All of your kiddos are home and under one roof for an uncertain amount of time. Social interaction outside of your tribe is limited, and everyone is feeling a tad crazy. If you find that your children are at each other's throats more than usual, please know these two things:
- You are not alone.
- There are things we can do and say to help.
In the past few weeks of "staying at home" with three kids under the age of seven, I've noticed the fighting in our home escalating. To ease the tension - for the sake of my children, and also for my own sanity - I dug out my notes from the positive parenting course I took last year. The instructor is a mom of four, and she shared a number of tips for managing sibling rivalry. There were many I had not yet used yet, but desperate times require desperate measures, so I dusted this list off and committed to putting the tools into action.
Here is a shortlist of the seven positive parenting tools I rediscovered in my notes that made the biggest difference for our family in terms of handling the sibling rivalry and near-constant bickering that was starting to happen. I'm sharing this list with you lest you too are ready to pull your hair out from all the fighting.
Tools to tame sibling rivalries
1. Regular Family Check-Ins
It might sound sort of Brandy Bunch, but it works.
On a semi-regular basis (ideally daily) check-in with each family member and ask them how they are doing/feeling. Simply listening and validating each family member’s experience can apparently go a long way to calming their fears. And according to my notes, "suppressed emotions put people on edge, and in a place emotionally where we are primed to fight". Simply naming our emotions helps to tame them. Said another way, emotions need motion.
2. Get Outside
It seems so simple but getting outside and into nature is a huge reset button for all ages, including the family dog. Go on walks, do yard work, jump in the leaves, plant a garden, have a picnic, or simply run around and move your body. We all know it helps, but why? I'm told it is because fresh air and sunlight boost the immune system, decrease stress, and increase our “happy hormone” called dopamine.
3. Demonstrate Self-control and Relaxation Tools
I would not have done this next tip on my own, but it was high on the list so I did it, and of all the strategies, this one might have made the biggest difference in helping to restore the calm... for me personally anyway.
I sat down with each of my children and taught them three different simple breathing techniques to use to calm their bodies during moments of big emotions. Some were more advanced than others, but there was one that all my kids loved called "Finger Breathing". Here are the basic steps:
- Place the pointer finger of one hand at the bottom of your other hand's thumb, and breathe in as you slide up.
- Pause and hold your breath at the top of the thumb.
- Breathe out as you slide down the other side of the thumb.
- Breathe in as you slide up your second finger, and breathe out as you slide down the second finger.
- Keep going until you have finished tracing all five fingers. Yay, you have just taken five slow, deep and calming breaths. :)
When tensions start running high, I have been using these breathing techniques because I want my kids to use and learn them too. Just modeling this has made a difference in my ability to stay calm.
4. Be the “Guide by the Side”
When your children start to argue, stay out of the fight. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but the idea here is to empower your kids to work things out on their own, with as little parental involvement as possible. Conflict resolution is an important social skill, and if we want our children to learn this skill, we need to let them practice it.
When we jump in as both the "judge" and the "jury", our children learn to run to us and to pull us into their chaos, hoping we will take their side and punish the other child. Not only is the whining and "tattling" that follows a huge trigger for me personally, but it's the exact opposite of the "conflict resolution" type response I'd like to teach/reinforce in my kids.
Now when one runs to me yelling, "Mom, so-and-so did this or that..." instead of solving the problem for them, I respond with, "Oh no, it sounds like you did not like that. What did you say/do?" And 9.9 out of 10 times, once they see I am not choosing sides, my "done-wrong" child turns around, uses their words... and the issue begins to work itself out without me, or with just a bit of redirection.
5. Go into Siri Mode
This tip is KEY. When arguments do require your intervention before you jump in and start saying who is right, who is wrong, and what needs to happen, PAUSE. That's it. Pause. And after you pause, be like Siri and simply describe what you see without judgment or opinion.
Think about it. When you miss a turn, what does Siri say? She says "rerouting" and not, "Hey! You just missed that last turn! What the heck are you thinking?!?"... No. Instead, Siri states the facts only in a calm, non-judgmental, empathetic-sounding voice.
This tip is gold. When I stopped taking sides as I have done a million times before, and I started to talk like Siri, the arguments between my kids steadily began to decrease. Following my class notes, I trained myself to say what I was seeing and nothing more:
"I see your brother has the game controller and you want it."
"You built a lego tower and your sister knocked it down. It looks like you are feeling sad/mad."
And here is a small tip -- when you are "being Siri", less is more, meaning don't use a ton of words. Just say what you see and then listen. State the "what is" without adding in the usual parental commentary/judgment.
Being Siri is not always easy, especially when one child is clearly the offender (jumping on your other child, etc), but I have learned that it is especially vital in these moments to focus on being the "guide by the side".
My favorite go-to phrase in these moments is, “You two seem to be having a hard time. Please go into separate rooms until you are ready to talk about it.” This has been a true game-changer.
6. Concentrate on Win/Win Negotiations
Once tempers have settled, this is my next go-to statement:
“Let’s see what we can do to work this out by working together.”
We then use “I statements” to state our feelings and take turns problem-solving If they are having trouble coming up with a win-win solution, I'll say something like. “What could we do so that everyone gets what they want?” And once we land on a middle-of-the-road solution (the sort where nobody is happy, so everybody is happy) we put it into action.
7. Act in an Unexpected Way
One final tip from class to dispel tension and end power struggles is this: do something unexpected. For example, the other day I noticed my kids’ play had turned into a disagreement about a toy, which turned into them pulling on different ends. So, instead of breaking things up, I decided to join the tug-of-war. Before I knew it, we were all laughing and the tensions and upset had dissipated.
Staying home with young kids in the age of coronavirus is just flat out hard. It's hard on us as parents, and it's hard on our kids.
My goal is no longer to stop every argument before it happens but to roll with the punches (ok, not literally). By using positive parenting strategies when tensions run high, I'm hoping that my kids come out of this unique time of social distancing with all their limbs intact, having learned some new social skills for managing conflict along the way.
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