this new baby on to him, nor to force him to love her.

Of course, new babies take a lot of attention — holding and nursing and changing and admiring. I was always very sensitive to how my son reacted, especially when friends and relatives came bearing gifts and food and cooing over the baby.

Even though my husband was spending a lot of extra time with our son as I was caring for the new baby, I desperately wanted to spend one-on-one time with him, unimpeded by the sling. To that end, we arranged one afternoon for my husband to take the freshly nursed 1-week-old baby into the other room so that I could concentrate fully on my son.

He was so excited to get me all to himself, and I was ecstatic to be spending time with just him.

We were horsing around, being silly and laughing and giggling. A little bit into our game, he got a bit carried away and gleefully threw his shoe across the room.

He knows the rule of no throwing in the house, but to be honest, I knew that his world was turned upside-down in just a week and I didn’t want to press him on it too much. So I said, “Hey, let’s keep the shoes on the floor and find something else we can throw.”

He broke down and just started sobbing, so I pulled him onto my lap. As I rocked him, I cooed, “It’s hard having a baby here, isn’t it?”

He nodded and sobbed some more. “It’s hard to see me carrying her everywhere,” I continued.

“Yes!” he cried. “You should be carrying me around, too!”

When I recounted this exchange with a friend later, I commented that he could have pulled my heart out and stomped on it and done less damage.

However, that incident inspired me to redouble my efforts in connecting to my son, the firstborn. When my husband returned to work after his month-long paternity leave, I unfailingly committed myself to spending at least 30 minutes each day in child-led play with my son while the baby slept. We played whatever he wanted to play. I followed his rules and let him lead completely.

As the baby grew older and could be apart from me for a couple of hours, my son and I would go out to lunch, just the two of us, every other weekend.

As my daughter grew even more and could take a bit of food between nursings, my son and I could take longer dates to the playground, or to a movie, or to the Thomas the Train store in a neighboring town.

I absolutely and thoroughly enjoyed spending this special time with my son, and I often looked forward to the weekend just so I could spend that extra time with him. I have so many memories of our dates and our conversations.

The presence I gave my son during that time paid off in many ways. Most of all, he and his sister have been two-peas-in-a-pod for years. They are extremely close, play together astonishingly well and even choose to sleep together on the weekends. Since I spent so much time with my son during his sister’s baby years, I really don’t believe he’s ever felt the need to compete with his sister for my attentions, which I think helps their relationship and in turn our family.

Adding another child…it will get easier, it will get better

kelly shealer 3The biggest struggles I see from mothers in my API Support Group have to do with the addition of a second or third child.

Whether it’s an older child having difficulty adjusting to the new baby, or the mom herself struggling to meet everyone’s needs, our API group meetings frequently come back to this topic and to the guilt surrounding it.

This certainly has been the biggest issue for me. I have three children, all born two years apart, and I’ve learned that meeting the needs of multiple children at the same time is often impossible. Because of that, it can be hard to feel like I’m staying attached enough to each of them.

Some of it is simply trying to figure out how do multiple things at the same time. Like when I’m cooking pasta for my 4-year-old but my baby wants to nurse, and I can’t ignore the boiling water or the hungry baby. Or when my 2-year-old is having a tantrum and needs me to sit with him while he works through his big emotions, but my tired baby needs me to walk with her to help her fall asleep. Or when I’ve finally gotten my baby to sleep and I want to lie down as well, but one of my boys wants me to read to him and the other wants me to play with him.

And with all of that, there are feelings of guilt. To have to prioritize your children’s needs is beyond difficult. Someone is not going to be able to come first. Someone is going to have to wait. Someone is going to have to cry sometimes.

With my first son, I was able to meet all his needs quickly and without any distractions. If he cried, I could pick him up immediately. Now, with my third baby, there are times when she has to wait. Generally her needs are the most important, but sometimes, like when her brothers have collided and one has a bloody mouth, I can’t respond to her first. To have to put your baby’s needs to the side when you believe so strongly in picking up a crying baby is so hard.

After my second son was born, my older son had a hard adjustment and would hit his baby brother. So often I felt guilty for taking time away from him to attend to his brother, especially because I could see how the addition of a new baby was affecting him.

I made an effort to have as much one-on-one time with him as possible, especially by using my baby’s naptime as a special time for my older son and me. I also had to acknowledge that it was no longer going to be the way it once was, but that wasn’t a bad thing.

Around that time, I read about how we often feel like we’re taking something away from our oldest child by adding another child, but in reality, we’re giving them something: a sibling. We’re giving them someone with whom they’ll have a relationship like no other.

And it’s true.

My son who started out hating his little brother is now his best friend, and it’s amazing to watch. Sure, they still fight sometimes and they always will. They are brothers, after all! But they also play together, take care of each other and clearly love each other.

It took at least the first year for things to get easier for us. I try to remind myself of that now that I’m in the same situation with another new baby. I have to keep telling myself: It will get easier. It will get better. Your children know you love them. You are doing great.

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