Q:  How to maintain my own inner calm while my kids (4 yr.old girl and 8 yr. old boy) have their emotional upheavals, arguments and dramas. I try several calm techniques to help them work through things, and when those don’t work I yell and they stop or figure out how to work it out…but it almost always feels like the yell just bursts out of you. Do you have any suggestions?”

A: This is a great question, and I applaud your use of calming techniques. It’s helpful to use deep breathing techniques to calm the kids down, and so you don’t feel emotionally drained by their fights. Here are some practical, and doable ways to reframe how you see, and deal with, the sibling relationship.

“Leave me alone!” “Get away from me!” That’s mine!”
Those words, when screamed at a volume that can shatter an eardrum, send a message to a parent’s amygdala that something has happened, and this is a state of emergency.

That message the amygdala receives triggers the fight or flight response causing the body to release cortisol and adrenaline in less than 90 seconds.
The problem we face as parents is our stress receptors can’t distinguish between real life/death danger and the stress that parenting and our child’s behavior creates.

Does it always have to be this way? No. When you reframe what disagreements, bickering and fight teaches siblings, you shift your perspective. Shifting your perspective changes how you’ll want to handle fights from now on.

Kids Learn from Fighting
When you look at a family tree you see that siblings are recorded on the same branch of the family tree. That symbolizes their equal status in a family. The sibling relationship is a child’s first opportunity to learn about, and prepare for, long-term adult relationships.

Brothers and sisters teach each other about give and take, even when they don’t want to. Each fight allows siblings to practice how to love a person, even when you don’t like what that person did. Siblings are constantly learning tolerance, patience, and kindness. Most of all siblings are learning about conflict resolution. Parents have to guide and teach them, not resolve things for them.

There’s a Big Difference Between Fighting and Rivalry
As I’ve stated sibling fights teach valuable skills, however sibling rivalry can damage a relationship, if allowed to continue.

Change your mind
Begin by reviewing the beliefs you have about siblings and fighting. Instead of thinking that sibling fights must be stopped at all costs, reconsider what feelings are trying to be expressed. Recognize that bickering, arguing, and fighting are an expression of a deeper need to be heard. 

Once you’ve reframed how you see sibling fights, you’ll understand that your child is showing you an area where he needs to learn some added skills. Making this shift in thinking will immediately calm things down.  

Help siblings resolve things 

Most parents think that part of their job entails being both judge and jury. The problem with being judge and jury is the kids don’t learn the life skills needed to resolve things for themselves.
When a parent decides who’s right and who’s wrong, and what should be done about that, one child remains angry, and the other one feels like the winner. They’re not working together to learn and practice the resolution skills they’ll need to be successful in life.
 

Be a Facilitator 

In order for kids to resolve things by themselves, they need you to help facilitate and guide them toward resolution, so they don’t continue to fight. You do that by teaching your kids how to express the feelings that motivated the fight in the first place. You do that by asking the same question to both children until resolution has occurred.
Mom:   “Molly, why are you mad?” 
Mom:   “Sam, why are you mad?” 
Mom:   “Molly, please give me three ideas to work this out.”
Mom:   “Sam, what are your three ideas?”
Mom:   “Molly, which idea of Sam’s feels fair to you?”
Mom:    “Sam, which idea of Molly’s feels fair to you?”

To learn more about the art of parental facilitating read, Siblings without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.

New Rule: We DO NOT hurt those we love! 

Since kids are immature thinkers, the best way to enforce this rule is to define it further.
Defining the rule sounds like: 
Mom:    “Sometimes someone gets hurt by accident during agree upon play. And there are times when one of you uses your body as a weapon in a fight. Which one is against the law in our house?”

Reminding kids of an unbreakable family rule is a great way to level the playing field, so to speak, and begin working toward resolution.

Comparing, and the Message it Sends

Comparing siblings:
• promotes competition, and ends up making one child feel unappreciated and unloved. 
             • never makes a child rise up to work harder. It actually has the opposite effect, it increases fighting.
             •  can cause a child to swallow their feelings and seethe with resentment and lack of self-worth, then blame   
             their sibling for the pain they feel.
Here are some examples of the message a child hears when a parent compares them to a sibling, and what you can say instead.
1. Statement:  “Why can’t you keep your hair neat like your sister does?”
What the child hears:  Be more like your sister. If you don’t act differently than you’re           
comfortable with, or capable of, I won’t accept you.
Consider Saying:  “I like the barrette you chose today. Do you need any help getting all of 
 your hair in a ponytail?”
______
2. Statement:  “What did you do to your little sister?”  
The child hears:  You’re older, and you know better, so I will automatically blame you 
when your sister cries. Mistakes will not be tolerated.
Consider Saying: “Do you have any thoughts about why your sister is crying?”
______
3. Statement: “Give that doll back to your little sister, you know better than that!”
The child hears: Your sister’s happiness, and a calm environment for me, is more important 
than your needs.
Consider Saying: “I see your sister wants the doll, would you share when you’re done?
How long will you need to finish your play before you’re willing to share the doll?”

This mindful way of addressing siblings is subtle, yet powerful, and isn’t accusatory. One way promotes rivalry, and one way promotes communication, equality, and leads to resolution. 
If the needs of each individual child are not honored, the feelings will fester until there is an attack, either verbal or physical. The feelings will be expressed one way or another.

I hope this helps. 
To learn more about how to deal with sibling rivalry, look at pages 55, 91 and 201 in my book Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Transform Behavior into Learning Moments at Proactive Parenting.
We’ll talk again next week! 
Now, go hug your kids!
Sharon
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