25 Apr

Sibling fight breaks out in the Happiest Place on Earth

It’s supposed to be the “Happiest Place on Earth” but after long days, long lines, and large scoops of ice cream, it can get unhappy pretty fast.

I’m talking about Disneyland, where all 5 members of my family shared one hotel room for four nights over Spring Break a few weeks ago.

Three of us were sick with cough/colds.

On night 3, the inevitable sibling flight broke out over who was sleeping where.  My middle child, E, was readying herself for sleep and found my oldest, C, comfortably playing a game in “her” spot.  She asked him to move.

“I’m comfortable here,” C said.

“But that’s my spot,” replied E.

“It’s my spot tonight,” said C.  “Just sleep over there.”

E retorted, “I can’t sleep over there because I’m sick and I want to be close to my water bottle, also I’m more comfortable being on the right with my legs flopping over the mattress.”

C lobbed back,  “You always whine until you get your way.  This time you’re not going to get it.”

The argument went back and forth for a while until E decided (wisely) to take a break to brush her teeth.

When she returned, C had not moved.  The yelling began.

I could tell that my usual, “I see one special spot on the bed and two children who want it; how can you solve this problem?” wasn’t going to work this time.  So I went “below the line. . .”

“Hey, it looks like we have a power struggle here.  You both want the same spot on the bed, and no one seems willing to budge.   E feels she should have it because she’s more comfortable there.  C feels he should have it because he’s here now.  Guys, can you each tell me what is really important to you right now? What really matters to you?”

E:  “It’s really important to me to sleep here because I’m sick and it’s closer to my water bottle and I’m more comfortable here.”

C:  “It’s important to me that I get this spot.”

I probed a bit deeper, “C, it sounded to me like what really mattered to you was that E shows some flexibility every now and then, and compromises on what she wants, isn’t that right?”  C agreed.

So then I asked C, “Since it’s really important to E to be close to her water bottle and flop her legs over on this side tonight, perhaps you could pick another time for E to be flexible.  Like maybe even tomorrow when she wants to eat at a certain place or ride a certain ride?”

E agreed and C did so reluctantly, only feeling more comfortable when we put the agreement in writing, with a date, where all could see it the next morning.

He moved over, and we went to bed.  Whew!

The technique I used to help them resolve their conflict is called, “Going Below The Line” (see image below).   I learned it from Woody and Judy Square in a “Marriage Tune Up” class.  Turns out it is a very useful tool for helping siblings with conflict, too!

Please write me if you’d like to learn more about why siblings fight, what parents unwittingly do to make it worse, and what we can do to help siblings control their emotions, manage their own conflicts, and enjoy each other more.
Going Below The Line for Conflict Resolution Example


29 May

A Tale of Two Siblings . . . and 6 tips for peaceful, cooperative sibling relationships

This tale is true. And recent. Although names have been changed to protect the (somewhat) innocent.

We were boarding a plane, on our way back from Spring break. My two daughters were in front of me, moving down the aisle toward our row, and arguing about who would get the window seat.

I was trying to stay out of it but felt quite self-conscious as they passed aisle after aisle of people eavesdropping on their argument. (Would these eavesdroppers know that I was a Parenting Coach? I hoped not!)

The older one: “You got the window seat last time. It’s my turn!”

The younger one: “But you got it on the longer stretch to Miami! I only got the short stretch!”

The younger one, who also had the advantage of going first down the aisle, moved into our row first, and took her seat at the window. The older one sat next to her, and continued to argue her position.

My son took the aisle seat next to my daughters, while my husband and I sat across the aisle on the same row.

The argument got louder. So I tried my favorite “phrase that pays” in such situations: “I see two girls and only one window seat. What can you do to solve this problem?”

Older daughter replies, “Jessie can just move over!”

Younger one says, “Serena can give me a turn!”

Dang. Phrase did not pay.

Note to reader: No tool works every time, with every child, in every situation. That’s why you need many tools!

Argument continues, louder. Mom’s embarrassment increases.

I look over and see that my older daughter is now pressing her whole body (which is about 2.5 x’s the size and weight of younger daughter’s) over into my younger daughter’s seat, squashing her into the corner.

In my best “whisper-yell” (you know what I’m talking about, right?), I say, “Serena, what are you DOING?!! You’re squashing your sister!” (So much for the question.)

Serena replies, “I’m not squashing her. I’m just trying to see out the window.”

“Really?” I ask, incredulously.

I get up from my seat, lean over into their space, look them both in the eye and say very firmly but calmly, “I know you two can come up with something that’s fair for everyone. Once the seat belt sign goes off, I’ll come back to hear what you’ve come up with.”

And what do you know? They did. It took a bit more squabbling, and me biting my tongue (it helped that I was locked into my seat during take-off,) but by the time the seat belt sign went off, they both looked at me and gave me the “thumbs up.”

Why were they able to figure it out? For sure there’s some luck here, but also, we’ve been training for these moments for years. Here are some of the elements of our work out:

  1. Teach siblings tools for conflict resolution and compromise for example, “I Statements,” taking turns, rock-paper-scissors, pick a number, and Wheel of Choice to name a few. It’s so easy to just yell, “Stop fighting!” But that kind of edict doesn’t help kids learn what they can do when they’re angry with each other.
  2. “Put them in the same boat.” This Positive Discipline tool is simply about treating siblings evenly. (As in #3 below.) When parents rush in to pity the victim and vilify the bully, we push our kids even farther to opposite corners of the ring.
  3. Describe what you see without judgment, then invite them to find a solution. For example, “I see two kids and one window seat.” No judgment, no blame, no victims, no bullies. I followed it up with, “What can you do to solve this problem?” OK, it didn’t work this time. But often it does!
  4. Express faith in your kids’ ability to solve problems. I did this by saying, “I know you two can come up with something that’s fair for everyone. Once the seatbelt sign goes off, I’ll come back to hear what you’ve come up with.”
  5. Give siblings some space to work things out for themselves. When we parents jump in and solve our kids’ problems for them, they don’t get the opportunity to practice solving problems for themselves.
  6. Stop worrying about what other people think of your parenting skills. Wow, this is a hard one for me, but I find that when I parent to win the approval of others, I make some pretty bad decisions.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that my kids’ squabbles aren’t always so nicely resolved. (See “The Surprising Parenting Lesson from My Morning from Hell”) But even when they don’t have happy endings, we are all learning along the way. And that’s what it’s all about.

As long as you’re willing to reflect on your parenting, and learn from mistakes, you’re doing an amazing parenting job. Who cares what other people think?!


What are your tips for helping siblings get along?  I always enjoy hearing your thoughts and questions so please leave a comment below!

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28 Feb

The surprising parenting lesson from my morning from hell

Whoa, this particular morning was a doozey. It took me a while to recover enough to write about it. Still not sure . . . but here goes.

Part 1:  Siblings Fight Over Piano Books2-kids-arguing

Thursdays are piano days for two of my kids. Their babysitter picks them up from school and goes straight to piano lessons, so they need to pack their piano books in the morning and take them to school.

This particular morning, it was time to head to the car and the piano books were not yet packed. I reminded my kids to pack them.

Jessie complies without complaint. Serena, however, thought her backpack was already too full and so asks Jessie to pack her piano books for her.

Jessie says no, “Today is art day and I want to leave room in my backpack for my art projects.”

Serena protests, “Your backpack is empty. My backpack is super heavy. See?”

Serena tries to put her backpack onto her sister, Jessie. Jessie steps away and says, “Stop it, Serena. I want to leave room in my backpack today.”

“Come on, Jessie, don’t be so mean,”  replies Serena.  “You have lots of room in there. Also, I always forget my piano books. If I put them into my locker at school, I’ll forget them.”

Jessie does not respond. She begins walking down the stairs from the kitchen to the garage.

“Jessie, you have to take my books.”  Serena says.  “I’ll forget them if you don’t take them! Just take them!”

From the top of the stairs, Serena throws her piano book bag down at her sister, hitting her in the head. Jessie begins to cry and rub her head.

You may be asking, “Where’s Mom?”

I’m at the bottom of the stairs, watching all of this in wide-eyed horror.

Part 2:  Mom Intervenes

Me:  “Whoa, there! What was that about? I’m pretty sure I heard Jessie say no! OK . . . now I just need to be quiet for a minute because I’m SO angry right now!”

After a few seconds of breathing deeply, I say, “I’m sorry that happened. Jessie, do you need an ice pack?”

Jessie shakes her head ‘no’ through the tears, and makes her way to the car. Everyone is silent (or crying quietly) while entering the car.

But as soon as we’re in, Serena says, “Jessie, why can’t you just take my piano books?”

I was doing pretty well calming down until then. And then, I lost it: “Are you kidding me, Serena? You just hit Jessie in the head with your books and now you’re back to badgering her? How can this still be about you?”

“But Mom . . .”  Serena tries to interrupt.

“You just hit her in the head, maybe the better thing to say right now would be, ‘I’m sorry I hit you. Are you OK?’ How about that?” I offer (with frustration.)

Serena, with robotic monotone voice: “I’m sorry I hit you. Are you OK. Now, will you take my books?”

Exasperated, I intervene again, “Serena! I heard ‘no’ several times now. It looks like you’re going to have to come up with another solution. Can you do it? Or do you need some help?”  We pull out of the garage and start driving to school.

Serena says, “I know, Jessie could just take my books.”

Boiling inside, not quite believing what I’m hearing, I ask calmly, “Any other ideas?”

Jessie offers one:  “How about you write yourself a note?”

“That won’t work,” replies Serena.

I offer one:  “How about you put your piano books into your backpack after you unload your binder?”

Again Serena refuses it: “I carry my whole backpack around to my classes. That won’t work.”

Then with a deep breath, I say, “Serena, I know you are creative and resourceful. What could you do to make sure you remember your piano books?”

And Serena replies, “Jessie could take them.”

“OK, that’s it,” I say. “I’m pulling the car over and will wait until you can let that idea go, Serena.”

I pull the car over to the side of the road, fuming, but silent, and wait. After about 2 minutes, Serena says, “Fine! I’ll smoosh my piano books into my backpack! Let’s just go.” (She is welling up with tears now.)

“Thank you, Serena,” I say, and pull back onto the road.

And then, I tried, but could not resist . . . THE LECTURE: “You know Serena, sometimes you just need to take no for an answer. I’m not sure why this is so hard for you. You don’t always get your way in life, and you’ve got to move on anyway. Blah blah blah blah blah.”

We finally get to school and I pull over to let my kids out.  I turn around to say goodbye but Serena is already halfway out the door, looking hurt and angry. She turns her back and walks into school.

Part 3:  Mom Learns an Unexpected Lesson

I pull away from the curb feeling pretty crappy, and proceed to re-think the whole episode while driving to work. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t Jessie want to help? What made it so hard for Serena to cooperate? Why couldn’t I think of something more helpful?

I called my friend and Positive Discipline colleague, Lisa Fuller, to get her perspective.  After hearing my story, she told me I’d done a really good job under tough circumstances, and couldn’t think of much to do differently.

There were, of course, a few things I could have done better:

  • validate feelings / empathize first (e.g., “Your back pack is really heavy and full today.  You really really wish Jessie would help you out.”)
  • skip the lecture in heat of the moment (would she hear it then?  no chance!) and find a quiet, calm, private time for the two of us to talk about what happened later.

But there were also so many things I did well:

  • biting my tongue and taking a breath when angry – HUGE!
  • giving the kids some space to work it out on their own
  • inviting problem solving by asking “what” and “how” questions
  • encouraging Serena by showing faith in her ability to find a constructive solution
  • being kind and firm and modeling self respect by pulling over the car

And then Lisa said, “You know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Whoa. Excellent point.

Here I was, examining everything I did right or wrong, thinking that I have control over the outcome, but in fact my kids owned the way this morning turned out, too.

I tried to help them find a constructive solution to the problem, and keep relationship all the while, but in the end, I cannot make them “do the right thing.”

The morning didn’t work out very well, but as with everything, this experience was a life lesson for all of us.

And here was my lesson: I can’t make my kids be understanding, kind, or respectful. I can lay the groundwork, teach them, and model the best I can.

And I also have to be OK with them failing, and have faith that they are learning something in the process, just as I did, for the long term.

Post Script:  After school that day, when we were both calm, Serena and I debriefed on our morning.  She was clearly embarrassed by her behavior.  I validated her feelings and she apologized.  We gave each other a hug.  The learning was happening, after all.

I always appreciate your comments. Please leave them below!

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