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Soothing Sibling Conflict - Part II

Now we're going to talk about stepping in when our children are fighting. I want to emphasize, however, how important it is to support our children in coming up with solutions to their own problems. If we do, they'll have a sense of "I can handle things myself" as well as tools to handle future conflicts, not only with siblings, but also with peers and others -- even through adulthood. And if our children can approach adolescence and adulthood feeling confident in their ability to handle conflict, they're more likely to thrive. I don't know any adult who doesn't wish they could handle conflict better. By lovingly supporting our children and encouraging them to work things out themselves, we give them a great gift.

With this thought in mind, there are still times when you will need to step in:

* You're in the room and observe the conflict, so you know what happened, but your children are too young (not verbal) to handle it themselves or the situation was dangerous or potentially dangerous and warrants intervention from you.

* You're not in the room, so you didn't see what happened, but you can make a guess which doesn't involve ANY assumptions on your part. Only intervene if one child is being hurt or if one child did something potentially harmful to the other, either physically or emotionally.

First, don't ask questions you already know the answer to.

One of my favorite cartoons shows a little girl playing with scotch tape. As the cartoon progresses, the child gets more and more covered with it. Her mother walks in and says, looking at her, "Have you been playing with my scotch tape again?" The little girl looks up at her mother and thinks "Gee, if she doesn't know, I'm sure not going to tell her!"

When we ask our children questions that we know the answer to, we tempt them to lie. Say instead: "Gee, I see you've been playing with my scotch tape again." Then, you can deal with the misbehavior instead of having the side issue of lying as well.

When we're called upon to intervene, we're more likely to diminish sibling rivalry if we follow these steps:

1) Remove the child(ren) from the danger, either by separating them or removing a dangerous object.

2) Give an abbreviated "I" message.

3) Address the feelings and act empathically.

4) Give the child an alternative behavior and a choice.

5) Act upon the choice if necessary.

Let's take the scene described last month and see how this might sound. The mother said: "I walked into my infant son's room where he was lying in his playpen. My 3 year old son had taken all the clothing out of the dresser drawers and piled it on top of my four month old. I was horrified!"

The first thing this mother should do is remove the clothing from on top of her four month old! Once she's sure the baby is safe, she can address the aggressive child by giving an abbreviated "I" message: "When you pile clothes on top of your brother, I feel scared and angry because it could seriously hurt him."

The next step should address the child's feelings and provide empathy: "I wonder if you were feeling a little jealous of the baby. Sometimes it's hard to have a brother (or sister) who takes up Mommy's time and energy."

At this point, resist adding the word "but": "Sometimes it's hard...but you still can't hurt the baby." This negates the empathy the child needs. It's difficult to empathize with a child who has misbehaved, but remember that you don't need to feel empathy, just act empathetically. Acting empathetically and addressing feelings of jealously, anger and sadness encourages our children to understand the motivation behind their misbehavior. Identifying the roots of the aggression helps the child learn to express those natural feelings with words instead of aggressive acts. In addition, if we discipline without recognition of a child's motivation, the child will feel "wronged" and be likely to repeat the misbehavior.

Next, make a firm statement about what you want your child to do differently: "When you're feeling upset, I'd like you to tell Mommy that you need attention instead of burying your brother under the clothes."

Then give the child a choice which has a clear and logical consequence paired with it. For example "People are not for hurting. Either tell me when you feel jealous, or I will take your brother into the other room with me so you can't hurt him." By giving a clear, no-nonsense statement which lets the child know that he won't get your attention through misbehavior (in fact, that you'll give more attention to the sibling instead!), you'll help him remember to tell you his feelings with words next time. (If your child doesn't have words yet, teach him a single word he could use such as "upset". You may only get "'set", but it's better than physical aggression.)

Finally, the next time you catch your child acting aggressively towards his sibling, act first, talk later. Pick up the sibling and leave the room, telling the other child that he's chosen for you to give your attention to his brother in order to keep his brother safe. Remind him that he has a choice, and when he chooses to tell you about his upset feelings with words, then you'll feel comfortable letting him play in the same room as his sibling.

Some important reminders:

* If all this sounds too calm and reasonable to enact when you're hyperventilating because your children are fighting, keep in mind that if you blow up, it's not necessarily what you do or say, it's what you do or say AFTER what you've already done or said. After you've lost your cool, go back and tell your child that you got angry because you were scared, but you wish you had handled it differently. By apologizing for your angry outburst, you help your child learn to apologize too (even to his sibling!) Then go through the steps of this technique after the fact. It will still be effective! And maybe next time you'll be able to take the deep breath you need to use the technique during the conflict.

* If the child is preverbal, use words anyway, but act while you're talking. Children learn more from actions than words. By paring words with actions, you can help your child learn to respond to words.

* If your children are older, and the rivalry has become more subtle, I think you'll find the technique which was described last month to be the most effective.

* Finally, remember your own role in this. Many parents want so badly for their children to be friends that they intervene way too often and try to force the friendship upon the children. The more you push, the more likely your children are to resist. If you can manage to step back and allow them to work things out themselves, it will, in all likelihood, bond them far more firmly than any coaxing, cajoling or disciplining you might do. Most siblings do wind up enjoying each other's company when they become adults in spite of intense rivalry when they were children, but only if we give them the room to forge their own relationship.