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February 25, 2019

It was in November that I started to go crazy. Our school district gives the kids an entire week off for Thanksgiving, so I got to spend all day every day with both kids. This hadn’t happened since summertime, and back then, my two year old was still young enough to be content with parallel play, or basically playing by himself. My four year old was not yet stressed out with the complications of adjusting to a big class in a big school, and everything felt easier. But sometime in the three months between, they both grew up a little.

My son now wanted to play with everything his big sister had. My daughter was frustrated with this immature boy who didn’t know how to take turns or share properly. Thanksgiving break found me exasperated and frustrated as I endured the endless bickering between the siblings:

“Mommmmyyy!! He won’t give me my toy back!” 

“Mommmmmyyy! He threw my creation!!!” 

“I’M NOT PLAYING WITH YOU!!!”

“MOMMMYYYY!! He HIT ME!!!!”

It was an endless stream of fighting, bickering, and tattling.

It usually seemed pretty clear who was at fault (the younger one), or maybe my older one was just a lot better at articulating her side of things. Either way, it always seemed straightforward enough to referee their fights and administer justice. I would step in to try to teach my son to be better and encourage my daughter to cope in various ways:

He’s just three, try to be understanding. Go play somewhere else. Play in another room. If it’s that special to you, then leave that toy in your room and not out here where he can get to it. IT’S NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL. Can you just deal with it? Sometimes, you just need to be flexible. CAN YOU MAYBE LEAVE ME ALONE FOR A FEW MINUTES? (sincere, desperate begging).

My best solution that week was to draw a line between the two play areas and separate them: “You play on this side, and you play on this side. You may NOT talk to each other or play with each other.” And only then was there some semblance of peace in the household. Sometimes, it worked to make them wish they could play with each other. On the few occasions I gave in to their pleas to play together again, I always regretted it as the inevitable bickering followed.

“Back to your sides. Go.”

It wasn’t a great solution, but at least I didn’t have to deal with it. Sigh. Was this what siblinghood would look like from now on? I had always hoped they would be each others playmates and friends.

I couldn’t wait for the long week to end, and I finally understood the parent memes about school starting up again. I had the “HALLELUJAH, THANK THE LORD FOR TEACHERS… GIVE THEM ALL THE GIFT CARDS” thought, and felt pleased for all the years I must have been that very savior for worn out families in years past when I was the teacher chugging coffee that Monday morning. You’re welcome guys, you’re welcome.

Soon my relief turned into dread. Because I realized the December holiday break was approaching. TWO WHOLE WEEKS OF THIS CRAZINESS. I couldn’t bear the thought. What would I do? We should have planned a vacation. But did I really want to subject Ben to all of this? It’s not like they were any better in the car. She would buckle herself in first, and he would cry about “losing” the unspoken race. She would spot a cow in the hills out the window, and he would cry that he didn’t see it. He would bring a toy in the car, and she’d complain she didn’t have one. It was a mess.

No, there had to be a better way. Then I remembered some discussion in an online mom group on this very topic, and the book Siblings Without Rivalry came to mind. Hm.

I wouldn’t characterize their nonstop bickering as a rivalry, but I looked up the book on Amazon anyway:

If the title didn’t seem spot on, the subtitle did: How to help your children live together so you can live too. It seemed like a good starting place, so I bought the book. About halfway through the holiday break, I grew desperate enough to actually start reading it. And then I couldn’t put it down.

It was straightforward. It was honest. It was not fluffy at all, and best of all, it had clear, rubber-hits-the-road advice on how to handle the everyday frustrations of sibling clashes. At first I wanted to read the entire book, soak it in and mentally rehearse various techniques before trying it out. I like to be thorough like that. But the next day presented so many opportunities to test out my budding skills that I just went for it.

“MOMMMYYYY!!! He pulled the ball right out of my hands! I was playing with it first and then he just TOOK IT!!”

Her face was dark and angry. She crossed her arms and furrowed her brows, making sure I knew she was the one who was wronged. She stood, waiting for me to do what I’d normally do: return the ball to her, give him a talk, and be on her side. He, on the other hand, was preemptively angry about the consequence I hadn’t even doled out yet. “No! No! No! I don’t WANT TO!! I DON’T WANNNNNT TOOOOOOO!!!!!” He yelled at the top of his lungs, his face flushing.

Normally, I would have said something like, “You need to wait your turn and ask. You can’t just take it from people. Give her the ball. The next time you take something from her without her permission, I’ll have to give you a count. And you,” turning to the older one,”don’t make him wait too long.” She would have taken the ball and stormed off and said something like, “I don’t want to play with you anymore!” and he would have cried and stomped his feet and spiraled into a terrible mood.

No, thanks. That would simply be a band-aid to stop the bleeding, but not a healing solution for their relationship.

So what would I do instead? My mind was racing. What did the book say? I had only read the first couple chapters, but it definitely had things to say. Empathy. Restate their feelings (just like I tried to teach my nine year olds!). Describe what happened in a neutral manner. Don’t solve the problem for them.

Don’t solve it, JoEllen. Don’t administer justice. Just describe it. Listen. Describe. Empathize. Okay. Go.

I bent down and looked her in the eye, “Wow, sounds like you’re really upset!”

“Yeah! He just went like this-” she violently wrenched an imaginary ball out of the air, “-and he didn’t even ask first!”

“You’re angry because he just took it from you without asking,” I said, giving the most sympathetic look I could muster. I’m not naturally very empathetic, so this really took some effort for me.

“Yeah! He already had a long turn and I waited and waited and then he finally put it down and I took it and then he got so mad!”

“Ahh… you were really patient when he was playing with it, but when you saw him put it down and you picked it up, he took it right back without even waiting,” I recapped.

Then he jumped in, “I HAD IT FUWST! I WAD PAYING WIF IT!” he pouted. (I had it first, I was playing with it!)

I turned to look at him, “You were playing with the ball. You didn’t feel like you were done with it yet, and then she picked it up and started playing. You weren’t ready for your turn to be over yet!”

“Yeah!” he said, squeezing out a tear.

I pursed my lips to the side, trying to show them I cared about their feelings. Ok, so the empathy and restating of feelings happened. The kids seemed calmer. What was supposed to happen next? I really wanted to just propose a solution for them, but the book examples kept showing that kids would come up with their own solutions if you let them. Soo… I looped back to empathy and description again. Mostly because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I needed to finish that book!

“I can see how this is frustrating for both of you,” I began, “There is a ball that you both wanted to play with-”

“I KNOW!” my daughter piped up, “You can play with the ball and I’ll color, and then when you’re done you can tell me and I’ll play with it, ok?”

Excuse me? You’re just going to be chill about it and find something else to do and not make a big deal out of it? Like a mature person would?

…What?!

“Okay!” he smiled, holding the ball. And then, not ten seconds later, “I’m done! Your turn!” he said cheerily, holding the ball out to her.

…WHAT?!

It was like magic, I had an unbelieving smile pasted on my face as I forced myself to back away and let them live in their own little world again.

Less than a minute later, they were happily playing with the ball together, inventing games, squealing, and having FUN.

HOLY MOLY THIS BOOK WAS AMAZING.

I spent the rest of the night finishing the book, even though that meant I was up way too late and got very little sleep (which I learned is even worse for me than I thought!). Yet I found that I was not as impatient the next day as I normally would have been because I had excellent tools to use to help my kids get along better. It felt like an overnight miracle.

I’m not saying that they won’t have anymore conflict. They definitely will. And I think that’s healthy and normal and good to experience, too. As a matter of fact, in the course of writing this very blog post, I think our kids had maybe five different spats that I had to go out and address. The happy news is that I had strategies fresh on the mind and it helped me get right back on track with them. There are a few key ones I keep coming back to, but simply empathizing and showing an appreciation for their feelings has been one of the biggest game changers for me as a parent. I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who asks, and when they ask me for one takeaway, I always start with empathy.

But empathy is just one of the many strategies I have taken and been using from this book. I hope to share more soon! There are a couple strategies I would have never dreamed of (and initially scoffed at), but after reading it through I realized it was pretty genius and tried it out the next day with great success! Teaser for a future post ;).

If you are going through a similarly frustrating parenting experience, then my first piece of advice is to read the book (currently $5.59!). It has such solid, accessible, and applicable advice. The authors give lots of examples from families with different backgrounds, yet there are similar veins of frustration in all of them that any family can relate to. If anything, if feels good to have some tools in your toolbox to use when sibling relationships seem to break down. I hope this post has been helpful and look forward to sharing more with you soon!

6 responses to “How to Help Your Kids Get Along Better”

  1. Eliana says:

    I am very interested in trying to do this approach, but what about if one kid can’t express their feelings? My 2 year old doesn’t talk yet…

    • joellen says:

      It’s good to help teach your kids about their emotions. Stating the feelings they have, even when they’re as young as two, can help give them the vocabulary to express it better later. Empathizing and describing what you see and trying to give them words to their feelings can be comforting and empowering, so I do think this could be good for your two year old! Also even if the two year old isn’t following, the older child can certainly benefit from feeling understood and having their feelings appreciated.

  2. Brian says:

    I’m totally laughing about these experiences because they are the same for my kids (with the mispronunciations and all!) “Mine! Me fuwst! Jojo hit me!” 😑. The empathy approach seems too good to be true but worth trying. I also don’t read anything ever but may take a look at the book. Thanks for the tips and for your practical advice and honest relatable parenting stories!

    • joellen says:

      Hehe it won’t solve everything, but it was powerful for me for two big reasons: 1) It was pretty foreign to me, as my initial response was often to deny their feelings (something I read more about in the first chapter of this OTHER book by the same authors. I’m only halfway through but it is proving to be just as impactful so far!) 2) It produced a totally different response from my kids than almost anything else I’d ever tried. I like the idea of empathizing and also empowering them to resolve conflict with each other rather than needing me to always provide a solution. Hopefully this paves the way for that!

  3. Florence says:

    Nah, I just don’t buy it. I’m sure you taught them so well and never noticed until you gave them time to think about their frustration. Or else you put them up to saying those things. Or maybe you just made it all up. You and your life and kids just seem out of a magical storybook about parenting.

    Quite simply, I’m impressed and convinced. Same as you did when you wrote about “oh crap, potty training”, about which I now rave to other parents in my area!
    Thanks for all the tips!!

    • joellen says:

      Haha, trust me I have a lot of less flattering stories about us, but for their sake I keep most of those stories to myself on my blog 😉 I love to share openly but I also make an effort to respect my kids’ privacy and make sure I don’t write anything they’ll regret in ten years :D. Thank you for your kind words, and I appreciate you sharing about how other things have been helpful, too!

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