Ask Teacher Lisa: Sibling battles

Dear Teacher Lisa,

I’ve got 3 amazing boys, so, as you can imagine, my hands are full.

My baby is easy, but my 2 year old and 5 year old need constant supervision because the minute I turn my back on them, they break out into fights. And I mean FIGHTS…as in, throw down, fists flying fights.

The thing is, I know my boys are lovers – truly sensitive and wonderful human beings that I’m so proud to have birthed into this world – but it’s as if they lose their minds around each other, and I’m struggling to keep my cool.

I want to help my boys and help our whole family by doing so; but what can I do when it seems all they know how to do is fight?


Mama Not a Referee

Dear Mama,

Phew, so sibling issues are complex, let’s face it. Here are some ideas to try to minimize the battles.

1)    Special time for each child – I know it may be hard, but carving out some special time alone with each of your children can do wonders to build your connection with them. This will help in moments of tension or conflict, because you will both feel more connected, willing to see other points of view and work together more lovingly. It doesn’t have to be a full day, but even 30 minutes a week or 10 minutes a day when you put the other kids down or in an enclosed safe space, or send them for playdates or with another caregiver. Having one on one particularly with the oldest sibling who may miss that attention the most, can work wonders. You two can share in lamenting the challenges of the youngers and how much you love them but they also drive you crazy. You can focus on the oldest child and something they would like to do with you. If their cup is full and they are secure in their connection to you, this may help them have more empathy and patience for the younger children in those difficult moments. You can also strategize together in these calm times about what to do about some of the things that bother your oldest. Ask them what makes them the most mad and if they have any ideas of what might help.

2)    Create separate safe spaces at home – There should be a space for your oldest child to retreat to if they need to be alone or protect their toys, bodies, projects, etc. Hype that up with your oldest child. Common zone is for everyone, but this space is theirs alone. Hold that line for your oldest child, so they know you have their back. Have them keep anything precious there. As your younger children get older, they will need some spaces defined for them as well. Having separate toy boxes can also be helpful. Have your older child pick out the items that are just theirs and they are in charge of keeping them in that box when they are not in use. Likewise, the younger child(ren) should have a box of things that are just for them. Anything else is fair game.

3)    Spend time apart – The relationship between your siblings will have rough patches and smooth ones. When you are in a rough patch, accept that this may be a learning stretch. Work through conflicts as they arise and use your toolbox of nonviolent communication and conflict resolution, BUT… help them spend some time apart! These learning periods can be overwhelming and exhausting for the whole family. Give them (and yourself) breaks by sending your older kid to school or playdates or outings. Experiment with some playdates or babysitting for your younger child(ren) as well. They may need time to spread their wings independently without dealing with sib dynamics 24/7. You may find they return refreshed and more appreciative of the family.

4)    Don’t try to change their feelings – Your older child in particular may express things in unsavory terms. Don’t take it personally. As Heather Shumaker says in her book It’s Okay Not to Share, “Go ahead and let them hate the baby.” It’s the behavior that you can place limits on, not the feelings. If their words are hurting the younger siblings’ feelings, they can write it down, or shout it in their room, or tell it to you alone. If they are using hurtful words towards you, accept it as an expression of feelings. Don’t take it to heart, but wonder about what needs or feelings might be underneath it. If they are aggressive, they need to be stopped and separated. There can be natural consequences if you don’t feel safe doing a certain activity because of their behavior. Ultimately, we want to give our children space to have their feelings about their family life, however much we may not like what they are expressing. If they are able to get it out and feel heard, they may be less likely to take it out physically on each other. Maybe you can start a tradition of everyone sharing “roses and thorns” at the end of each day (one positive thing, one negative thing). Be careful when you are sharing your own parental frustrations not to blame or place judgement on your children (i.e. don’t call them mean), but you can share that you had a feeling as a result of something that went down (i.e. you felt sad and mad when the kids were hitting each other in the backseat, because you want them both to be safe).  

5)    Try to collaborate and plan in times of calm – When you are all in a calm state, debrief with your older child and plan ahead. Come up with things they can do or strategies they might use when they are SO MAD! Put together a regulatory box with their help. Maybe a lego to build, a favorite book to read, some water balloons to smash, papers to tear up, a pillow to hit or boxing gloves and a pad, something to cut up, silly putty to stretch, gum to chew, headphones with favorite music to listen to, some slime to mix up, a stretchy fidget to hold, a chewy necklace to bite on, fake poop to throw, ice to chew (you could just put a picture of that in the box and get it out at the time it’s needed)… you name it. You and your child can come up with a list of things that would work better than hitting, scratching, kicking, etc. their sibling. If they need a strong physical release to feel better, you might make a plan that they do it with you or another trusted adult, i.e. push mom over as hard as you can (in a safe space), crash into Teacher Lisa with an exercise mat, have a pillow fight, etc. These strategies might not work overnight, but if you practice reminding them of these options in the moment they are getting flooded with their sibling, it will empower them to know that a) you accept and understand their big feelings, but not their behavior, b) they have choices of how to deal with the big feelings they experience, and c) you are there to help remind them of those options and support them through the process.

It’s obviously harder to communicate and set these types of things up with 2-year-olds than 5-year-olds, but you can start simple with them and redirect their aggression to playful roughhousing with you, or another activity.

6)    Find the sweet spot – If there are activities that the two enjoy together, build off of those and add on. Or find ways to bridge mutual interests. You just may find some silver linings in there.

7)    Self care – Take some time for yourself doing whatever makes you feel good (coffee with a friend, a quiet walk, a trip to the spa, a nap/bath, a night out on the town). This may seem counter intuitive when the household feels like it’s falling apart, but filling your tank can work wonders for your patience in those stressful moments. The energy of each member of the family affects the others, so bring your most positive spirit and see if you can’t chip away a little at the monster energy.

8)    Sense of humor – Laugh when the dust settles, and write down the stories. It will all be different in 6 months, and different again 6 months after that. This parenting thing is a wild ride, and it goes better when you can stop to laugh (and cry).

9)    Lean on your community – Text or email your community anytime for support or to vent, and arrange to spend time together. Strength in numbers!

Big hugs to you and those sweet boys,

Teacher Lisa

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