Thursday, August 16, 2012

"What's all this fighting about?"

The day's activities are underway. Things are going well so far, breakfast is over, your tidying the kitchen, the children (3 and 5 years old) have gotten out the Duplos and you've told them you'll join them in the playroom in just a minute to have some fun. You've planned a play date for later in the morning and a craft for after rest time. All is quiet in the other room so you take a moment to throw a load in the washer. Then you hear it - - - a distant rumbling, the first indications of a sibling skirmish. You drop what you're doing and head to the playroom. You arrive to raised voices, tears and an obvious dividing line of toys between "mine" and "yours" with one toy clutched tightly in the 5 year olds hands while he admonishes his sister. You sigh, here we go again.

Sound familiar? Toddlers or teens, sibling rivalry battles can erupt with little or no warning. Knowing that rivalry is "normal" doesn't help us feel less frustrated. However, understanding the reasons behind rivalry can be helpful in choosing appropriate strategies to deal with or even prevent a battle from turning into a war.

There are three basic reasons siblings feel competitive with each other - 1) need for attention or approval, 2) jealousy, 3) an impression of playing favorites. I'll also add to the list the lack of skills to resolve personal conflicts.

Every child desires to have attention or approval from the adults in their lives. We've all heard "look Mommy," "see what I can do Daddy," or "look what I made Nanny." We want to give them our attention and let them know how wonderful we think they are. If often seems they want our attention just as the phone rings or we are in the middle of making a meal. Striking a balance between attending to the children's needs and having them understand that there are times that they will need to be patient is a challenge. Keep calm, get down on their level to ask them to be patient, be specific about how long it will be and follow through. Most children respond very well to this, especially if you make an effort to praise them for waiting and being patient.

Introduction to the skills needed to resolve personal conflicts of all types is an ongoing teaching opportunity. To start building good communication skills practice labeling feelings, differentiate between frustration, anger, disappointment, hurt, etc. When issues arise, get down to the children's level, have each child verbalize their feelings, ask who they are angry with and how they would like to be treated, praise them for talking about the problem. Look for options that will allow each child some resolution - more one-on-one time with parent or nanny, creative ways to share, find other activities or have the child "take 10" giving them a short break from interacting with a sibling. In the conversation period you may found out that they aren't really angry with their brother or sister, but with mom, dad or nanny. The main goal is to get the child to communicate as much as possible about what is going on with them and then let them know how much you appreciate them talking to you about their feelings.

"Take 10" can be a choice the child can learn to use without direction from you. Rather than a time-out for negative behavior, "take 10" allows the child to step away from a negative situation on their own or with an adults help. They can choose to play elsewhere, find a quiet spot, come to an adult for a chat, etc. "Take 10" is simply taking a break, no regulation time limit is set. If a child is ready to return after a few minutes - great, or if they need or want more time they can take it. I still remember when I heard the middle child let his little sister know that he needed a break from play before he got frustrated with her. He told me she was making him "crazy" and he was going to read a book - 15 minutes later they were back playing together. The break was good for everyone.

Being part of a family is like being part of a team - when everyone works together then everyone can win. Praise for cooperation, patience and understanding builds . . . greater cooperation, patience and understanding. Some children respond will to sticker charts and earned rewards. Stickers are given for appropriate behavior, good communication, seeking adult help when needed, staying calm, etc. Setting a goal of X number of stickers to earn a small reward can be very motivating. This method can be a very nice option for younger children or non-verbal children providing visual reinforcement. How quickly a reward is earned should also be considered. While older children can handle getting to the goal in a week or month, the younger child may need to see something happen within the day or even within a few hours.

Rivalry between siblings is normal, it's up to us to guide children toward building stronger sibling connections. Developing positive strategies now can mean strong relationships in the future.

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