My daughters have always had a rather volatile relationship. Born just 13 months apart and with polar opposite personalities, they have often struggled living their daily lives in each other’s company particularly when it comes to sharing toys.
In the beginning it was quite easy to get caught in the trap of seeing my eldest, Lucy, as the aggressor in many of their altercations (because, in reality, she was), leaving my youngest, Penny, with no choice but to be considered the victim, always having to be rescued by us.
Over time, and after learning about RIE and reading many expert articles cautioning against not only using these labels for children but also against even perceiving one child as the victim and the other as the perpetrator, we changed how we considered the children’s roles in these struggles. I have previously written about the importance of this shift in mindset and for the most part we have managed to remain neutral umpires during our children’s scuffles.
As the girls have gotten older and wiser, we have been able to enjoy more and more beautiful moments watching them play harmoniously together for extended periods of time. However, with their developing age, significant physical strength has emerged from both of them. Their previously lop-sided battles for toys that used to end quite quickly with Lucy gaining possession of the hot items, were now becoming a much more even contest involving far more drawn-out struggles.
With the drama surrounding these struggles, it can be easy, as parents, to want it ended quickly to restore peace in the house. It is tempting to step in and break up the fight, putting the toy away or giving it to its original owner. We made the decision quite some time ago to allow our children to work through these struggles in their entirety, stepping in only to prevent physical hurt from ensuing.
Tonight, for example, Penny (my 2.5 year old) was initiating a game of hide and seek, crawling under a table and calling out, “You can’t find me!” Whilst under the table she discovered a bead maze that her older sister had left there hours earlier. She picked it up and began playing with it whilst I proceeded to ‘try’ to find her. Hearing a game in progress, Lucy came racing in excitedly and dove under the table only to find Penny with ‘her’ toy.
Hide and seek quickly became a duel between the two as each staked their claim on the maze and fought furiously to defend it. As I crouched under the table beside them, blocking their attempts to grab each other’s hands to prize them off or push each other over, and sportscasting the event, I admired their tenacity and found myself appreciating the courage, strength and determination each of them displayed in this volatile situation.
I could see how healthy this battle was for their strength and resilience in the following ways.
It was loud. To remain assertive in a situation where someone is screaming at you from just centimetres away takes bravery.
It was physical. Gripping an item tightly for an extended period of time whilst someone struggles against you, pushing, pulling and occasionally swiping at you takes immeasurable strength and determination.
It was emotional. Feeling these emotions and conquering them takes resilience and it is liberating and empowering for young children to know they can survive these emotions and come back stronger.
It was authentic. After what seemed an eternity (probably one minute), one of the girls emerged with the item, leaving the other devastated and flailing on the floor. A short time later, that same child had picked herself up, dusted herself off and moved confidently onto a new toy. To feel genuine loss and grieve that loss only to rise again, finding contentment in another toy soon after, empowers them to cope with other forms of hurt, loss and grief they may experience in the future.
As I have come to terms with my children expressing their emotions freely after practicing Magda Gerber’s RIE parenting for nearly two years, I now feel confident to allow my girls the time and space they need to come to their own natural conclusions in their fights for a particular hot item. I am realising that despite the trauma they seem to be going through at the time, they are actually learning so many valuable skills during these scuffles. My interference would only rob them of the chance to grow from these altercations.
Toddler Toy Battles- Interventions that Work (Podcast) ~ Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury- Elevating Childcare)
5 Reasons to Love Conflict ~ Emily Plank – Abundant Life Children
7 Things I Should Know About Helping my Children to Share (From my Toddler Coach) Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
I’m with you. Sibling battles will happen no matter what.
I’m relatively new to RIE and I’m still trying to get used to applying it’s principles in every situation. I’m all for letting the kids work it out between themselves, but my problem with the toy conflict is that my almost 3 year old isn’t satisfied with just taking/snatching the toy from my 1 year old. Once the toy is his, he also insists whacking my little one on the head or pushing him over once the altercation is done. Every time. I feel like I’m constantly hovering to try and prevent the physical hurt from occurring (not the conflict itself) as I know when I step away I’ll have to be back in a matter of minutes to pick up the pieces.
Any advice? I’ve tried the simple phrase “Don’t hit” after its occurred but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Hi Julia, thank you for reaching out for advice. My eldest daughter would also often use physical means to express her feelings. It is a difficult phase for parents trying to protect the youngest from hurt and still maintain a connection with the eldest.
Your three year old is letting you and your youngest that he is not happy with this intrusion into his life. This is completely normal and a healthy expression of emotion. Of course, you cant allow him to hurt the baby so you need to make him feel heard and understood and help him find other ways to express hard feelings whilst simultaneously stopping him hitting before it happens.
So, it sounds like you are right on track, staying close and intercepting attempts to hit. He NEEDS you to do this as he can’t control his impulse to hit by himself. He will actually feel a sense of relief knowing you’ve got his back and won’t let him hurt baby thereby meaning he won’t have to feel bad about himself or suffer an unpleasant consequence.
Secondly, try to avoid using ‘don’t’ as this can be seen as a unsupportive and unclear. Replace don’t hit with ‘I won’t let you hit.’ There is less ambiguity with I won’t let you’ especially when you use it in conjunction with blocking the hits or pushes. He will start to see that you actually won’t let him hit push etc and he will start to feel less inclined to do it. Keep your voice calm and confident and acknowledge his feelings. “Are you feeling angry towards baby right now? Would you like a special cuddle.” If he takes that opportunity for a cuddle, use it to connect and let him see you understand his point of view. “It is hard being a big brother sometimes. It’s normal to feel sad or angry sometimes. It’s ok to feel that way. I understand and want to help you.” Do this also when he does manage to get a blow in. Replace I won’t let you with I can’t let you.
Thirdly, take as much time as you can to have one on one time so ‘his bucket is full’ and he doesn’t feel the need to take out strong feelings on his sibling.
I know it is hard but the more you support him and this huge transition he is going through, the less he will feel the need to hit. When we went through this with our children, we honestly shadowed them EVERYWHERE all day forsaking the washing, cooking, dishes etc. When hubby came home we would tag team so I could have a rest but we were never able to be more than a metre away from them and always on guard for a random swipe. This lasted for about three weeks before my daughter began to realise we really weren’t going to let her hit and she backed off and we were gradually able to be less attentive.
I hope this helps. Please let me know how you go.
Hello Kate. Thank you for this post. I have been practicing RIE with my 3 year old daughter since I discovered Janet Lansbury’s blog when she was about 4 months old. I am interested in hearing your opinion of a situation my family is currently involved in regarding the relationship between my daughter and our close friends’ 7 year old son whom I regularly babysit. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of allowing children, as much as possible, to work out conflicts on their own while blocking physical aggression, and I do not believe it is in any way beneficial to either child to label one as a victim and one as a perpetrator. I would like to, however, tell you my observations of their relationship and I am interested in hearing your opinion. With their difference in age, and different developmental levels, one would think that I would have to protect the older boy’s projects from the younger child, but it has actually been the other way around. He attempts to destroy things my daughter has built (block towers, Lego projects, art projects, etc.), regularly tries to rip toys from her hands, hides her toys, and attempts to physically aggress upon her (hitting, digging with nails, getting in her personal space) often, though I am able to block most of his attempts. He also monopolizes toys and verbally puts her down (calls her “stupid,” an “idiot”‘ a “baby”, etc.) Obviously the waters get a bit murkier when the children are not siblings. I have no control over his home life and how his feelings are accepted/listened to at home. His parents say that he is thriving here. His behaviors at home have diminished significantly since I have started caring for him, however I cannot shake this feeling that he is using my daughter as an outlet for his negative feelings. If these actions were not affecting my daughter’s confidence I would not be concerned, but she tells me often how she doesn’t “want him at our house.” I am at a loss in this situation. I have allowed them to work out their conflicts with as much independence as possible, but I feel like I am not doing enough to protect my daughter from emotional harm. I am very interested in hearing your opinion! Thanks for reading.
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