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!

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