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Supervising siblings in lockdown?

Ah, then you might need some tips with helping them get along!

Siblings stuck together in close and closed quarters is a recipe for flare ups, bickering and full blown arguments no matter what their ages. Exasperated and exhausted parents who are trying to keep working, run a school, put food on the table, worry about loved ones, and have just a little time to themselves are finding policing sibling struggles particularly tough.  Muddy turns to The Parenting Partnership for help.

Sisters and brothers fight for many reasons and being isolated at home together for weeks on end provides many opportunities.  They fight to get our attention, to protect their things and their space, when their needs are not being met in other aspects of their young lives, when their differing temperaments collide or when they are just bored. Add to all that feelings of anxiety and stress, a need for privacy and space and extended boredom and it’s a perfect storm of sibling unrest. 

When our kids argue, bicker and fight it pushes our buttons. We feel out of control at the best of times but add our stress and anxiety around isolation and Coronavirus, and it seems an impossible ask for us to keep our cool. Big feelings can make us all react in ineffective ways – snapping, shouting, nagging, jumping to conclusions, perhaps sending everyone to their rooms and seeking refuge in our own. 

How can we stay calm in the moment, help our kids learn to manage and redirect their big emotions, ask for what they need and get along? A sensitive response is important, especially in these difficult times, as not only do we send the message that ‘it is tough but we’ve got this’ but it reinforces for our kids that there will be disagreements in relationships, that this is normal and a healthy part of life and that reparations are also an important part of the process. 

To begin with we need to: 

Acknowledge that our job is to be the coach and NOT the referee.  As parenting expert Bonnie Harris reminds us; we need to remain objective not judgmental.  A coach’s job is to remain open minded and find learning opportunities. It is not his job to award the penalty. Our job is to help our kids learn from this time and the next and the one after that and focus on problem solving rather than ascribing blame.  When we judge our kids feeling misunderstood, hurt, disrespected and resentful. This approach knocks their self-esteem and the cycle of sibling rivalry continues.  Giving up the role of problem solver and passing this to our kids sends the message that we trust them to be responsible and capable of finding a mutually acceptable solution. Trust is empowering. 

Manage expectations:  Expectations management seems to be the mantra for this difficult time and it is especially important around sibling fighting.  All siblings fight and argue. It is a normal and even healthy part of growing up. Being cooped up together in this not at all normal new normal means we can only expect MORE sibling struggles. Armed with realistic expectations we can appreciate that there will be many more triggers for sibling outbursts. We can be compassionate and breathe a little deeper than we normally would and think about what we can do as the parent and coach to help our kids, with differing ages and temperaments, build stronger relationships that outlast this unusual time we have together.  

Have regular family meetings. It won’t be the first time that you’ll have heard about the importance of gathering as a family to talk about how everyone is feeling, what they think may make life run a little smother at home, raise grievances and come up, together, with family rules and routines. Each family will have a different approach and set of rules and routines that fits their style and values. Perhaps you all decide that for certain designated things permission needs to be granted from the owner before they are touched (the favourite car) or borrowed (the favourite blusher).  Perhaps you decide on family game night and other family activities and rituals that build family bonds and sibling tolerance. Perhaps you agree on how the household chores will be delegated, rotated and done and draw up a plan. It is vital to get the kids input as it helps them take ownership and feel heard. 

Special Time:  Being all in one place and with more free time (many of us don’t need to commute any longer), we can invest in supporting our kids, of all ages, by spending one on one child-led time with each of them. This special time is gold dust as it improves behaviour, builds self-esteem, helps children learn to self-regulate and de-stress through deepening our connection. This is a vital way to address sibling rivalry as it sends the message that we love EACH of our kids deeply and uniquely for who they are.  The trigger for some sibling fighting is the ‘I wish you had never been born” scenario with kids imagining (dreaming about) what it would be like to be on their own and get all the attention from their parents. Special time helps address these big feelings as your routine presence, undivided interest in them and time together deepens your connection. The message ‘that there is nowhere else I would rather be right now than with you” is a powerful one. 

Our job as the parent coach with realistic, or at least measured expectations, a respectful dialogue, input from our kids and special time together will go a long way towards reducing sibling struggles. Over the coming weeks will still likely have plenty of opportunity and time to practice these seven practical steps for supporting sibling struggles and building harmony:

1. Intervene only when necessary – Ignore as much as possible the low-level bickering but when things have heated up, take a deep breath and just state what you see “I see two girls who both want to play with the same car.” “I see one girl who used to have the car and still wants to play with it and another girl who wants to play with it as it is now next to her.” Ascribing blame or judging sounds like this – “why can’t you just ask and play nicely. It always ends in tears. You are just too aggressive with your sister!” Just stating calmly what you see gets their attention, shows you are objective, reminds you not to take sides and deescalates the situation. 

2 Console your kids to calm the situation – We cannot learn when we are flooded with emotion – At this point, we need to right the ship, offer life jackets and get back to calm waters. It is ok to offer warmth, support and understanding before teaching “Goodness I can see you are both really upset and need my help. I have two arms, one to hug each of you and then we can sort this all out.” 

3. Be curious –  We tend to jump in without even questioning who was the instigator or at least without asking what happened. It’s was only when you take the time to get to the feelings behind the actions that we began to understand the behaviour. It might sound like this: ‘For you to say that shows me how angry you are. I am wondering whether you’re feeling that he always gets first choice? “ “I am thinking that you were not sure that you wanted to give that car away and that you are regretting the decision?” or “I’m thinking that your swimming lesson was tough today and that you are still a bit mad.” 

4. Empathise –  By accepting the underlying emotion, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, and using the ‘name it to tame it ‘approach – such as “annoyed” with your sister who seems always to be right there, ”jealous” of your little brother for getting all the attention, “frustrated” that you are stuck at home and need to share, we give our kids permission to have these feelings. Only when the underlying feeling is accepted and named will they be able to begin to learn to regulate and manage the feelings and move on.  

5. Set limits respectfully – All emotions are acceptable but some behaviours are not. When everyone is calm, revisit the behaviour and help your child (without any judgment) say in her own words what happened and reflect it back to her: e.g. “You wanted to get on the swing. You thumped Emma because you thought it was your turn. We need to help you tell Emma with your words because no one should be hurt.” For more on this read our blog on positive discipline. Where appropriate invite them to make amends.  Forced apologies are not valuable but focusing on the needs of the one who was wronged teaches empathy. “Does Emma need a hug?”

6. Help your child to manage next time– Invite your kids to come up with their solution for helping them manage their anger next time they are ‘annoyed’ or experience another strong emotion. This is best done in a quiet moment when you are connecting with your child. “I know you don’t always want your sister around when you are playing with your Lego. She likes being with you. I am wondering what you could say to signal that you are getting upset?” Teaching them to ask for what they need is a vital life skill. 

7.  Give positive attention – Notice and mention all the things they get right through the process – their engagement, their creativity in problem solving, their willingness to make amends. Keep the process positive and descriptive and they will take on board the learning. If we criticise, blame or punish, they will feel belittled, or resentful and feeling poorly about themselves means it is more likely that the behaviour will reoccur. Children are born with an instinct to get things RIGHT. 

Finally, the best way to handle sibling squabbles is to lessen the chances of them happening in the first place. In these extraordinary times, if we can keep focusing on helping our kids feel safe and secure, happy in themselves and connected to their family it is less likely they need to seek attention and have their needs met through heated sibling conflict.  

Please let us know how you get on and we send our love and support from our family to yours.

The Parenting Partnership are offering Skype consultations so do get in touch at theparentingpartnership.com

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