It’s one thing to know positive discipline. It’s a whole other thing to apply this language consistently when there are siblings involved. With school letting out, families are likely to be spending more time together. Here are a few discipline rules between siblings to help for a smooth summer:
- Discipline individually – If you are at the park with three children, and one keeps throwing sand after being asked to keep the sand in the box, aim your discipline towards the one rather than towards all three. Say something like, “if you are throwing sand, you will have to come out of the sandbox,” rather than, “if you are throwing sand, we are all going home!”
- Praise individually – When you praise a child, you should be praising for something they did, NOT to curb their sibling. As a parent, you don’t get to say, “wow Johny, look how neatly you keep your room,” and then glare at his brother. Clearly you are talking to the brother. It’s not good to be either one in this scenario. It’s not good to be the one that got knocked, but it’s also not good to be the one that got praise in spite of brother either. There is pressure to stay on top or keep the other down, and it is a seed of sibling rivalry.
- When you don’t know what happened, start with what you do know – As you enter the room, two children are screaming over a ball and each is yelling they had it first. Asking, “who had this first?” is often treading water. You’ll likely get two versions of the story that leave you back at the starting point. Rather start by saying what you know, “I see you are upset about using this ball. I am going to hold on to it for a minute while we figure out what to do next.” Then focus your effort on helping them problem solve and move forward.
- Often, it’s start with empathy all around – It can go a long way to calming a situation by remembering to give empathy to anyone in need before moving through discipline. Remember to validate emotions, and let them know you understand before moving forward.
- Allow for their negative emotions – Building on empathy is actually allowing children to own and express their negative emotions. Let’s say you hear your children arguing down the hall, and a minute later one storms into the kitchen with an, “I hate her!” The answer is to start with empathy, validate the emotions behind the words, and let the child know you understand before curbing the language. This would sound like, “wow! You are angry, you don’t like it when she uses your things!” You might go on to explore this a bit, and then can more effectively loop back around to curbing the words like a behavior, “those words were too hurtful. Next time you can tell her you are mad, or you can ask me for help (choices). If I hear those words again, you will have to play in a separate area for the afternoon (logical consequences).”
- It’s okay when discipline varies per child – Your discipline for hitting may be very different for your three-year-old than it is for your six-year-old and that is okay. The mantra here is ‘fair is not equal, fair is everyone has their needs met.’ Discipline and expectations may vary based on personality, history, age and other variables. You can explain to the six-year-old what you did when they were three, or what you will do when the younger is six, but the six-year-old may still see it as “not fair.” This will make more sense to them when they become a parent.
- Recognize when and why you might side with one more than another – Sometimes, I find myself siding with my younger daughter more easily because I was the youngest in the family. You might side with one more then the other based on spacing or personality traits or behavior patterns. The idea is to recognize when this happens, so you can keep things in check.
There are a few good parenting books on sibling issues.
- Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish
- The Birth Order Book by Leman
- Birth Order Blues by Wallace
There are several good children’s books on sibling issues.
- Do Like Kyla by Johnson
- Julius Baby of the World by Henkes
- I Love You the Purplest by Joosse
- On Mother’s Lap by Scott
- Siblings: You’re Stuck with Each Other so Stick Together by Christ
When children are tantrumming often, parents just want it to stop. Part of stopping tantrums is working to prevent them in the first place. Teaching your child emotion language and knowing their triggers and cues can go a long way towards prevention.
Children need emotion language to better express their upsets. When they can label their emotions and talk about why they are feeling that way, they are much less likely to fall on the ground kicking and screaming. When they can say, “I am mad! I didn’t like that!” in the moment, they are less likely to tantrum. There are MANY ways to teach children emotion language.
- Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
- Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
- Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
- Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
- Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
- Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
- Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
- Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
- Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
- Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
- Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
- Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
- Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
- Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
- Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
- Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to my workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.
Triggers are what sets your child off. Tantrum triggers fall into three categories including situational triggers, social triggers and parent stress level. Knowing what sets your child off, allows you to see it coming in the moment and to teach your child how to better manage out of the moment.
- Situational triggers – Situational triggers include the child being hungry or tired. As a parent, this one falls on you to stay ahead of or fix. If you child tantrums from hunger, carry crackers in your bag and feed them healthy snacks more often. If your child tantrums from being tired, look at their sleep in the 24 hour period, check their nap schedule and build quiet time into their day.
- Social triggers – Social triggers are harder. This is a child that tantrums over having to share toys, being told “no” or not being first at something. The answer here is to teach your child how to better move through these moments. If the difficulty is over sharing toys then read and discuss children’s books about sharing, role play taking turns, tell stories or give puppet shows about sharing and taking turns, draw pictures of it going well and then coach them through it in the moment. Avoiding the trigger doesn’t work. If you end all playdates because your child falls to pieces over sharing, then your child loses the opportunities they need to practice.
- Parent stress level – This one can be hard to see. When parents are particularly stressed, children tend to tantrum more. It may be that they are reflecting the level or tone of emotion they feel in the house. It may be that because you are stressed, you are preoccupied. When you are preoccupied, you might not be as in touch as you usually are, and they have to get bigger and louder to get your attention. When you are stressed, do you seeing them rubbing their eyes, or do they have to be dragging on the floor to see they are tired? Do you recognize their frown, or do they have to be sobbing to get you to see they are sad? If they have to be dragging or sobbing, they will likely tantrum more because you are just not paying attention. This can often be tied back to your stress level. I’m not saying be super-parent and never feel stressed, just recognize when you are and the role it might play.
Cues are signs your child is about to lose it. Some kids do go zero to sixty, they are walking along and then BOOM, they are on the floor in full-tantrum. Most kids though, do give you a warning or a cue. Sometimes they are generous and give you a few minutes notice, other times it’s just a few seconds. The trick is to recognize your child’s cues and then intervene when they happen, before the tantrum. Some kids get fidgety, others get whiny or loud. It could be as slight as narrowing their eyes or their shoulders getting tense. There are several ways to intervene that may avoid the tantrum.
- Distraction – Distraction, before the tantrum, is fine while it works. For most kids, at some point, this just doesn’t work. While you are using distraction in the moment, you still want to be teaching emotion language and teaching them ways to better manage when the triggers happen.
- Empathy – Giving empathy means you validate your child’s emotions, even when you disagree with those emotions in the moment. Let’s say your four-year-old loses at a game and throws the pieces across the room, denying their emotions (what you want to avoid) would be saying, “you shouldn’t be so angry, it’s just a game.” Giving empathy (what you want to do) would be saying, “wow, you are angry! You didn’t like that game.” This validates the emotions, and lets them know you understand how they are feeling. There are so many beneficial reasons to start with empathy here, at the top is that it helps many children start to calm.
- Positive Intent – Giving positive intent is giving the benefit of the doubt, seeing the good reasons behind the bad behaviors and validating their motives. When children are called for snack and are now knocking each other out of the way to get there, they are “really excited for snack,” rather than “rude and careless.”
- Choices – In this case, choices are a distraction away from the tantrum. When children are making choices, they are being cognitive, and when they are cognitive they tend to be less emotional. Choices are two positive choices about how, when or where they can do something. Choices for a child who’s upset about not being able to get his shoes on might be, “do you want me to try, or do you want to try again?” or, “do you want to sit on the top step or the bottom step to try again?” or, “do you want to put them on in the car, or when we get there?”
If you don’t know your child’s triggers or cues, you might want to chart their behavior. Charting behavior can be helpful anytime there is repeat behaviors such as lots of tantrums or many aggressive acts. Charting is easiest if you keep a notebook. Give each tantrum one page and on each page make a template. This includes noting where it was, when it was, who was around, what seemed to set it off, any cues they were about to lose it, what happened during, how long it lasted, how they found their calm and what happened after. Once you have notes on several tantrums, you might be able to read through the notes and find patterns. You might realize that your child is always tantrumming around 11:30am, maybe it would help to move lunch earlier. Maybe your child is tantrumming when other children are playing together, and he feels left out. You might role play or read books about joining play.
Young children grabbing toys from each other is a common exchange. If your child grabs toys often, it’s good to be prepared. There are ways to best address this behavior before, during and after it happens. While I wouldn’t expect a parent to use all of the ideas below at once, some combination of several should be helpful.
Be proactive – Proactive techniques are to encourage wanted behaviors and stay ahead of unwanted behaviors.
- Setting Clear Boundaries – This is a pep talk that you might have before your next playdate arrives. The language here starts with setting one goal, “today on our playdate, I need you to take turns with the toys.” Next provide ways your child can be successful, “you may ask for a turn, you may wait for a turn, find toys to trade or ask for help.” Then you might remind them of the logical negative consequence (explanation below), “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 10 minutes.” Finally, you might prompt them to participate, “so how do you ask for a turn?”
- Catch the Good Behaviors – Once the playdate starts, the idea is to catch and encourage the good behavior as it happens. This is saying, “you asked for a turn, that was nice!” and, “you waited for a turn, you were patient!” Describe the behavior and label.
- Positive Directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive. Negative directions start with “no,” “don’t,” and “stop.” Positive directions tell children what to do and are far easier for children to follow. This is saying, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” rather than, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab.”
Discipline in the moment – The steps of positive discipline are meant to provide a framework for moving through a discipline exchange. Once the grabbing happens, some combination of the skills below should help you move through in an effective way.
- I messages – I messages allow you to voice your or the victim child’s emotions and lay blame on the behavior. This might be, “I am frustrated, people are grabbing,” or, “he is upset. He wasn’t finished with that.” I messages are also to avoid you messages which blame the child. A you message, which you want to avoid, are, “I am upset with you, you are always grabbing.” You messages make the listener defensive.
- Empathy – This validates the child’s emotions and why they are feeling that way. It lets the child that you are about to discipline know that you are still understanding how they feel as you move forward. Empathy might be, “I know you are frustrated, it is hard to wait.”
- Positive intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good intention behind the behavior. It’s shifting how you view the behavior. Positive intent might be, “I know you really want a turn,” rather than, “you are so rude.” In this case, positive intent might be reminding yourself you are talking to a three-year-old.
- Choices – When offering a child choices, remember to offer to positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. This might be asking, “do you want to give it back to me or to him?” or, “do you want to play with this or this while you wait for a turn?”
- Natural consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen in life if the child does or continues the behaviors. This would be, “if you are grabbing toys, he might not want to play with you.” These start to be more effective closer to four-years-old.
- Logical positive consequences – Logical positives are if the good behavior happens, then there’s a good related outcome. This might be, “if you can give that back nicely, I will be sure you get the next turn,” or, “I will play with you while you wait.”
- Logical negative consequences – Logical negatives are if the bad behavior happens, then there’s a bad related outcome. This might be, “if you are grabbing toys, you will have to play separately,” or, “you may not play with the toy for 10 minutes.”
To read more about the steps of positive discipline, read my related blog posts at https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.
Coach out of the moment – If you are repeatedly disciplining a behavior, it is time to start coaching. Coaching is more actively teaching about and encouraging the good behaviors.
- Avoid lectures – Most children are either too young to listen long, or old enough to tune you out. Be more engaging.
- Tell stories – If you are at all creative you can make up stories related to turn taking and sharing. When our girls were little, I told Amy and Catie stories. If the girls had a big upset at the swing set, that night Amy and Catie would have a remarkably similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should model good problem solving and emotion management.
- Role play – Go back through the scenario to find better ways to manage. The child can be themselves or the other child as you go back through.
- Puppet shows – This is often an engaging way to teach children about behavior. You can use puppets, doll babies or action figures to model better behaviors.
- Hypotheticals – This is asking “what ifs…” when all is well. Plan to do this over lunch or driving to preschool. In this case, it would be asking something like, “what would you do if you got to the sand box, and you really wanted to use a shovel, but there were only two and other children already had them?”
- Draw pictures – This is drawing pictures of it going well. You or they can draw pictures of them asking for a turn or finding something to trade.
- Play games – In this case, you might introduce easy board games and talk a lot about waiting for a turn and taking turns.
- Art projects – In our preschool, we practice turn taking by sitting six children down to a glue and mosaic art project with only two bottles of glue. We prepare them by explaining they will have to share and talk about how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait before we start. We coach them through and add a third glue bottle a few minutes in.
- Read stories – Good related storybooks include:
- The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
- Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
- Rainbow Fish by Pfister
- Share and Take Turns by Meiners
- Sharing is Fun by Cole
- The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
- I am Sharing by Mayer
- It’s Mine by Lionni
- One for You, One for Me by Albee
- Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger
Children can easily feel overwhelmed by other people’s emotional displays. This is especially the case if they feel responsible for the other’s negative emotions. This is often the set-up in a parent-child discipline exchange. Child misbehaves, parent feels angry, child feels responsible for parent’s anger. When children feel overwhelmed by other’s emotions, a natural defense mechanism is to get silly and play. In this moment they are trying to diffuse the situation, to distract from the anger. It tends to be a pretty poor way to diffuse, usually it tends to fail.
Let’s say your arms are full of groceries, you are trying to get the kids in the car and your four-year-old is running circles around you. Next thing, they knock groceries out of your hand. You bark, “get in the car!” Your face is red, and your voice is angry. Your child feels overwhelmed, so a natural defense mechanism kicks in, and they get silly. They laugh and run off saying, “you can’t catch me!” They are trying to change the situation, to calm things. Unfortunately it’s a very poor choice for getting to calm, being silly tends to kicks things up a notch.
The trick is to recognize the pattern for what it is. If your children get silly and play in response to your upset, at least consider they may be feeling overwhelmed and trying to diffuse your emotion. Take it as a signal to calm.
Teaching children to be kind to others is part of teaching them about managing emotions and social interactions, and part of teaching them about a bigger sense of empathy. Children choosing to act with kindness towards others leads to fewer conflicts and better relationships.
I posted these ideas on a D.C. Urban Moms forum post the other day when someone asked for ways to teach children about kindness. I thought I’d share them here too as well. Here are a few ideas:
- Read and discuss children’s books about empathy such as Stand in My Shoes by Sornsen or How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath.
- Read and discuss children’s books on friendship such as How to Be a Friend by Brown or Making Friends is an Art by Cook.
- Model kindness yourself OFTEN.
- Highlight when they are kind on their own by giving descriptive praise such as, “I saw you share that toy, that was very kind.” or, “that was so nice of you to wait for your friend.”
- Give children lots of opportunities to connect with and be helpful to other people. Maybe participate in fundraising or volunteer efforts together. Be sure when you donate things that they also make some contribution to the donation pile and talk about who will use these things. Find ways to volunteer together as they are old enough (there is a list of volunteer places with kids on the http://www.our-kids.com resource list). Volunteer to help elderly neighbors by picking up a few extra groceries for them once a week with a child-delivery system. In the winter, shovel a neighbor’s walk before your own and be sure to have your child participate. Talk with your child about how this is helpful.
- Teach children to look for small ways to be helpful to others. This might be holding doors, offering to carry things or picking things up. Little things add up to a sense of others.
- When there are disagreements that your child is involved in or witnesses, occasionally try to go back and review for better outcomes and to see it from the other person’s view.
- When you are reading any children’s story book, and there is a social conflict, stop and talk about the various viewpoints of each character and how people can feel differently about the same things. Discuss ways the characters could solve problems that would be kind or fair for all involved.
- In my own family, we talk often about not creating work for other people. Meaning we clean up our table as best we can in restaurants and we put things back on the shelf where they belong if we’re not buying them at the grocery store.
- Pet care is a nice way to introduce caring about others and being responsible to others. It’s good to discuss being gentle and loving.
- Teach children about genuine compliments and how good it feels to get and give.
Empathy is the child’s ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. This is a gradually developing trait throughout the childhood years. While young toddlers may react to others’ emotions, their ability to understand those emotions or recognize the other person is having a separate experience is limited. To support their growing sense of empathy, parents and teachers can teach about emotions and perspective taking.
There are lots of ways to teach emotion language. Here is a link to our blog post on child-friendly ways to gradually introduce emotions: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2013/03/11/ways-to-teach-children-emotion-language/
The goal by kindergarten is to have a child that can use their words to express emotions, and to be able to express emotions in ways that don’t get them into trouble. To meet this goal, the child needs a lot of emotion language input. A few goals are that by two and three years old the child should be able to label emotions, by three and four identify emotional expressions, and by four and five talk about causes and consequences of emotions. Right along with this is teaching them ways to best express and ways to calm.
Two year olds are almost entirely egocentric in their view. By five and six years old they are often better able to see another’s viewpoint. An easy way to teach perspective taking is through children’s storybooks. Children are used to talking about the characters and plots in their storybooks. To introduce the idea of empathy, stop and ask questions about how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking and why. With older children, discuss how different characters might feel and think differently at the same point in the story. Another way to teach this is to point out others’ perspectives often, especially when there is a disagreement. With a three year old, this might sound like, “look at your friend. He is sad, he didn’t like that.” As they are older, you might question their understanding. With a six year old, you might ask, “how is your friend feeling now? What happened that made him feel that way?” The more they can reflect other’s emotions the better.
Understand and Care by Meiners
How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath and Reckmeyer
Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Sornson
Visiting Feelings by Ruenstein
Teaching Children Empathy: The Social Emotion by Caselman
Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child by Gordon
Following an upset in her bedroom, an older daughter storms into the kitchen saying, “I hate her! She is always ruining my stuff!” Unfortunately, common parent responses include giving logic or reason, “she is younger than you, you have to be patient,” or a demand, “she is your sister, she is going to be your best friend in life,” or, “we are a family of love.” Worse yet, parents might deny the emotion overall, “you don’t hate her, you love her.” All of these responses teach the older child to bottle emotions, teach that her emotions are wrong and give her something to argue about. These responses let her know that you don’t understand.
it’s better in these moments to understand her emotion, give empathy and validate her emotion. This would sound like, “wow, you are mad at her! You don’t want her in your room.” The parent is labeling the emotion and letting the child know she is understood, that her emotions are her own and they are important. The child feels connected and can safely express herself. She can move forward from the emotion, rather than have to hang on to it and argue.
I am not saying you have to allow the word “hate” or let them scream negative things at each other day in and day out. You can follow-up by curbing the words as you would behavior. After you’ve given empathy, and the situation has calmed, it’s fair game to loop back by saying, “I know you are mad. When you are mad, I need you to find a better way to say it.” Then talk with your child about better ways. You might curb the language moving forward with, “those words are too hurtful. If I hear that again you will be in separate rooms.” Also, it’s good to spend time with both children addressing the specific behaviors at hand. This may be coming up with house rules about being in each other’s rooms, or setting aside time when they play separately each day to give them a bit more elbow room.
If you want to learn more about sibling relationships, there is a great book titled Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.
Between siblings: Fair is not equal, fair is everyone has their needs met.
It is okay for your discipline to be different for your three-year-old and your six-year-old for the same behavior. You might have a different expectation for your daughter and your son around a particular behavior. You might have to coach one child more to build specific social skills relative to their sibling and that’s okay. You are raising individual children who likely have very different personalities and paths of development. While I think it’s fine to have all of these differences, your children may complain that, “that’s not fair!” As a parent, I hope you can let go of defining fair as equal.
- With things – Say you are scooping ice cream into bowls and the youngest one says, “she has more than me!” pointing at her older sister’s bowl. She is comparing and complaining about something relative to her sister. The idea is to answer her in a non-relative way. Push the other bowls aside and gently bring her attention to her bowl saying, “this is your bowl. Do you have enough?” She can then answer yes or no, and you’ll have to deal with that, but you are taking it off the sister’s bowl. If she says, “yes,” you can move on. If she says, “no,” you can let her know that’s what is available, or you can give her more just not relative to her sister’s. If you start to dole out slivers of ice cream in an effort to make it equal, you are putting yourself on a path to endlessly measure out amounts.
- With time – I remember a Sunday afternoon when Alicen and I spent four undivided hours working together on her Jamestown Island project for school. She was eight years old, and her five year old sister spent the afternoon milling around the house and bored. Following that, I didn’t put pressure on myself to give Claire an equal four undivided hours. I had faith that Claire would have a similar project in the future. Overtime, if things really do seem unbalanced then address it.
- With love – When a child asks, “who do you love best?” Answer them individually by saying, “I love you because…” and then tell them why you love them. Answer them individually, not relative to their sibling.
If you’d like to learn more, please visit our online workshops at www.parentingbydrrene.com. Related workshops include Birth Order, Managing Competition, Sibling Rivalry and Proactive Discipline.
There is also a great parenting book that fully covers this titled Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.