This Motherhood #2 Brothers and sisters: How to keep the peace
January 18, 2016
Whether he's passionately defending his older sister, or giving the youngest an angry prod as he storms past, Oscar's not afraid to show his feelings towards the girls in his life. He has big emotions. He gets frustrated easily, yes, but he loves them both deeply and this fact is, for me, one of the most rewarding aspects of parenting.
When I was pregnant with Oscar, I worried, as so many mothers do, about how my cherished three-year-old, Lila, would cope with having another child in the house. I worried about how I'd still manage to find time for her once the baby was born. But something my sister said really made an impression on me. She told me that Lila was about to form a special new relationship. One that would, hopefully, be one of the most important in her life and would outlive my relationship with either of them.
Now I watch them when they're not looking. Drawing together, sharing a joke, taking it in turns to stroke the cat, chasing each other on the beach, then jumping in the waves.
That's not to say that I haven't witnessed lots - and I mean lots - of sibling fights over the years. Their personalities clash. He knows how to antagonise her. She has no patience with him. One day they were fighting so much that I told Lila it just had to stop - it was really upsetting me. She said:
'It's normal you know. So don't worry. That's what brothers and sisters do. They argue. But it doesn't mean they don't love each other,' Profound, but true.
When his little sister, Iris, was born, Oscar was a three-and-a-half year old little brother. Although he was fascinated with my growing bump, the reality of being an older brother didn't mean a great deal until Iris's birth day - the day they first met. Holding his baby sister in his arms, wrapped up in a white blanket like a shiny new present, he seemed so proud and happy and - big. A new dimension was added to our family and another new set of relationships formed.
Managing to divide my time, love and attention between two wasn't easy. But with three, it's been a real challenge. I find it hard to admit that - I feel that it should be natural, effortless. But then I realise that's the reality of parenting. Surely nothing in life that's really worth doing is meant to be easy?
So how do you help manage these important relationships? Is it possible to keep jealousy and frustration out of the house? Is it possible to stop arguments? Maybe not altogether (not in my family anyway!). But with a bit of effort and guidance it is possible to keep the peace most of the time. And that's something to aim for...
1) Set limits
It helps to have a really simple system for unacceptable behaviour - towards each other. You'll know what your limits are. In our house it's no saying 'shut up' or calling someone 'stupid', it's no pushing or hitting, it's no shouting or arguing at all in the car. All of these things are always unacceptable. Not listening at all after warnings and refusing to do what we ask (for the bigger kids) is also a no no. First they get a warning. Second they have to spend time by themselves in their room (they have no screens in there). Lastly, they have privileges taken away (usually ipad time).
2) Practice finding solutions
My children all have strong personalities and strong opinions about what they want. None of them are a push over. Whether they're fighting over a toy, the ipad, or what to watch on TV, I've found it helpful to turn the situation into a problem solving exercise.
Getting them to think in this way often helps. Sometimes they suggest taking turns with a toy using a timer. And sometimes it just helps to diffuse the situation.
3) Keep them all topped up
Last night I found putting the kids to bed stressful. I was really tired and my husband was out. Lila was asking for help with her homework, there was a messy poo in the toilet and Iris was refusing to get in the shower. While I was cleaning the bathroom with a mop, Oscar started yelling 'Iris get out!' 'Iris STOP, NOWWWW' (yes, this is my life).
I was in the next room and could hear what was going on. Iris was knocking down Oscar's careful arrangement of soldiers. She was kicking the base that he'd constructed, piece by piece, from lincoln logs. I felt really angry with her and I was just about to storm in and shout, when I reminded myself that wasn't the best way to deal with the situation. I am the thread that holds everything together. And this was a cry for attention.
I looked Iris in the eye and told her, in a firm voice, that kind of behaviour wasn't acceptable or fair to Oscar. I told her to apologise to him and then I took her by the hand. I told Oscar I'd be back to help him in a while.
I knew that all three kids needed me. They needed my one-on-one attention. Hard as this is, especially when I have lots of other things going on, I have to accept that when I keep all of them topped up with one-on-one parent time, meltdowns and arguments are kept to a minimum.
Then I lay on Iris's bed and read two books to her before singing her goodnight song. I helped Oscar reorganise his toys then we read a chapter of his book together. Lila showed me what she'd done for her homework and then told me about her day. And I listened. And I went to bed (very early) knowing that things were better.
4) Intervene - and listen
It's easy (as a busy mum) to start shouting when things kick off. So easy. And I'm very aware that I set the tone in the house and how patient I am has a lot to do with my mood (here are some techniques I'm using to help deal with that).
Most of the time, I do try to hold back when the children have small arguments. As Lila said, it's mostly harmless. But when things become explosive, I try to find out what's been going on. And try not to take sides.
One way I do this is by listening as much as I can to everyone's viewpoint. So everyone gets a chance to talk, uninterrupted - while I take it all in. It can be hard, but it usually helps everyone to feel heard. Quite often they just wanted to get their point across. And from there it's easier to find a solution.
5) Teach them empathy
A lot of the time, arguments happen when strong feelings cloud our judgement. There are a lot of strong feelings in my family. And that's okay - in fact, I think that's a good thing. But it can also make the house feel a battleground at times.
The littlest people messing up/ taking stuff belonging to the bigger people is one constant source of conflict. It's something that I'm always trying to find a practical solution to but keeping doors shut and things on high shelves doesn't always work. The only thing I do try to do - which helps a bit - is get them to try and imagine the other person's feelings. To think about how they would feel if they were in their shoes. Encouraging them to think in this way is an ongoing process - but it does help.
Do you have any tips on how to help brothers and sister get along? I'd love to hear them.