When sibling rivalry brings you to your wits end, you know something has to change. But what do you do when you are committed to raising your children with respectful parenting practices? When you believe that punishing children for their poor choices is not the way forward for your family and yet nothing else you have done works, it can make you feel a little desperate.
Sibling rivalry in our household has been a long-winded, drawn out affair between my two girls aged nearly three and nearly two. L has had a hard time accepting her sister, P, into the family and demonstrates her hardships through acts of aggression and extreme emotions.
This has meant we have needed to provide constant intervention in their daily struggles as we have aimed to prevent physical acts of aggression and sportscast most other battles. It has recently become apparent to me that our ongoing involvement in their affairs has limited the space our children have in which they can forge their own relationship.
Sure, we have seen snippets of a little sibling relationship emerge from time to time, little previews into what might eventuate on a more permanent basis in the future. But I have been left wondering whether their true sister – sister relationship is being somewhat stifled by our constant interference in their interactions with each other.
Currently, much of the girls’ communication comes through my husband and I as we translate their ‘words’, shouts, actions and inactions to each other through a method known as sportscasting. As P screams and holds tightly onto her doll whilst L tries to take it from her, I translate with “L, it looks like you would like that doll. P, you’re telling L you haven’t finished playing with it yet”.
Now, this is my interpretation of the situation. Obviously I am only guessing what each of the girls are thinking / telling each other in these scenarios and there is always a chance that I am off the mark.
L, for example, may not want the doll at all, she may just not want P to play with it. P might be wanting to tell L more than that she hasn’t finished playing with it. She may also wish to let L know that she is frustrated that she keeps taking her things, that she wishes she would leave her alone or that she will in fact be finished using the doll soon and will happily give it to her then. Who knows, maybe they both enjoy the tussle and the drama created. They might like that it brings me running and ensures they both have my undivided attention.
I sometimes feel as if our verbalising of the girls’ communication throughout the day has limited their opportunity to fully express themselves to each other and work each other out and has hence restricted the development of their relationship.
With P being pre-verbal and L not always able to articulate her thoughts succinctly, it is obvious that this level of expression is not likely or even possible at this stage in their lives but I have often wished that I could take a big step back and allow them try to interpret each other for themselves.
I don’t want to be a part of their relationship. I want it to grow uniquely with each other without my involvement. Unfortunately, with the continual risk of physical altercation and P’s developed sensitivity to L’s outbursts I have not been able to give them their due space…until now.
In my last post I detailed how I experimented with punitive discipline to help ‘cure’ L of her incessant attack on P, with disastrous results. Life in our household has been downright miserable and I knew after that I needed to find a respectful way to help the girls on their way, without needing to resort to punitive punishment.
I am currently reading Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and I am learning a lot. In one of the early chapters in the book it talks about introverted vs extroverted children and the differences in the needs of these children. Both of my children have introverted tendencies and one thing it suggests is that the introverted child needs to be given opportunities for alone time periodically to recharge and regroup. They say that a decline in behaviour when they are around other children for extended periods can be a cry out for space.
So, I took this on board and have begun to make a more conscious effort to give the children time to play on their own. I look for signs that they need a recharge and then, depending on the situation, offer ways for separation. Now, I know this sounds like interference and I guess it is, but by allowing them the space they need, they are able to find their own equilibrium before coming back together for extended play without the constant need for hovering supervision.
To assist the process somewhat, over the past few weeks we have turned L and P’s bedrooms into little sanctuaries. We wanted to give them a relaxing space with some books and quiet toys, an inviting bed and access to soothing music. Their rooms needed to be a place they could enjoy being in throughout the day, not only for sleeping.
These rooms are their own and are the only places in the house where I will respect their directives to not have anyone else around them. I.e. if L is in her room and doesn’t want P in there, I will remove P as she wishes and vice versa. This is a space they are free to vent with support and also a retreat for them when things are becoming too much.
So now that they have these spaces, I have changed my interactions with the children during their struggles.
My first rule is that any physical act of aggression indicates to me that they are in need of time apart, regardless of the situation. It seems like a natural consequence to me that if there is violence in any form, they are removed from the situation until they feel more in control of their actions. I will state “You are having a hard time being around X, I will take you to your room so you can have your own space.” I will then help them to their room and let them know they are welcome to come out whenever they feels ready to come back and play. Often, if there seems to be more to it, I will offer to stay and connect but I usually read each situation separately.
For other instances, I listen and observe. I determine whether the struggle is minor and seems to be within the realm of their capability to solve it themselves. I am not afraid of short, sharp shouts of protest with struggles over toys. Normally a minor altercation is over within seconds.
If the shouts become prolonged or they both have firm grip on an item, I move closer and start sportscasting. “You both have the doll. I will crouch between you.” I have to do this in these situations because they now have a similar holding strength and L will often use her free hand to dig her fingers into P’s gripping hand to reef it from the object. This hurts P so I can’t allow it. I gently move L’s hands away in this case and let her know that I won’t let her hurt P.
Once the altercation is complete and there is an outcome one way or the other, I acknowledge their feelings and then let them know that if they need space they are welcome to spend some time in their rooms.
Following this, if there are more struggles in quick succession I thank them for letting me know they need their own space and tell them that it is time to go to their own rooms to play. They can then (if they wish) choose a toy to take and make their way there. There is no set time limit for how long they stay in there. It is just until they naturally gravitate back to each other. If they come together too soon and they are still having troubles then I offer them time apart again.
Sometimes I am able to use these separation periods to spend a bit of quality time with one of them. I normally gravitate towards the one who seems to be having the hardest time and offer them a cuddle.
Now, I have to admit, these separations have not always gone smoothly. Particularly in the beginning there was a lot of protesting when I enforced separation. I have always been very careful to acknowledge these feelings and offer the necessary support. Now, once they have been separated, the girls will play contentedly on their own for long periods of time without even wanting to come back together. And when they finally do, I see much less struggle between them which means I have been able to take that step back from them that I have been wanting. It is like they are able to recharge, bring themselves back to a centred state and subsequently feel more at peace with each other when they are reconnected.
It has been nearly four weeks since we first started offering time for separation throughout the day and the girls have turned a huge corner in their relationship. There are days now where the girls play delightedly with each other for upwards of an hour at a time without a single word from myself or my husband. I no longer panic when they are together, out of my vision, in another area of the house.
They happily play in each other’s rooms but are both confident in letting the other know when they want them out (which I am still happy to enforce). They both seem more content somehow and although we do still witness daily spats, they are not a patch on what they have been for the past eighteen months or so. The need for me to separate the girls is now much more rare than it was four weeks ago as they are naturally taking themselves to different areas of the house to play periodically throughout the day.
The RIE parenting approach advocates for allowing children to work through their struggles in their own time and in their own way wherever possible. Another piece of advice presented to RIE parents is to provide a safe play space for young children such that they can play happily and comfortably without the constant need to hover. It seems that I have finally been able to implement these two strategies with huge success.
The key things I feel that have contributed to the success are:
1. Transforming the girls’ rooms into a relaxing space with just a few prized toys, a cosy nook for reading and access to soothing music.
2. Not treating this time apart as a punitive punishment. This is not a time-out with a minimum sentencing period. It is simply recognising that the children need their own space at times and providing them the opportunity for that.
3. Connecting with the children whenever necessary so they never feel abandoned or alone in their rooms. If they come to associate being in their room as a negative experience they will be much less likely to see it as a retreat.
4. Always being respectful in tone, temperament and words when talking to them about needing separation time.
Edited (Feb 2016): My daughters are now 4.5 and 3.5 years. When I read back over this article recently, I realised that separating our children in this way was such a turning point in our daughter’s relationship. We have never looked back. Finding a way to support the girls in their need for space and down time was the missing link we were searching for in truly allowing them to grow together authentically and lovingly.
The relationship they enjoy now is truly special. They are best buds. They play together all day. They comfort each other, they stick up for each other and they are learning to be considerate of one another’s needs. We no longer separate the children when they argue because they are now capable of talking through their spats themselves and assertive enough to seek their own space when they need to.
You might also enjoy these articles:
Sibling Struggles ~ Janet Lansbury
Creating a Safe Play Space ~ Respectful Caregiving
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury