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.

Sibling rivalry is natural

It is natural for our children to feel anger toward their siblings and to experience anger in their peer relationships. It is how we react to their anger in these situations that will determine the outcome of how well they manage these angry outbursts.

indexThe book, Siblings Without Rivalry, goes in depth about sibling conflict. As we learned during the API Reads discussion of this book, the author recommends allowing the siblings to problem-solve the matters themselves without your intervention, unless of course the interaction is physical and then separation is needed. It is also beneficial to reflect back to each child what their feelings are so that the other child “hears” the emotions. This book touches on the fact that no matter what you do as parents, your children are going to feel jealous or that things are unfair sometimes.

The peer relationship is one in which you want to remain empathetic to what is going on but to not take sides. You want to help your child problem-solve on his or her own about what is needed to be done. Your role is mainly to be a sounding board.

350691Here are some portions from the API Reads discussion on Love and Anger that I highlighted as points to remember in regards to sibling rivalry:

  • Parents have a right to want to discourage cruelty. But at the same time, they need to accept the fact that they won’t always be able to make their children kind to one another. Sibling rivalry drives parents crazy, but it is a natural state of affairs.
  • Children will fight no matter what and their arguing is inevitable. However, do not take sides. Firmly state the rule without blaming either child.
  • As children grow up and reach adulthood, the hostility and competition usually lessen and are gradually replaced by closeness and support.
  • Parents need to accept the feelings of jealousy, resentment or anger that a sibling might have, while setting limits on hurtful actions. “Sometimes Jeffrey annoys you. I know. But he’s not to be hit.”
  • Sometimes it’s helpful to indulge your children’s fantasies about a sibling.
  • Parents have to accept the fact that children won’t always perceive their actions as being fair.

stephanie petters 2I know for myself that siblings do tend to create connection when they are older. There was competition, jealousy, cruelty, tattle-tailing and so on in the sibling relationships I grew up with, but now we support one another as adults.

Editor’s note: Join this and other discussions on Goodreads through the API Reads online book club. You can read along in your own copy of Love and Anger, or even if you don’t have the book, you can follow the discussion and take away bits of parenting ideas to try in your home. Learn more about the API Reads program or join for free directly at Goodreads.

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.

Don’t blame the baby

cason zarroWhen I am pregnant, I can sleep anywhere, anytime. I’d love to just sleep through the first two-thirds of pregnancy. I could fall asleep on the stairs, on the way to bed. I could even rest up for 12 long hours at night and still be able to take a nice morning nap.

But there was one thing that kept me awake at night, staring at the ceiling: my son’s warm body snuggled next to mine, with his arm draped over my growing belly.

I’d pull him closer to me and think, “What have I done? How is this going to rock his world? What is going to happen to my relationship with him?”

The “what ifs” scrolled through my mind at a dizzying speed. How was I possibly going to be able to handle mothering two children, especially when one would be a needy newborn?

Each of my children have been carefully and loving planned, but the moment that stick turned blue, the excitement was mixed with worry and doubt. I was doing the right thing for our family, right? As my belly grew, I wrestled with that question.

I loved growing up with a sibling and so would my son, I reasoned with myself. Lots of people have two children and somehow make it work, so I will be able to, too. Alongside each of those comforting thoughts, the worrisome thoughts fought for my attention. My sister and I didn’t get along until she moved out. Were we on the cusp of 15 years of fighting?

I started talking to my friends who had multiple children and asking them, how they did it? Often their comfort was well-meaning but not always helpful. I heard, “Oh, it just works out. You’ll be fine,” a lot. But I needed something more concrete. The devil on my shoulder kept saying, “Just because they are fine doesn’t mean you will be!”

With enough digging and prodding, I did eek out some tangible advice from my wonderful friends. Sitting on the beach at a lake near my home, one friend said, “Don’t blame the baby.” Huh? Thankfully she went on to explain what became the most helpful advice I’ve ever gotten about being a mother of more than one.

Don’t blame the baby.

When you are pregnant and sick, don’t blame the baby. Tell your child you just aren’t feeling too well today, but that’s normal for mommies sometimes.

After the baby is born and you need to sit on the sofa and feed your sweet newborn, don’t blame the baby. Tell your child, “I need to sit here for a little bit. Will you pick out a book for me to read to you?”

Blaming the baby encourages your older child to feel jealous. Before that stinkin’ baby came along, Mommy was much more fun!

I had an easy birth with my second child and was so lucky to have both my husband and son in the room — along with many other helping hands! My son was enthralled, mesmerized and inspired…

…for five minutes. After admiring his new brother, he was ready to play. Ready to go back to life as always.

In those first moments and first days, I started to see, to believe, that it was going to be okay. I even started to see a glimpse that it was going to be more than okay. We were embarking on a great new journey together as a family. Bring on the joy!

Like all journeys, we’ve had some unexpected turns, some bumps in the road and some vistas unlike we ever dreamed of seeing. We’ve also come to some crossroads and needed to make decisions.

One unexpected twist in the path to sibling harmony has been in the lack of support we’ve found in children’s books. So many children’s books encourage jealousy and show fighting siblings as the norm. Through careful selection, we’ve managed to present a different world to our boys. With the Boxcar children, Magic Treehouse, Wild Kratts and many others, we’ve been able show our boys a world where siblings support and love each other.

Family is a topic of daily dialog in our home. We talk about families and the place each person has and how important each person is in our family.

None of this insulates us from squabbling between siblings. There are still arguments over Legos and protests of “It’s not fair!” But woven through our family, there is something greater: love.

My boys love each other, through and through, no matter what happens. It has taken a lot of work and conscious effort and trying things to see what works. And now we’re starting on the next chapter in this book of family and have added a little sister to the mix.

When she is nursing and gazing up at me with those big, beautiful baby eyes, I lean in and whisper to her, “You’re so lucky! You have two wonderful brothers who can’t wait to play with you!”

Babywearing: The next generation

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Aug. 26, 2008, but it contains a sweet reminder for parents expecting a new baby and may be wondering how that will affect their older child.

dsc_0175There is something so sweet about watching our older children mimic our parenting approach with their younger siblings.

When our second child was born, our oldest was only 2 years old. While she was very sweet with her new baby brother, she mostly just politely ignored him. I did catch her gently rocking and lifting her shirt to nurse her favorite stuffed duck occasionally.

When our third was born, she was 5 and was definitely more interested but still mostly preferred to “mother” her dolls, carrying them around in doll slings and such, than her real live baby brother.

This last time around, though, when our fourth was born, has been different. At 7, our oldest is interested and physically strong enough to care for her new baby sister. She helps with diaper changes, she confidently hikes baby Julia onto her hip and, just yesterday, asked to wear Julia on her back.

I reflexively said “no,” and then reconsidered. Why not? I would supervise and she had been asking me for several months to try. So she did, and I was tickled.

I guess before I had more than one child, it never occurred to me how much the baby gets from having older siblings. Everyone talks about the benefits to the older child. You are getting a playmate! You’ll be a big sister! But, wow, the baby benefits, too!

I mean, Julia positively glows when her big brothers and sister appear.

We call Julia “the luckiest baby” for having three older siblings. Her every sound and cute little motion is quickly responded to. She has a built-in audience when she notices the fan and starts moving her arm in a circle. Three little voices notice and start to encourage her.

I remember vaguely feeling a bit sorry for my firstborn when our second arrived, imagining the reduced amount of parental attention she would get, that she would somehow be sitting around pining for my attention when my hands would be full with a new baby.

While this was certainly somewhat true for the first few months, once the baby was a bit older, the tables turned a bit and she and her younger brother became inseparable and played together constantly — much more than I would have been able to manage, even with my best effort. I mean, my patience for playing tea and reading toddler books is, shall we say, definitely finite.

Heck, these days I have to fight for my time with my children: They are so self-sufficient with each other. I had completely underestimated this part of a growing family!

How about you? If you have more than one child, what have your experiences been like? Has the reality been what you expected?

Staying attached with more than one

As my husband and I prepare for the arrival of our second child (a boy!) this summer, I find myself thinking about how different it will be compared to when our daughter was born.

With my daughter, we came across Attachment Parenting (AP) as we started exploring different ideas around giving birth and caring for newborns. Many of the AP practices were things we already planned on doing — such as natural birth and extended breastfeeding — and others evolved naturally once we became parents, including cosleeping, babywearing and gentle discipline. This time around, we plan on doing things similarly albeit with much more confidence in our decisions after seeing how well it worked last time.

However, I can’t help but wonder how it will work with more than one.

I think it’s extremely important for the initial bonding that we are physically attached to the baby. This part, I’m not worried about. I practically lived in my wrap with my daughter and don’t expect this time to be any different. I am also a stay-at-home mom, which gives me the freedom to feed on demand and hold off on any set schedule.

The part that I worry about is staying attached with my daughter. I think it’s equally important that our daughter not feel slighted by this new little addition. I want her to continue to feel attached to both mommy and daddy. She will have had almost 2 ½ years of undivided attention and will now be sharing the spotlight, so to speak. We have been prepping her for his arrival for a while now and she seems genuinely excited about being a big sister. She can rattle off a list of things she will be in charge of as the big sister – getting diapers and wipes, singing to him, helping with bath.

What I don’t think she is prepared for is sharing my time. She has always been a pretty independent kid but I wonder if that will change when she is not the only one anymore. How will she react to me breastfeeding the baby all the time? If I’m wearing the baby, will she want to be carried?

I know these concerns are not limited to AP parents, I imagine every parent has similar thoughts before welcoming another child into the family. My hope is that AP gives my husband and I the guidance needed to foster a connected and close family, no matter how large it grows.

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