Thursday, April 23, 2015

Raising Happy Siblings - A Q&A with Dr. Laura Markham



It is my privilege and honor to welcome Dr. Laura Markham to positive-parents.org today. Dr. Markham's page, Ahaparenting, was the resource that turned my life around several years ago.  She has been a continual source of inspiration and wisdom to me on my own parenting journey. Her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, stays by my bed for reference, and her new book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, is sure to join it there.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my Facebook page readers to submit questions about siblings to Dr. Markham, and I randomly chose 9 of those to submit to her. Today, she has answered those questions for you, and I'm happy to share with you her gentle wisdom.


1. My oldest daughter (6) and second daughter (3) often fight as siblings do. My concern is that the older can throw a huge tantrum and the younger will just give in to whatever the older is wanting. How do I encourage the younger to have a voice and the oldest to calm herself and be more thoughtful, or at least willing to work towards a collaborative solution? - Kari S.

This is a very common dilemma. When they get into a spat, you can restore safety and validate both positions, by saying "Wow! I hear loud voices....It sounds like you two are having a hard time....Can you calm down and tell me about it?  Let's work together to work this out."

Then, your oldest will explain why she is right, and you can acknowledge her view: "So you think you should play the game this way."

When your youngest "gives in" you can coach her to stand up for herself: "A few minutes ago, it sounded like you really wanted to play the game a different way....It's okay to disagree....Everyone is allowed to have their own opinion...We can work it out....Can you tell your sister what you want?"

With you there, the older sister will listen to the younger along with you. Then you acknowledge her view, just as you did her sister's: "So you think you should play the game that way."

Then, you define the problem: "So we have two girls who want to play together -- that's great! But you have two different ideas of how to play the game. What can we do to solve this?"

Then, you take them through the problem-solving approach that is outlined in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. The short version is that you help them brainstorm and agree on something that works for both of them.

Of course, to make this work, you have to stay calm yourself, and resist acting like your older daughter is wrong!


2. Our second child is due in July, and our first daughter will only be 17 months, still a baby herself. How can we ensure that she does not feel abandoned or replaced, that we continue to meet all of her needs, and that our bond with her stays as strong as ever, while also ensuring that she creates a strong bond with her new sibling? - Nancy S.

The first step is remembering what you know now -- she is still a baby herself. She will look very big compared to the new infant, but she really will still be a baby, and deserves your nurturance. 

The second step, before the baby comes, is to be sure that your little girl is comfortable with both parents. There will be times when you can't put her to bed, for instance, because you have to be with your infant. It's also a good idea before the baby comes to prepare a stash of special sensory bags and boxes for her, that you can pull out when you sit down to feed the baby. Most new mothers say that feeding time is when their older child becomes unmanageable, so its worth it to have plenty of simple distractions ready, so you can rotate through them.

Once the baby is born, try to make sure that your daughter gets time with both parents. So feed the infant and hand him to another adult, if you can, and spend some time connecting with your oldest. If you wear your baby, you will still have two hands free for your oldest. And of course, you can also wear your 17 month old, when she just needs some connection time, and you need two hands to change the baby, for instance. 

(There is so much more to say about this topic; it takes up three chapters of my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings.)


3. I am a mom of 4 (ages 2, 4, 6, 8). I'd love any tips on gentle parenting in the moments when all 4 have big feelings happening. Or when one is having a "big" problem that requires immediate attention (bleeding, sick, etc) and another is demanding attention for a "little" problem (can't get a marker open, can't find the purple sock, etc). - Lindsay F.

You have my total admiration. I can't imagine having four children that close in age. I think the only way to prevent constant situations like you're describing is to do preventive maintenance. That means that every day you schedule in some one-on-one time with each child, so they have more internal resources to cope when things are tough. 

But when you do find yourself in the situation you're describing, the most important thing is to stay calm yourself. Often, we get so anxious and overwhelmed that we start snapping at the kids: "Can't you see Henry's leg is bleeding? Be patient!" That makes them worry. Does Mom love Henry more than she loves me?"  

If, instead, we can bite our tongue, take a deep breath, and smile at all the kids, they will all feel loved, even when we can't meet all their needs at once. We can also think better, so we can prioritize. I would speak out loud: "I hear you, Jason, you need your purple sock.....And Lucy wants the top off her marker....First, I am helping Henry, because his nose is bleeding....then I will help you, Lucy, and you, Jason."  Looking at them and meeting their eyes is important, too. Think of the model of the master preschool teacher, who has her arm around one child, is meeting the eyes of another with a smile, and shifts her glance to the third, to acknowledge him. 

And here is a whole article about how to cope when they all have "big feelings" at once:



4. What are the best things I can do to help my girls (4 & 1.5) bond? - Jennifer N.

The most important thing you can do is hold the expectation that they will value each other. Of course they will get angry at each other -- conflict is part of every human relationship -- but they will always work things out, because families are forever, and they will be friends for life. Ask questions, like "What is the best thing you have learned from your sister so far?"

Talk to the little one, in front of the older one, about how lucky she is to have such a wonderful, loving big sister. Talk to the older one about how much the little one admires her. When one gets hurt, invite the other one to help comfort her. Be sure that every day begins and ends with a snuggle time for both of them, with you. When they disagree, help them work it out so they're both happy. 

Finally, create positive interactions between them. The research shows that those positive interactions are the most important predictor of how close children will be. So play with the two of them at once so that they laugh and enjoy each other. Laughter releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone, so if they're laughing together, they're bonding. Notice things they like to do together and encourage those activities, and try not to interrupt them when they're playing happily.


5.  How do I help my 3.5 yr son to learn/feel empathy? He rough plays with his 2 yr sister and often laughs when she cries.frown emoticon In part I think he does that out of fear to accept he did something wrong. - Salome F.

Kids learn empathy when we empathize with them. You can also facilitate that process by talking with him about emotions in general. When he plays rough with his sister, you can step in and ask "Is everyone having fun here?...Look, Honey, your sister's face looks a little scared...I think maybe this is a bit too rough for her....Let's find another game for now."  

I think you're right that your son's laughter when his sister gets hurt is because he feels guilty and wants to act like he did nothing wrong. You can help him with that. When your daughter does get hurt, resist the urge to yell at your son. Instead, go right to your daughter to comfort her. Involve your son so that he can "make up" to her, for instance by sending him for an ice pack for her bump and by having him kiss her owie. That helps him feel "forgiven" so that he can begin to take responsibility for what he did and avoid it in the future. 


6. I am a mother of stepson (6 years) and daughter (2.8 years old). They fight constantly over almost everything. Despite that, I have trouble connecting to my son, talking and working with him. How can I handle my feelings for him and work things for both my children and my family? - Joanna S.

It sounds like you need to strengthen and sweeten your relationship with your stepson. That's important if you want him to cooperate with you, and also if you want him to have a good relationship with your daughter. So I would put a lot of effort into preventive maintenance with him, so that he has more inner resources to be patient with his sister and is not as jealous of her. 

Then, when they fight, step in, but -- and this is the most important thing -- without taking sides. Instead, even if you are sure he is wrong, say "It sounds like you two have a problem....let's work this out."

Listen to both of them:  "So you want to use this toy....And YOU want to use this toy!..You both want to use the same toy."

Restate house rules: "Our house rule is that the person who has the toy can use it until they are done. Jamie has the toy....Megan, can you ask Jamie when he will be done with the toy?"

or "Our house rule is that we treat each other kindly. Jamie, that means no name calling. You can tell Megan what you're mad about without calling her names."

Or, if no house rules apply, help them hammer out a win/win solution.

This is a lot of work. But if you do it every day for a few months, your kids will learn to do it themselves, and the fighting will dramatically diminish.

7. How do you make it work in blended families where siblings are parented differently by their resident parents? My husband and I are gentle parents and we have one son who lives with us but my stepsons live with their mother mon-fri and she is the complete opposite. I'm worried about their development having two very different homes and also seeing their brother being raised ap/gp. - Ellie B.

Such a tough situation! Your stepsons will figure out that the rules are different, and they will enjoy their relationships with you and your husband much more. They will also feel safer with you, so you will see some meltdowns and other acting out at your house, that has actually been stimulated by the feelings they're having at their mother's house. All you can really do is love them and be compassionate when they struggle. At least with you they are getting a lifeline that may get them through the teen years with a lot less drama.

8. How do you know when to intervene and when to let them work it out on their own? In our house it so quickly erupts into hitting and hurting so I tend to intervene all the time to avoid someone getting hurt. - Becky H.

I would ALWAYS intervene. The fact that things are erupting so quickly is a sign that your kids don't yet know how to work things out themselves. The more you coach them to express their needs without attacking each other, and to work things out respectfully, the more they will gain the skills to work it out on their own. (Expect it to take three to six months depending on their ages.)

9. My son is turning four this April (April 8th) and his baby sister will be arriving by the end of April.. He has been showing serious signs of distress when it comes to having a little sister such as, I don't want her to cuddle with us, I don't love her, and sometimes even trying to harm my belly.. Some days he is very sweet and gives my belly kisses but not very often. I am worried that maybe I have spoiled him to much and he is now going to have a really hard time adjusting to having to share his time with someone who is going to need so much of my time and energy.. He has two older sisters from his fathers previous relationship but doesn't get to see them very often unfortunately due to court issues and stuff.. He gets along great with the older children though (8 years and 9years old) my son can be VERY demanding and aggressive at times and we love him with all of our heart but are very concerned he will have a lot of resentment towards his new baby sister.. - Samantha R.

It is natural for a four year old to have a hard time sharing his parents with his new baby sister. That does not mean you have spoiled him. It means it is hard to share your parents. You can expect him to have a hard time. Just keep acknowledging his feelings and try not to feel guilty or to blame him. "You're saying you don't want us to have the baby? I hear you. It can be hard to share your parents." Over time, as long as you continue to meet his needs and he feels like he is still valued and significant, he will accept his sister. 

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2 comments:

  1. I appreciate this advice (Especially 1 and 8). Having the script of number 1 gives me some direction in how to handle my kids (age 8 and 11) who seem more likely than not to escalate things lately. Thank you.

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  2. My daughter is 10 and my son is 3. When they were younger and quarreled, I used to tell the girl to be more understanding to her brother as she was older and could understand more than the little one. I realized that it wasn't fair for her and turned him into a little "bully". Although for some quite time I have switched to the way of intervening that was described here, by letting him know what his sister also wants, he doesn't seem to understand/accept it. If it doesn't get his way he will scream, throw things/toys/books around the house, pinch, hit, or pull his sister's hair. I always tell him that he shouldn't hit/pinch but he does that even when she is just lying on the couch, reading a book, or playing on her own (he does that to me too sometimes even while I am paying attention to him by talking or playing with him, out of nowhere, and I don't understand why he does it) On the other hand, his sister often uses a very harsh tone with him. Although I have shown her clear examples of how well he cooperates with her when she uses nice words and soft tones with him, she continuously says NO, DON'T, GO, DO X FIRST...to him which makes him very non-cooperating, angry and aggressive towards her. Can you please give some suggestions with examples about what I can do about this? Thank you

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