A few years, ago, my three year old son Darwin was contentedly playing with a set of stacking boxes when his 13 month old brother Forest toddled over and reached for the colorful pieces of cardboard. Darwin covered them with his arms and body, but when Forest started pulling at his hands, he stood up and held the boxes out of reach. Forest burst into tears.
What’s a parent or caregiver to do in this all too typical situation?
Unfortunately, most advice and commands that adults give kids end up worsening sibling conflict over time. Meanwhile, a totally hands off approach often leads to a power struggle between kids. Without effective support in how to productively resolve their conflicts, children are likely to resort to battling each other with physical strength and emotional manipulation.
In the parenting classes I teach, one of the most important skills is describe then give space. It means you say what you see or hear without judgment, and it can provide a helpful mirror for a child. When their attention is brought to facts of the situation, they use their natural intelligence to make good decisions.
Adult: “I see dirty clothes on the bed.”
→ Child tells herself to throw the dirty clothes in the laundry basket.
Adult: “We have one cookie and two kids who each want a cookie.”
→ Child suggests they split the cookie in half.
Along similar lines, Janet Lansbury calls it sportscasting when the adult verbalizes a “just-the-facts” play by play of a child’s struggle. Whether children are learning a new skill independently or navigating a social challenge with another child, Lansbury stresses that describing and then allowing space for children to decide what actions to take can sometimes be the most helpful way to support their growth. Using sportscasting, here is what I said during the conflict of the stacking boxes.
“Darwin was playing with boxes. When Forest reached for the boxes, Darwin hid the boxes. Then Forest cried.”
After hearing my words, Darwin was still for a moment, then held some boxes out in front of Forest, saying, “Here Forest. You can play with these.” Forest immediately stopped crying and reached for the boxes.
I said, “Darwin offered part of the toy to share with Forest and Forest looks calm and happy again.”
Apparently, I had spoken too soon, because Darwin grabbed the boxes back and wrapped his whole body over them, saying, “No! I’m not sharing at ALL!” Forest cried hard for a few minutes. I observed. Darwin continued hiding the toy and proclaiming that he wouldn’t share. I noticed my temperature rising and my mind feeling cloudy, so I paused, counted out loud to ten three times, and breathed deeply.
The pause let me see how my anger was a response to thoughts like, He should be kind to his younger brother…and…Will he always be this selfish?
Luckily, I remembered that when distorted expectations and exaggerated fears cause big emotions, they need big reality checks. So I calmed myself with some important reminders like, A younger sibling can be very threatening to an older sibling…and… It will take time and support for Darwin to learn how to assert himself in a way that also shows consideration for Forest’s feelings.
Having thus taken steps to regulate my own emotions, I was better able to help my kids understand each other’s perspective. I continued describing the events and emotional responses as I perceived them. I watched as Darwin put the toy up on a counter where Forest couldn’t reach. Forest cried in front of the counter. I was tempted to take it down for him, but I really wanted to empower my children by not taking sides, so I continued to describe.
Forest cried more but eventually moved on to another activity. I was still agitated from watching Darwin work so hard to make sure Forest didn’t get the toy, so when Darwin asked me to do something for him (I can’t remember what!), I shared my authentic feelings without attacking his character: “I feel upset when I see my children’s feelings being hurt.”
Then I modeled self-regulation of my emotions: “So I need some time to feel calm again.” I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. When I felt a bit calmer, I said pleasantly, “I’m ready!” and helped him with what he had been asking. Calming myself in this way allowed me to reestablish a positive connection with him.
A couple minutes later, Forest was still playing contentedly, on his own, but Darwin was standing in the corner behind the table, silent and still. I asked, “Why are you standing behind the table, my love?” He stayed quiet, so I said, “Do you feel bad?”
He said, “Yes.”
“Why do you feel bad?”
He thought for a minute then said, “Because I hurt Forest’s feelings.”
Wow! Given the space, my son was “doing his emotional homework,” as Adele Faber calls it. I decided to offer him a way to fix the problem. “Sometimes it helps if you give a hug to the person whose feelings you hurt, and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Would you like to do that?”
“No. Forest already feels better.”
“It does look like he’s not crying anymore, but sometimes after someone hurts your feelings you still feel a little sad until they do something to show you that they love you and that they’re sorry.”
I offered other suggestions for how he could reconnect with Forest, like bringing him a toy he likes, giving him a high five, or inviting him to play, all of which he rejected. At that point, I decided to let go of the idea that he would make Forest feel better and just appreciate that he’d shown genuine remorse.
Soon after, I noticed Darwin in the back room of our apartment laying alone on the floor with the throw blanket wrapped around his body. That’s interesting, I thought. We don’t do “time-outs” in our family, but here he has chosen to give himself some space in the wake of this drama.
A few minutes later, he marched out. He was pushing the walker Forest had loved ever since he used it to learn to walk. My fearful thoughts returned: Here we go again. Darwin will push Forest’s favorite toy around right in front of him. Forest will cry, and we’ll be in sibling conflict mode all over again.
But guess what? To my delight and surprise, Darwin pushed the walker right over to Forest and said cheerfully, “Here, Forest. I brought you your favorite toy!” My three and a half year old had made amends when he was ready, in a way that came from his own motivation and his own intelligence.
As Forest pushed the walker around happily, I sportscasted the turn of events: “Forest looks really happy after Darwin brought him his favorite toy. Darwin knows how to take care of his brother’s feelings.”
It can be hard to resist trying to control our children with scolding, punishments, and strongly worded advice. Describe then give space offers parents a way to stay present and supportive while still leaving most of the decision making power in the hands of the kids. Now my kids are four and almost seven, but I still use the same approach during some of their conflicts!
I believe it is helping them grow into the kind of people who can make socially helpful decisions for themselves when they inevitably run into conflict with others, even when no one is watching.
[Cynthia is] a skilled, passionate group leader.
This class left me feeling hopeful and connected to the other group members.
I found the class very helpful in learning new ways to talk with my kids. I am confident this will help strengthen our relationship and help them learn essential skills.
I really enjoyed this class and feel like I learned many skills to help me be a better parent and foster my children's self-esteem. Thanks!
I appreciated the variety of learning methods - video, "lecture", discussions, role plays, pairs, hand-outs, and workbook. Key to my adopting these approaches has been the opportunity to practice in class and at home. So the homework assignments were also really helpful.
I appreciated the non-judgmental space - great class/workshop!
I appreciated your preparation of all the material and extra articles. Also your personal stories as well. The two weeks between sessions was great because I could process what we learned, practice it and read as well.