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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