Tag Archives: family stress

Sibling Rivalry


Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Here is another question posed to me by a number of parents recently: How do you deal with sibling competition and aggression?

This problem is common and has a simple answer. That does not mean it is easy to “fix”; it just means that it is easy to understand. The answer has three parts: (1) create a comfortable and relatively stress-free family environment; (2) create routines that teach children skills in sharing, turn taking, and negotiating; (3) separate siblings who cannot be together without fighting and then create short, parent-facilitated times together that have maximum probability of successful outcome, and practice them.

I am going to start by answering #2, then #3, and leave #1 – perhaps the most complicated one – for the last.

(2) This answer is a mixture of two of my favorite recommendations for parents – routines and family values. The routines function to put into place and practice the family values of sharing, turn taking, and negotiation. Remember that the power of “family values” is that you can’t argue with them. That is, you could try to argue, but the answer is always unarguable – “That’s just the way we do things in this family.” For example, if one child calls the other child a name or makes an insulting remark that the parents consider unacceptable, the response is, “In our family, we don’t use names like that or say insulting things like that.” That cuts through the child’s argument that another kid said the same thing – even if the other kid was in the same family. Or, if one child insists that he always sit in a preferred seat in the car, the response is, “In our family, we share.” Then the routine that practices the family value is something like – on the way to school X gets to sit in that seat, and on the way home from school, Y gets to sit there, or something like that. Another common conflict between siblings is fighting over the same toy. In that case, the family value of sharing is implemented by a negotiating process that is taught beautifully by the teachers in the Cambridge Ellis School. The child who wants the toy is helped to ask the child holding the toy, “Are you finished with the toy?” If the child holding the toy says no, then the other child is helped to ask, “How many more minutes do you need before I can have a turn – 1, 2, or 3?” (For older children, the time period is usually longer.) This scaffolds both children’s agency in the situation and supports the child who ultimately has to give the toy up.

(3) The third answer is similar to what I have recommended for play dates. Although parents certainly need relief, play dates are not primarily intended to serve that purpose but instead are meant to provide the child with opportunities to learn how to have fun playing with other children and learn to get along with them, among other things. The same can be said for the time siblings spend together, although sibling relationships are of course much more meaningful and intense than peer relationships. If siblings are going through a period of not getting along (this can happen for many reasons, including one sibling in particular having a hard time and taking it out on his or her brother or sister) then the time they spend alone together should be minimized (I realize this is often difficult) and they should be given short periods of structured play time together with parents facilitating the interaction. For example, the parent might say, “Since you guys have been having a hard time getting along recently, then X is going on errands with me while Y stays home to do homework with Dad, and then later this afternoon we will all go to the park together. It is important for the siblings to have enough good times together for them to want to spend time together in the future, which will motivate them to behave well with each other. While they are together in the relatively short enjoyable times the parent is playing the role of the teacher (above), scaffolding the development of sharing and good negotiating skills, as well as the respect for family values.

(1) Create a comfortable, relatively stress-free family environment. Of course this is not at all easy to implement. The reason I include it as #1 is because it is so important and because parents often forget that a major source of sibling conflict is preexisting tension within the family. Sometimes the original source of tension is in the marriage or between separated parents. Sometimes the tension is related to problems with extended family members, or to financial worries or job dissatisfaction. Other times tension is generated by conflict between one particular child and a parent, and the parent holds the tension within him or herself in between actual times of conflict. Then, when a demand has to be made on that child, the parent anticipates noncompliance and approaches the request in a negative frame of mind. Sometimes this tension is communicated by the parent’s facial expression, tone of voice and abrupt gestures, and aggressive choice of words.
Regardless of the origin of the tension, the children in the family pick up the stress, and often they will express the stress they feel by fighting with each other. Partly, this fighting response emerges from the irritability the family stress causes in the children. Also, the children unconsciously may be distracting the parents from the original source of their tension by calling attention to the problem they are causing in the moment. Interestingly, that can make everyone feel “better” because at least they know what the problem is – “fighting kids” – instead of living in a situation in which the cause of the unhappiness is hidden or unacknowledged. The answer to this problem of tension in the family is to refocus attention on the parents’ need for support. Remember the old directive of what to do with the oxygen mask in the airplane. First put it on yourself and then put it on the child sitting next to you. That is because the child will need you to be alert and strong in order to take care of him or her. In some cases, this need for support means getting more help from extended family and friends, or hiring someone to help take care of the house or the children. In other cases, the parents need professional help to manage the trouble in their lives.

Read this blog in Spanish.

Avoiding Meltdowns


Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Yesterday two excellent parents came to talk to me about their 8-yo daughter, “Hannah”. They suffer from her temper tantrums, and they know she suffers too. When we tried to sort out what was causing her to meltdown, we were able to identify three major sources of the tantrums. I am going to write three blog postings, one for each of the vulnerable times for this child and her parents. The first was our old friend or enemy, transitions. The second is sibling relationships. The third is complying with parental authority. As you may have guessed, these three trigger points are not completely distinguishable, since sibling conflict often arises at times of transition, and the same could be said of compliance with parental demands. Let’s start with transitions.

This beautiful and intelligent child happens to have a tricky cognitive profile, something I have talked about before. She is extraordinarily bright in some areas of cognitive capacity and only average or even below average in others. This makes life harder for her. It is harder for her to make realistic expectations for herself since she can perform excellently in some tasks and struggles much more than her peers in others. In addition, just the unevenness in the domains of her cognition can be subjectively experienced as disorganizing. It is harder for her to make flexible and adaptive meanings of her experience in the world. You can see how this would add to the usual difficulty people have with transitions.

Let’s start with the first transition of the day – waking up in the morning and getting ready for school. Many of us have difficulty with this transition. Lou Sander, the “grandfather of infant research”, has said that day-night organization is the first organization facing the newborn human organism. In this case, Hannah often wakes up “in a bad mood”. The anticipation of this possibility makes Hannah’s mother anxious, which increases the stress of the situation for both of them. I suggested talking to Hannah about how she feels in the morning – maybe they could create a scale, for example, “grumpy”, “a little grumpy”, “good”, maybe even including “very grumpy” and “great”. The benefits of doing this together is that while you are in the process of coming up with “strategies” for dealing with Hannah’s moods, you are also helping her learn about her various affect states – their subjective “feel”, what causes them, and what to do about them. This will take some time, and you certainly don’t want to pop this idea on her when she is just waking up, especially in a grumpy mood. But you can begin with a gentle observation that she doesn’t seem to be feeling very good, coupled with an idea about how to make things better. Would it help to take a little longer waking up? Would it help to have Mom bring a small glass of juice or water to her bedside? Would it help to have some music? The idea for Mom is that there is some legitimacy to Hannah’s grumpiness (a struggle making the transition – physiological, motoric, symbolic – to get up in the morning) and that she, Mom, can come up with ideas about how to make it better. Mom doesn’t need to feel helpless nor does than Hannah. (Mom’s feelings of helplessness in this situation can contribute to her lack of flexibility in responding to Hannah’s needs.)

The getting dressed part can also be a big challenge. Sometimes Hannah can’t decide what she wants to wear to school. Sometimes she knows what she wants and she can’t find it, or it is in the dirty clothes. There is a simple (though not always easy) solution to this problem. Institute a routine of picking out her clothes the night before.

Bedtime is another big transition. The key to a comfortable bedtime is a good bedtime routine. (As I have mentioned many times, “a routine is a parent’s best friend”; that is true of the morning transition, too, of course!) That means the same preparatory activities practiced every evening the same way at the same time in the same order, except under unusual circumstances. Usually these activities include a bath or washing, tooth brushing, toilet, bedtime story or song, and bed. Typically, only one parent is in charge of the bedtime routine for one child, and if there are two children or more, the parents take turns. Important things to remember are (1) no excitatory activities such as roughhousing or video watching right before bed; (2) no overly long bedtime story time – settle on 1-2 stories and stick to it; (3) if there are two siblings, it is better if each sibling stays out of the bedroom area where the other child is being put to bed. Sometimes that is very hard when there is one parent putting to bed two children, but it usually works better that way.

I will pick up the subject of siblings in the next blog post.

Read this blog in Spanish.