By now, at the start of week I-don’t-even-know-what of pandemic lockdown with your kids, you have probably accepted your own waning work productivity as you transfer energy to being a full-time teacher on apps you had never heard of a month ago.
Meanwhile, the kids—who used to get their own space, spend time with friends and have their lives outside of your home—are stuck inside and getting on each other’s nerves.
We reached out to some parenting experts for advice on how to help them get along so we can all do our jobs, find time to play and rest, and make the best of a tense and uncertain situation.
To intervene or not?
It may be tempting to close the door and let them sort it out, but child psychologist Dr. Emily W. King cautions against ignoring sibling squabbles.
“Unless someone is being hurtful, coach them to problem-solve on their own,” she says. “We do have to work hard to coach this. If we just say, ‘I don’t want to hear about it,’ then we might miss an opportunity to teach a problem-solving skill that will help them resolve things on their own in the future.”
If the fight is physical, you absolutely must step in. Even kids who don’t normally get physical may have trouble controlling that impulse in this new weird world of isolation. Hopefully, one stern reminder will set them straight.
“It’s important to teach children the difference between tattling and telling,” King says. “If one child comes to you and says that their brother made a face at them that they didn’t like, this is tattling because the child isn’t hurt.”
She recommends this script to mediate more tame arguments:
You: Did you like it when your brother/sister did (XYZ annoying thing)?
You: Well, go tell him that you didn’t like it and to please tell you what they’re trying to say instead of (XYZ annoying thing).
“This can take years of practice between siblings, so continue sending them back to the conflict to solve their problems,” King says. “On the flip side of that, we want to praise a child for telling if someone is name-calling or being physically aggressive. This is something that we need to parent and help the child who is being hurtful learn what to do instead. It’s powerful for the child telling to see that this is a parent’s job to handle this behaviour, not their job.”
A four-step approach
Jen Lumanlan of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast uses the analogy of “teaching them to fish instead of giving them fish” (and thereby obligating yourself to an eternity of moderating squabbles). In other words, you could stop the fights, but then the kids will still need you to stop every fight.
Lumanlan, who has a master’s degree in psychology with a focus on child development, started a Facebook group and online course—The Kids Are Off School: Now What?—to help parents manage life with kids during the pandemic. During a recent live stream to the group with parenting coach Dr. Laura Froyen, Lumanlan outlined her four-step process for helping kids through disagreements:
Step 1: Observe without judgment
Think of yourself as the impartial narrator of the conflict. For example, if your kids are fighting over a toy, you might say, “I see two children who really want to play with the red car.”
Lumanlan said this type of observation shows little ones that you’re not taking sides.
Step 2: Connect to understand each child’s feelings
Ask each child what happened and how they felt about it. Ask them to repeat or acknowledge the other child’s perspective. For very small children, you may have to prompt with guesses about how they are feeling and then acknowledge you understand their non-verbal clues. Even older children may not be comfortable with the language of feelings.
“When you have a kid who is averse to talking about their feelings, we sometimes circumvent that by talking about ‘what’s getting in your way’ or ‘what’s making it hard,’” Froyen said during the live stream.
Step 3: Understand their underlying needs
This is where you do the hard work of excavating the root of the disagreement. Lumanlan shared this list of needs children might be looking to satisfy when they get frustrated or disagree. Does either child really need the red car? Probably not. Maybe she needs stimulation, and the red car is the fastest and most exciting. Maybe he needs connection and feels especially connected to the red car because he and his friend played with it at their last play date.
Figuring out what each child really needs sets you up for the last step in sibling conflict resolution, which is:
Step 4: Identify a solution
If Child A has a need for order and is sorting all the LEGO by colour, but Child B needs to be creative and wants to build a giant LEGO rainbow, how can both their needs get met? Maybe Child B can make a rainbow collage or Child A can apply her organizational skills to the crayon bin.
Or maybe, by the time you get to Step 4, the kids are like, “Mum, you’re being weird,” and they’ve both aligned forces to play somewhere away from you. But, dear beleaguered parent, practicing this process will allegedly prepare your kids to solve their own arguments without getting you involved. You have weeks of isolation left to test it!
“Children really do benefit from working out their own problems as long as no one is getting hurt,” King says. “If a parent hears name-calling or there is physical contact between siblings, it’s time to intervene. If siblings are able to tell each other how they feel and negotiate a compromise, stay out of it and their problem-solving process will feel that much more rewarding to them because they did it on their own.”
Go to your corner
“We all have a tendency to get irritated if we are around someone we feel is annoying us, violating our space or pushing our buttons—all common behaviours between siblings,” King says. “In this time of quarantine, it will be important to structure time together and structure alone time where siblings are asked to separate and have some alone time with reading, LEGO or watching their favourite show.”
This one works for adults and children. I have to give credit to my daughter’s kindergarten guidance counselor for reminding her (me) that we should all have a “calm down” space to retreat to when we feel angry, sad or frustrated.
Yes, parents are more prone to meltdowns under all this pressure, too. We may even be triggered by our kids’ disagreements because we flash back to a time when another kid stood in the way of our deeply-felt needs.
“Our kids crack us open and shine a light on all the places we are hurt and wounded and need healing,” Froyen said during the live stream.
So if you start feeling a little snippy with family members in this weird time, don’t be afraid to ask yourself what your underlying needs are, too.