Bringing peace to sibling rivalry

by Naomi Aldort on July 5, 2015

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Q: When my son hurts my daughter, I feel enraged, especially when he is grinning as though enjoying her pain. Still, I try to explain gently why he should not hurt his sister. Nothing helps. I would appreciate guidance on sibling rivalry.

naomi aldortA: No matter how gently we tell a child not to hurt another, he cannot hear us. He can only hear that he is “not all right” with us and therefore not worthy of love. Feeling rejected, the child is then likely to lash out even more at his sibling, seeing her as the cause of losing parental love. Our disapproval reaffirms his worst fear that he has lost his place in our heart, and he has no control over his inner drive to act as he does. He may be bored, needing a sense of power through play, trying to get your attention in the best way he can or he may have a deeper anxiety associated with his sister. Whatever his inner drive, he needs you to see the validity of his need.

Siblings are often left to their own for too long and simply fail to get along. Social skills take years to develop. Considering that we adults have not mastered relationships yet, we may as well focus on improving ourselves, especially as we respond to children’s rivalry. Much of this kind of sibling rivalry can be prevented by setting up things in a way that is more supportive of children’s ability and needs.

Bring love, not justice.

When we take sides, admonishing one child and rescuing the other, we cause jealousy, animosity and future aggression. Turning our home into a courthouse, we lose the children’s trust. Instead of helping, we join and increase the struggle.

The child must feel safe to seek your help, knowing he will be cared for and not judged. It is not your job to teach justice. It is your job to love and to facilitate kind solutions that meet each child’s needs. Children who are treated with kindness and observe peaceful, non-judgmental solutions grow up to be kind and peaceful adults.

Instead of saying, “We don’t hit,” interrupt the hitting gently as you validate with, “I see you need to hit.” This creates instant connection and trust. These words do not endorse hitting but instead validate feelings, teaching kindness and compassion. Amazingly, you will also help yourself to shift from anger to care, and you will be able to focus on understanding the valid cause of your child’s action. You can then listen to each child without taking sides. They each have a valid reason for their actions.

If you take sides, children will learn this divisive technique from you and fight even more. If you judge, not only is your son hurt, but Little Sister is learning to see herself as a victim. If she hasn’t used this victim strategy yet, she soon will. She will provoke her brother so he will mistreat her, only to turn her parents against him. Unfortunately, she is also formulating the self-image of a victim. Meanwhile, the grin on the aggressor’s face is nothing but a cover-up for insecurity. He sees himself as failing to be worthy of your approval and is fearful of the “verdict.” His original action was a way of taking care of himself when not trusting that you would help him.

We don’t have to intervene if the children seem to resolve their struggles, and no one is hurt. But we want to prevent setups that tend to bring on rivalry. And we must be tuned-in, so when we are needed, we can show up promptly. Once we enter, we must not exacerbate the division but bring in connection and empathy.

An Example of Listening Without Taking Sides

Sierra grabs her brother’s pile of paper, so he cannot continue to draw. Theo runs after her. He catches her, but she throws the paper all over the place. He hits her. She cries. A parent arrives on the scene and is likely to see the boy as the aggressor.

Let’s look at a couple of peaceful ways to show up as a solution and not as a judge:

  • You can notice the need and pick up the papers, handing them to Theo. Because Sierra tried to get her brother’s attention, you can offer to spend time with her.

No, this is not a reward but a kind response and a correction of your mistake when you did not notice her need sooner. There is no reason for guilt, just for correction. The problem is solved kindly and without useless analysis or futile lectures.

Both children’s needs are met. They are less likely to do any of it again, because it produced no parental “fireworks.” They now have a teacher of peace. The children learn that “who is wrong” is not the issue and that the worthy goal is a peaceful solution rather than a judgement. They learn to ask for your help rather than hit.

  • If Sierra and Theo have already learned to seek justice rather than solutions, be the listener. Listen to the child who is bursting out with his story. Let the other child know that she will get her turn to talk.

Theo: “I was drawing, and she grabbed my papers.” Mom, validating the facts without drama: “You were drawing, and she grabbed your pile of paper and took it away?” Theo: “Yes, and I need it.” Mom, modeling responsibility and creating trust: “I understand. I am sorry I wasn’t here to help right away. Do call me next time, so I can help you.”

Meanwhile, Sierra wants to talk, too. If Theo is done, you can listen to her, assuring the boy that he will be able to talk again as much as he needs. Sierra: “He ran after me, and he hit me. I was going to give it back anyway.” Mom: “So you ran with the paper, and he ran after you and hit you?” Sierra, very satisfied: “Yes, he hit me. So what are you going to do?”

  • At this point, it is tempting to go into a moral lesson: “If you do that, what do you expect? Why disturb your brother?” But then you are taking sides, and your child won’t trust you. She will not be able to discover her responsibility in the matter, because she will be too caught up in feeling hurt by your rejection. Your job is to understand and care for her, not to judge her. She will learn better when she comes to her own realization at this or another time. To be able to see her responsibility, she must be emotionally at peace, secure in your love. With a mind that cares, you too will be able to feel connected and learn how to prevent such struggles.

Mom: “I will spend time with you next time. Just ask. Lets do something together now.” Sierra: “Yes, but he shouldn’t hit me. Do something.” She is very intent on turning Mom into a weapon against her brother. Mom: “I will ask Theo to call me next time.” Sierra: “OK. But you won’t need to, because I won’t take his paper.” She comes on her own to notice her responsibility, without mom’s lecture. Mom: “Good. You will come to me when you need someone to be with.” Sierra, emphatically: “Yes.”

Theo may need to talk again, justifying the hitting. Theo: “If she didn’t take the paper, I wouldn’t have hit her. I had no choice.”

  • This tells you that you have not been responsive fast enough when a need arose — which sometimes happens, as we can’t always meet children’s needs immediately — and your son concluded that he has to solve his own problems in his own immature way.

Mom, modeling responsibility: “Yes, I know. Next time I will pay more attention and be helpful faster. Will you call me?” Theo: “Yes, but she shouldn’t have grabbed the paper.” Again the child has learned to seek justice and to want to see his sister scolded or punished. Mom: “Yes, you are right. I wish I noticed that she needed attention. I will check more often and not get so deeply into my chores.” Theo: “I will call you if you don’t notice.” Mom: “Thank you, Theo. That would be helpful.”

It may not go so smooth, but no matter how long each child has to battle, keep listening and affirming his or her experience. There is never a need to judge, and no matter what a child says, his experience can be affirmed and understood. Your children will not only fight less, but will learn to feel compassion and to get along without winners and victims, seeking peace rather than justice.

Forgive yourself.

You may read this and feel regret or guilt for the way you have handled sibling struggles so far. You are not alone. These ways have been with us for generations. Guilt, however, comes from self-judgement. There is no judgement in finding out a better way. We learn something new, and we take new actions. If your flowers are wilting, you don’t feel guilty — you go water the flowers. Forgiveness, knowing you always did your best, is the compassionate default for all progress.

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Attachment Parenting doesn’t make me a perfect parent

by Jillian Amodio on June 29, 2015

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Attachment Parenting doesn’t make me a perfect parent. It makes me an involved parent, a loving parent, and well… an attached parent, but certainly not a perfect one.

*****

jillian_amodioIt sneaks up rather quickly. It consumes my thoughts and drags me deeper and deeper into the same vicious cycle. All seems well, and then out of nowhere, it launches an attack on my psyche. It plagues my subconscious mind more than I care to admit. I’m sure it has an effect on the way I parent and the way in which I interact with my children. How can it not?

What is this mysterious thing that infiltrates my parenting and causes me such distress? Guilt.

Guilt over not spending enough time with my children, spending too much time on housework or not spending enough time on housework. Guilt for having a gassy baby. Guilt over not giving as much attention to my husband. Guilt for taking a nap rather than doing something “productive.” Guilt for not working outside the home. Guilt for losing my patience and not being creative enough, fun enough or energetic enough. Guilt for allowing screentime. Guilt for not allowing screentime. Guilt for wanting me time…

Now don’t get me wrong. Overall, I am happy. I adore being a mom. It is my calling, my purpose. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult, and that doesn’t mean that I’ve got it all figured out. More often than not, I’m clueless. I’m learning as I go. But for some reason, learning from my mistakes often results in feelings of failure.

After having my daughter, my first child, I was burdened with more guilt and sadness than I had ever known. There she was lying in my arms barely 24 hours old, and I sat there covering her with tears of guilt. I sobbed, feeling like a failure for having a Caesarean section when she went into fetal distress. I sobbed harder when I found breastfeeding to be one of the most difficult and confusing things I had ever tried to do. I had just begun my journey as a mother, and I already felt like a failure. For months after her birth, I would call my mom crying, telling her that I wasn’t good enough.

I remember almost dropping my daughter the first day I was home alone with her while trying to get the stroller out of the car so we could go on a walk. I sat in the parking lot out front of our townhome and sobbed, clutching her to my chest telling her how sorry I was. A few minutes later a jogger came by and asked what he could do to help. I handed him my phone and said, “Please just call my mom. I can’t do this.”

More often than not, I cried myself to sleep. Once I finally did fall asleep, I would dream of my baby crying or wake up in a panic thinking that something was wrong with her. One night, my eyes popped open and I was drenched in sweat. I kept screaming at my husband that something was wrong. I was convinced that my daughter’s soft spot had caved in. I was inconsolable. He had to grab her out of the bassinet and place her in my arms to get me to believe that she was OK.

This kind of self-doubt continued throughout her infancy — and quite honestly has yet to disappear completely. I was always anxious and worried. What if we get into an accident? Was her car seat fitted right? Did she have the right toys? How early is too early to start music lessons? Was she getting enough milk? Was my diet to blame for her being fussy? Should I supplement with formula? Should I feel guilty about even thinking of supplementing with formula? Was my house quiet enough during her nap? Should I have classical music playing in the background? Am I providing enough stimulation for proper cognitive development? The questions were endless, and I was completely overwhelmed.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but after doing research for a book I was working on, I began to realize that I was most likely suffering from some degree of postpartum depression or anxiety.

While still anxious and often guilt-laden, those feelings began to decrease in severity as time went on. Then along came our second child, my sweet boy.  This baby is the calm that I desperately needed. He is mild-mannered and snuggly.

Even so, I could feel that same vicious cycle starting again. Even while pregnant, I worried if I would bond with him and adore him the way I adore my daughter. I felt guilty for not being able to focus on each week of gestation with the same intensity I had with my daughter. After he was born, the tears and feelings of guilt and inadequacy began to surface even more. I felt guilty over having a Cesarean section for the second time. I felt guilty about having less time with my daughter. I felt guilty about being tired. And I wanted so desperately to be perfect for both of my children.

This time however, I recognized the warning signs. I read an article written by Birdie Gunyon Meyer with Postpartum Support International. Several things stuck out to me:

  • “Depression and anxiety occur frequently, affecting 1 in 7 women.” I am not alone…
  • Some symptoms of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders include “frequent crying, sleep changes, …feelings of loneliness, sadness, or hopelessness, …anxiety, panic, excessive worry, feeling overwhelmed…” Check, check, check.
  • “If you are experiencing any of the signs and symptoms beyond 2 weeks, it’s not just the blues anymore.” It might be time to get help.

It has been more than 2 months since the birth of my son. I am slowly starting to feel like myself again, but this time, I know that these lingering feelings are not normal. They are not founded on any basis of truth. I have opened up to friends and family and have been seeing a counselor. I am learning to be confident in my role as a mother and to not be so hard on myself.

My point in this is, that while being a mom is a great honor and brings me much joy, it’s OK to not be perfect. Seeking perfection is setting myself up for failure.

Above all else, there is no shame in asking for help. Motherhood is hard, and I just want all moms to know that I’m rooting for you. We all need to support each other and let each other know that “Hey, I’ve been there. You’re not alone.”

Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders don’t need to be taboo. They need to be talked about. It’s the only way any of us are going to feel better. And when we feel better ourselves, we can better love our children. Happy moms make happy littles, and that’s really all that matters.

If you think you may be experiencing a perinatal or postpartum mood and anxiety disorder, don’t hesitate to get help. Postpartum Support International connects mothers and their families with volunteers, support groups and other resources, many of them at no cost.

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Expecting your first baby? Talk about parenting now, before baby arrives

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