Dear Dr. Debbie,
How do we help our older kids, ages 8 and 10, to respond less antagonistically when the younger ones, ages 4 and 6, are just acting their ages? There is constant tattling or teasing when the initial behavior could just be ignored. For example, the 4-year-old will use a bathroom word directed at the 8-year-old while she’s trying to read a book until she screams for me or Dad to remove him. The 6-year-old sometimes leaves Legos scattered on the family room floor causing the 10-year-old to hurl insults, and sometimes Legos, in her general direction.
I’d like to help them work out these conflicts on their own instead of escalating things to the point where an adult needs to step in.
Here We Go Again
Don’t miss last week’s column The problem with too much inactivity in preschool — Good Parenting
Have you ever heard the word “sibling” used as a verb? In some families, the relentless squabbling becomes such a normal part of daily behavior that one parent says to the other “They’re they go, sibling again.” Patterns of unpleasant interactions between siblings can become habitual if at least one child is predictably rewarded for them. Often they both are. Your intervention seems to be what they hope will happen even though you may feel you are giving negative attention to the children when you step in.
The usual reason a child wants his parent to notice the bad behavior of a sibling is to contrast it with his comparatively innocent behavior. The tattler, Sibling A, hopes to put her rival, Sibling B, in a negative light by informing the parent, usually in a loud whine, that some misconduct is occurring. Likewise the teaser, Sibling C, torments Sibling D with behaviors known to irritate, hoping to get a sufficiently audible “rise” out of Sibling D which will summon the parent.
These habitual patterns are successful in drawing in a parent to quell the commotion. An outside observer might notice the smirk of satisfaction of a tattler or teaser at this point. No matter who ends up getting a scolding or losing a privilege, the accomplishment of causing a parent to get involved is exactly what drives these continued antagonisms.
To change the course of the rough seas in your family, you’ll need to change your approach.
Children sometimes have trouble sharing space without an adult present, so set up “Do Not Disturb” zones for each child in the house. A book reader has a designated quiet space for reading. The Legos are kept near a workspace — floor or table — so they don’t pose a hazard to through traffic. Have your children participate in assigning other activities to appropriate spaces for solitary use. You can also identify spaces for two or more family members to share for play or work, such as the kitchen for preparing a family meal.
Childhood is a great time to learn conflict negotiation skills. Often these need to be modeled and directly taught for children to see the benefit of them. Spend some time demonstrating skills such as alternating turns (use a timer if you have one) and trading equally attractive items, as is appropriate for each conflict about stuff or space. For annoying behaviors, help children to express, “I don’t like it when . . .” to find a way to reduce everyone’s stress level. For each annoying behavior, brainstorm an alternative behavior to take its place. For example, bathroom talk annoys the sibling who is reading (and perhaps any time), so the 4-year-old could ask for another way to spend time with the 8-year-old that they would both enjoy.
Going on the theory that the main reason one child is “sibling” another is to provoke parental presence and, if possible, make things hard on the sibling — parents must react differently. Yes, you must still step in when physical or emotional harm is coming to a child, but try to make the focus of your intervention one that teaches a compassionate lesson. Express your concern and compassion directly to a hurt child. In some cases, both children are “suffering,” so be sure to bestow sympathy to each. Do not give attention to negative actions, but rather to their consequences and the victim of them. “I’m sad to see your reading disturbed. I know you’re enjoying that book.” And “You’d like your big sister to play with you and don’t like that she’d rather read her book right now.” Do not address the bathroom talk (we’ll save that for another time), nor the tattling about Legos that interrupted whatever you were doing. When gentle, caring concern replaces parental fussing or worse (stinging children with harsh words of your own), you will be teaching the value of being considerate of one another. If you want children to learn to settle their conflicts on their own, parents should be peacemakers, not punishers.
The first step toward changing what you don’t like in your parenting role is to be aware that something is amiss. Analyze the patterns that cause the unwanted scenarios and decide how you will bring about the change that you would like to see. It is stressful for a family to know that siblings have the power to bring out the worst in everyone. Yes, it will take some time for the children to replace old habits with new ways of behaving as well as a concerted effort on your part. Parents are more capable than children in recognizing the strengths that exist in the relationships among you. A younger child is in awe of the abilities and privileges of an older one. An older child can bask in having taught a younger sibling a new word (not an offensive one) or a self-help skill such as cleaning up one’s toys. Giving positive attention to one another should be an everyday family goal, as effortless as enjoying the beautiful fall foliage.
Open their eyes to appreciate the wonderful people in their family and spend more time enjoying one another than finding fault.
Conflict prevention can be achieved when solitary spaces are honored, negotiation skills are mastered, and parents set a tone of family harmony as an ongoing objective.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com