Dear Dr. Debbie,
I would like to help my children, ages two and five, to get along better than my sisters and I did. What’s a good way to help them deal with inevitable crimes against each other?
No Squabbling Please
Don’t miss last week’s column Playing With Fire — Good Parenting
It is indeed likely that two siblings will have plenty of occasions to hurt each other’s feelings. So take advantage while they’re young to guide them in the art of really apologizing.
The Empty Apology
Neither the apologizer nor the apologizee gains much relief when an “I’m sorry” has been coerced. Under the age of seven, a child is an ego-centric, concrete thinker. An “I’m sorry” is basically meaningless because she had good reason (albeit a self-centered reason) for her actions or she wouldn’t have committed them. The “victim,” who may have been physically hurt or had a toy snatched away, is no better off by these words alone. When a child is forced to say she is sorry just because an adult says to, this does not help her to learn about comfort and compensation. Unfortunately, when a crime is reported to an adult and one child gets in trouble this can lead to a pattern of exaggerated or false accusations, which are often defended by counter accusations. The children compete to get the adult on their side. Instead, focus on modeling sincere concern for the “victim” to demonstrate that you are truly sorry about what she is experiencing.
What “Sorry” Means
Your modeling demonstrates the importance of comforting and aiding someone who is upset. Civility, which starts with the family, shows concern for the person who is crying, and looks for ways to help, rather than looking to blame and punish someone for causing the crying. (With siblings, as you may recall, it is often difficult to lay all the blame on one child anyway!) At first you will use their clashes with each other to show how you comfort and help. Your words, and more importantly, your actions, establish the standard of attending to emotions and needs above using your parental powers aggressively toward one child or the other, or both.
Gradually, your role is to include one child in comforting the other. It is important that she see that she is capable of making the tears of the “victim” stop. With your assistance, she will experience the relief that comes from being able to soothe another’s distress. There are other ways to build the ability to empathize with a sibling’s unhappiness. Discuss the emotional interactions of characters when you read books together or watch a video. Look for stories in which siblings or playmates become aware of how their actions have negatively affected one another, and the characters consequently take constructive actions to make things better. It is much easier to identify hurt feelings, their causes, and their cures, when you are not actually experiencing your own strong emotions.
When you truly feel badly that someone else is hurting – whether you intentionally caused their pain or not – there are plenty of ways to make amends: provide physical comfort for physical pain, return an object that was taken without consent, fix or replace an item that was damaged, or come up with a compensatory activity. For example, if one sibling has bumped into and spilled the bubble soap that was in her sibling’s hand, she could offer to take out the water color set or another equally attractive alternative. You should take these corrective actions on behalf of a very young child since it is practically impossible for her to see her sibling’s side of the conflict, and to visualize a solution, until about age seven. As her ability to empathize develops, it will get easier for her to follow your suggestions (and past examples) to find a way to appease the upset sibling. Continue to advise each child as needed as they get better and better at taking the initiative to put things aright between them.
Parents can set the tone for siblings to get along by emphasizing compassionate responses to their squabbles.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.