Thursday, May 29, 2008


“How do you address siblings being mean to each other? Picking on each other, doing/saying the things that *just* annoy the other...? What if just after Timmy says (heart feltedly, or so it seems to parent) "I want Pete to leave me alone!" Timmy is sticking his tongue out at Pete (again!)?

Mind you, I don’t believe either Pete or Timmy are "right" (oh, wouldn’t it be easy to act as a judge then and just send the offender to prison (AKA timeout)... no, no way, it wouldn’t!)”
--Thinking Mom

Ah, this is an interesting one. I think there are really two big pieces to this problem. How can the parent best respond in the heat of the moment? And, how can the parent help prevent siblings from tormenting each other in the future?

Responding in the heat of the moment requires not getting emotionally sucked into the drama. Instead, it’s up to the parents to figure out how to be present and engaged with the children without soaking up their anger and excitement. A sense of humor almost always helps shift the situation in a positive way. Being open to hearing both sides of the story is key to helping both siblings. Believing that all parties have good intentions is also important -- for example, instead of thinking that one child is just out to annoy the other child, consider that one or both children are conducting their own experiments in human psychology. There are better ways to study human psych than using family members as lab rats, but the interest is valid.

Some possibilities for addressing the longer term ramifications…

It might be true that both kids are enjoying the “tormenting.” Sometimes situations look worse to the outside observer than they actually are. It’s possible for people to have a lot of fun pushing each other’s buttons… It’s also very common for the button pushing to, at some point, become painful for one or both people. Still, it’s worth exploring (outside of the heat of the moment) whether the adrenaline rush and excitement of teasing each other and watching the explosive reactions has become a kind of game for both participants. If so, then figuring out how to safely end it when it stops being fun is crucial for both people. When in doubt, ask! Find out what the real issues are, find out what possible solutions are according to those directly involved in the conflict.

If, instead of being fun for both it is sometimes fun for one but not the other, then better ideas for how to play are definitely needed. Big reactions are fascinating to provoke and observe – how do both people feel about surprises as opposed to teasing, for instance? Or making slapstick jokes? Or little pranks like a rubber snake in someone’s shoe or putting a teddy bear in the fridge? The important part of these suggestions is finding a way forward that will be fun for both participants. Learning about how people react to unusual or difficult situations is not inherently bad. Intentionally hurting other people, however, is definitely to be avoided.

Of course, it’s also possible to shift the interest away from the other sibling altogether – to seek out movies and books and TV shows and video games that explore these issues. Or to engage in very intentional people watching in public places – spy games, for instance, or sketching, or just sitting and watching and chatting about what is seen.

Another hugely important thing to consider is that nothing gets a parent’s attention like a screaming sibling. Perhaps the parent needs to be more actively involved with both kids – playing board games together, or setting up art activities, or heading outside for a walk or some playground time together. If a bad dynamic is in place (mom is busy, brother screams, mom suddenly has time for us) then it is really critical for the parent to figure out how to break that dynamic. It can be really helpful in such a situation to talk to the kids about how they can quickly get parental attention. Touching an arm, or making eye contact, or singing a song, or doing some other simple thing... Just thinking good and long, as the parent, about how to be receptive to interruptions, and really listening for early cues can make a world of difference.

And of course, start where you are. No sense wallowing in guilt for setting up a bad dynamic – just get in there and start changing things for the better. Baby steps, toddler steps, giant leaps… Heck, treading water is always better than sinking. Figure out what, if anything, applies and work forward from where you are.

I hope something here helps!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Self Sacrifice

"I don't want to make my kids do things they don't want to do, but I hate feeling like their slave. How can I avoid being a martyr? Why does giving them what they want mean giving up what I want?"
--Frustrated mom of four.

Parental self-sacrifice creates unhappy child tyrants and unhappy mama (or papa) martyrs. It is a default solution for the same reason that coercion is a default solution -- we assume from the outset that if there is a conflict, somebody has to lose. When parents and kids who disagree are pitted against each other, as is the case in almost every article in almost every parenting magazine out there, everyone loses. If we accept the me vs. you mentality, then our choices are either to help our kids at our own expense, or to help ourselves while our kids suffer. I always thought I was lucky because my parents perpetually chose to help me while they suffered... Then I became a parent, and you know what, I didn't want to suffer! There must be a better way, I thought...

But how?

The TCS solution to conflicts is to find a common preference. (I'm only talking about genuine conflicts that actually impact both parent and child -- not hair brushing and clothing choices and all that personal domain jazz.) A common preference is a solution that everyone involved truly prefers to any other options that have been discussed. This means that everyone involved is happier with this solution than they were with their original idea. Sounds easy, I think. Sounds possible. Sounds simple.

It's not. At least, not always. When it's simple, you don't even notice it happening. When it's hard, well, you don't think about much else. The thing is, there are no rules now. Everything is open-ended. It's like that trick environmentalist question, what do you say when the cashier asks "paper or plastic?" And the right answer -- "cloth."

Who wins, you or me? The right answer -- we both do. If I want to go out to dinner, and you want to see a movie, our solution might be to eat first then go to the movie, or to sneak take-out into the theater, or to order pizza and rent a video, or to go have a picnic in the park and fly a kite. Solutions are not pre-fabricated. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.

So, how on earth does one do this when one is essentially programmed to self-sacrifice? Ya got me! I have no idea.

Okay, that isn't totally true. I think some of the most important things for martyred parents to do include:
-Accepting that even if you feel like you are programmed to self-sacrifice, you have the power and the tools to change that programming.
-Believing that you can change your mind, as can everyone else you love.
-Figuring out what your own personal "self-sacrifice is imminent" physical, emotional, or intellectual warning signs are.
-Figuring out what you really want, in a big-picture way as well as in all the mundane moments.
-Learning how to verbalize what your wants are without accusations or acrimony.
-Getting support from family and friends to enable time alone for pursuing interests that are personally exciting and fulfilling.
-Figuring out how to not do things that you don't want to do. Maybe those things don't need doing, or maybe someone else can do them, or maybe just thinking about all your options will bring you to the realization that you actually do want to do those things after all.
-Remembering that what you do choose to do you are doing for reasons that are important to you.
-Knowing that what you do today does not create debt owed to you. You are making your choices based on what you want now.
-Celebrating your choices, and acknowledging that nobody is making you do anything -- you are your own person.
-Figuring out how to feel empowered and happy with the life that you have created for yourself, and if that feels impossible, then looking long, hard, and deeply at your life to unravel the barriers before you and to find what it is that you truly want for yourself.

As always, I hope something here helps.