After my teleseminar on improving sibling relationships the other week, I got quite a lot of emails from parents who wanted to dig deeper into their children’s behaviors. I thought it would be interesting and helpful to ask some of my favorite bloggers and parenting experts to offer their thoughts on a few of the questions that seemed to have some universal themes. My hope is that by answering publicly, that we can not only offer some helpful advice, but also show that those of us working through sibling conflict aren’t alone in our struggle.
The first question is being answered by Lisa Sunbury who has more than 20 years of experience teaching and caring for young children. She holds a masters degree in Early Childhood Education, was trained as a RIE associate by the founder of RIE, Magda Gerber, has worked for many years both as a nanny and an infant/toddler teacher and now also teaches RIE parent/infant education classes in Northern California where she lives. Additionally, Lisa writes the thoughtful and inspiring blog, Regarding Baby, through which she and I first got to know each other. I was thrilled when she agreed to answer the first reader question.
“I am a Nanny, and currently work with a family that has two young children, one is 5 (Michael), and the other one is 2.5 (Eric). I have noticed many subtle and intense behaviors between them, and hopefully, you can give me some directions. Here is a typical situation:
Eric picks up and plays with a toy that “used to” belong to Michael, and Michael will say “Hey, that’s mine. I want it back”, or “Eric, can I have that/have it back?” Eric would respond “No, it’s mine” Then there is “No. It’s mine” back and forth, till Michael takes it out of Eric’s hand, and 1) Eric cries, or 2) Michael takes it from Eric’s hand, and Eric bites Michael arm/head-butts Michael, or 3)Eric runs away from Michael, and starts a chase, then Eric throws the toy at Michael (sometimes, Michael dodges successfully, sometimes he fails).
The actual hitting and chasing usually happens when I am not in the same room with them–I would be in the kitchen cooking, or doing other house work. When I am in the same room with them as the conflict starts, I usually narrate “Eric is playing with xxx, and Michael wants it back”. They would both look at me, and one of them would say, “It’s mine” or “I want it” then I would say, “You both want the same toy, how can you work it out so you both have fun?”
That doesn’t seem to sink in since they would continue the tug-of-war until the physical force starts. I then either place my hand on the toy (if hitting has not occurred), and say, “How are you going to work this out?” This usually ends up with me putting the toy away after a few minutes of “But I want it/it’s mine/NO it’s mine”. If Eric is about to hit, or throw, I would block Eric’s head or hand, and say “I don’t want you hit your brother”. He usually cries after I say that, or he would attempt to hit me in the face. I block his hand and say, “I know you are xxx, but I won’t let you hit.”
I say the toy “used to” belong to Michael since he is the first born, and there are many many toys that were given to Michael before Eric was born, and now those toys are in the playroom. The parents’ rule is if a toy is in the playroom, it belongs to everyone. Who gets it first, gets to play. When Michael brings a toy given to him as a personal gift from his room to the playroom, I usually remind him that the rule is when a toy is brought to the playroom, everyone gets to play with it, and ask him if he is ready to share it with Eric. Sometimes he says yes, and sometimes, No. When he says no, I work through the scenario with him about handling his brother’s desire of wanting to play with his personal toy.
This might sound like I am talking to him out of it… I could only handle many conflicts a day. Sometimes, I just tell him straight and honest that I am not ready for another fight, and if he insists to bring the toy to the playroom, he will need to find a way to share (now, as I am writing this, I realized what you said on the call…. to replace the word “share” with “take turns”. Haha).
Another typical situation is they would do things to each other knowing that by doing so, the other person would react (or shall I say knowing that the grown-ups would react). Or when I am playing with Eric, Michael would interrupt by telling Eric what he should be doing, or correcting Eric’s play. When Eric ignores Michael, he takes away what Eric is playing with… and there goes the pattern….”
~ Hannah-Lee Davis
I’m also a nanny for a family who has two children with a similar difference in age between the children.The good news is this: the interactions you describe sound fairly typical and normal for siblings! The reason I say this is good news is because the boys are actually learning a lot about taking the viewpoint of another and being in relationship with each other through their struggles, even though it might not appear so to us as adults!
As their nanny, you are in an ideal position to support both children in their learning and growth by remaining neutral, and being on the side of the boys’ developing relationship, as opposed to taking one side or the other when they argue, or solving the dilemma of who gets the toy.
Try to envision yourself as a coach, as opposed to a referee. You want to trust the boys and support them to find a way to work out and solve their own differences as much as possible, while you hold the space for them to do so by stepping in when needed to ensure their emotional and physical safety. I have to say, it sounds like you are doing a great job of this!
I hold and express the expectation that the children I care for can and will work out solutions that they are happy with, and that don’t involve anyone getting hurt. I’d like to offer a few specific suggestions or thoughts for you to consider based on the scenarios you provided. Since you have noticed that the hitting and chasing usually happens when you’re not in the same room with the boys, this is an indication to me that they need the support of your presence and attention to help navigate their relationship in a more peaceful way, so I’d suggest some preventive measures :
1. When You Have To Be Otherwise Occupied.
If you know you have to be occupied in the kitchen, tucking away toddler mattress, or with housework, you can either involve the boys in the tasks at hand, keeping them in sight, or suggest they play separately for a bit. Perhaps you can keep Eric with you, or set up a simple art project in the kitchen if you’re working there, or maybe the boys can play in separate rooms independently for a bit? If not, I would say something to them along the lines of, “I am going to be working in the kitchen if you need me. I trust you to play together here in the playroom, and to be gentle with each other.” Of course, I’d keep an ear out, and stop whatever I was doing to intervene if I heard a conflict escalating, but sometimes children can solve things better without an adult present!
2. What To Do When They Begin To Struggle With Each Other?
The way you are mediating the disputes sounds perfect, but when one of the boys turns to you, and says “It’s mine. I had it first”, or similar, I suggest calmly turning them back to each other: “I hear you saying you want the toy, but this is for the two of you to work out together. You can talk to your brother.” Stay with them for as long as it takes, and keep gently turning them back to each other, resisting the impulse to solve the problem for them. You might quietly remind them that the toys in the playroom are for everyone to play with, and empathize with the child who wants the toy but doesn’t have it, “It’s hard to wait for a turn when your brother has a toy you want to play with.” You might offer that it doesn’t appear that either boy is having very much fun, and that maybe it would be more enjoyable for them to find a way to solve their disagreement. The struggle is not a bad thing though, as long as no one is getting physically hurt or physically overpowering another. The more at peace you can feel with the struggle, the more helpful it will be to them. So breathe!
3. When The Kids Have Been Fighting All Day.
I think it is perfectly acceptable to be honest with both boys about your limits too. If there is a day when the conflict is constant, maybe everyone needs a break and some space, and as the adult, if you are feeling too tired, or just need a brief respite, by all means be honest about this. You may choose to ask the boys to play separately, or to put away toys that are causing conflict. (I might say something along the lines of, “Since it seems like you boys can’t decide how to play with this toy/game in a safe/gentle way, I’m going to ask you to put it away for today.”)
This language is neutral, and isn’t “blaming” one boy or the other, and it moves the conversation away from who had the toy first, who it belongs to, whose fault it is that someone is upset. The arguments the boys are having aren’t really over the toys or ownership anyway.The real questions and the bigger issues underlying the struggle are these:
- How are the boys learning to be in relationship with each other?
- How do they learn to negotiate alone and together time?
- How do they learn to communicate, co-operate, and get along with each other in a mutually beneficial and enjoyable way without violence, and how do they work through conflict in a way that leaves everyone feeling heard and respected?
4. Respecting Boundaries.
I think the rule about “special or personal toys” is actually a good one, because it gives the boys some choices and power, and allows them to feel a sense of safety in knowing that certain things are their very own, and the boundaries will be respected. In the family I work with, each child has their own room, and this is their private space. They may play together and with each other’s special or personal toys in either room as long as the “owner’ of the room has invited the other in and they are both enjoying sharing the space and toys. They are both allowed to play in their rooms independently if they choose, and a closed door is respected, meaning no one enters without knocking.
With the two children I care for, it is harder for the three year old to understand when his big sister wants this quiet time, because he always wants to be near her and play with her, but I support her in setting the boundary: “I’d like to play by myself right now,” and help him to give her her space when she asks for it. “Your sister wants some time/space to herself, right now. She will join us later. How about finding something you’d like to do for awhile?”
Interestingly enough, the three year old has learned to enjoy this time to play with toys in the playroom that his sister sometimes monopolizes, and/or to enjoy some one on one time with me. If Michael wants to bring a special toy to the family playroom and the family rule is that all toys in the playroom are fair game, I’d simply remind him of the rule, and if he says he doesn’t anyone else to play with his toy, I’d respond, “That’s fine, but then I am going to ask you to keep the toy/play with the toy in your room.”
5. Our Behavior Shapes What They Learn.
Your insight about the reactions the boys have learned to expect from adults is quite astute, because children often do act in the way we teach them to through our modeling and responses to them. If they have learned that their disagreements get a lot of attention or big reactions from adults, or if they have learned to count on adults to step in and solve the problem for them, they will often oblige by continuing to act in ways they know get results!
When working with siblings I assume (as I do with all children) that each child is doing the best they can given their current level of development and understanding, and I try to model the behavior I want them to emulate. So, if you’re playing a game with Eric, and Michael comes along and interrupts, or tries to boss or correct his brother, I’d assume he wants to join the play, and invite him to do by saying something along the lines of “It sounds like you have a lot of good ideas for how to play. Would you like to join us?” If he joins, great. If he declines, I’d calmly ask him to refrain from “correcting” or interrupting his brother’s play. I often say, “Everyone has their own way of playing, and that’s Okay.”
6. Building Their Bond.
I also like to help build the relationship between siblings by finding and setting up activities and games that they can both enjoy together – each at their own level. For instance both the younger and the older boy can enjoy and contribute to games of block building, dance party, chase, hide and seek, scavenger hunts, sand box play, water play, play dough, chalk art, painting murals, building forts, and obstacle course. There are some card and board games that even the two and a half year old can play (if you’re on his team at first) like Zingo Bingo, I Spy, picture dominoes, concentration, and Jenga.
I also read story books to both children together that touch on themes of family, friendship, and feelings. One of my favorites is When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry . . . by Molly Bang. I tell stories to the older child (within hearing distance of the younger child) about “When you were two years old…” or we look at their baby books and pictures together, and tell stories about what’s happening in the pictures. I feel like this validates both children and helps the older one to understand the younger one’s point of view, through a biographical narrative. I empasize how much the older child has learned about being a good friend, and how much her brother is learning from watching her and listening to her. “If you grab toys from your brother, he learns that that is a good way to get a toy.” “When your brother hit you, it hurt and you cried.”
Sometimes, I will gently coach one or both of them…“What’s another way you could ask for a turn?”, “It sounds like you might both need to take a break to cool down.” If they are both upset and yelling, I sometimes ask them to each take a turn to say what they want to, but again, I encourage them to talk to each other, and not to me, and I act like the broadcaster. I also acknowledge times when they are enjoying each other, playing peacefully, or when either one shows kindness to the other. “I really like how you are helping each other/talking with each other/ playing and co-operating together.”
I hope some of these thoughts and ideas are helpful to you. Try to remember when you’re in the thick of it that the struggle is what ultimately brings the two together, and just keep supporting them to build their relationship by letting them work it out between themselves as much as possible.
The only way they can learn to negotiate conflict and to live together peacefully is by having ample opportunity to practice! There aren’t short cuts. We can’t will it, or do it for them as much as we’d like to at times. This is a gift you’re giving to them, and one that will serve them well in all of their relationships!