A Teen and Her Five Year Old Brother

Q: My question is about sibling conflict between my 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. They are constantly fighting! And they are basically just rude and disrespectful towards each other so much of the time. I have read articles that say to let them work it out, but the hard part for me is the age gap between them. I feel frustrated when my 13-year-old gets rude to my five-year-old because I feel like she should know better and she should teach him better.

At the same time, my son gets extremely ugly in his behavior towards her, which also frustrates me because he’s not like that with other people. I feel like he’s still learning and she should already know not to say or do certain things to a little kid. The truth is she does. She is great with everybody else’s kids. She’s super-sweet and patient and loving. But to her brother, she’s not at all. She’s quick to get angry with him, and super dramatic about everything that he does. He will just go up and do certain things to her like grab something from her, and he’s even lied to get her in trouble.

Like I said, I know the articles say that I need to let them work it out, but there just seems to be so much tension between them and the age difference is what makes it really hard for me to know what to do. How do you suggest handling conflict of all types between children who are so far apart in age and development? A teenager and a preschool age child are so far apart!

A: I know how much this must hurt your mommy heart! But don’t despair—this can be turned around. A few things come to mind to help this situation.

  1. For now, don’t expect your teen to babysit her younger brother. I know, we rejoiced when our oldest hit 13 and we could leave her in charge of her three younger siblings and didn’t have to pay a sitter. But the dynamic here has gotten out of whack, so stop leaving her in charge (if you did before) until things resolve into more pleasantness between them.
  2. Be careful you’re not asking the teen to do too much to help her brother. Sometimes, we slip into the habit of relying on the older sib to help the younger one, and we do it too often—that can breed resentment and contempt on the part of the older sib.
  3. Separate them as much as possible for a while. In other words, they should interact as few times as possible while you help them work on a reset to their relationship.
  4. Make sure you’re spending one-on-one time with each of them, talking about the child in front of you, not the child at home. Kids act out when they don’t feel a connection with their parents. We take turns taking our kids to breakfast, for example.
  5. Take each one aside (not during your one-on-one special time) to check in with them about the sibling. Ask what’s going on, that you’ve noticed their relationship is frayed. Don’t accuse the child of doing something—your goal is fact-finding. Listen more than you talk. Empathize with the older one that her little brother can be annoying, and with the younger one that his sister can be snarky to him. Don’t try to fix it, don’t tell them what to do, just listen to get the tenor of what’s going on. Do this a few times over a week or so.

6.Then ask each one separately what would make their relationship better. Again, don’t jump in and defend one child to another, or don’t immediately dismiss the solution. Then ask the child/teen what they could do to make the relationship better.

  1. Call a family meeting. Say that you’ve noticed how each of them treat the other (they should be less likely to jump in defensive since you’ve already talked to them separately) and that’s not the way families act. Say the new rule is that for every put down, name calling, rude or disrespectful thing they say about the other sibling, they have to say at least three things they like or appreciate about that sibling. Tell them they each have to do at least two nice things for that sibling (like make lunch or hang up their coat, or bring them a pen because they asked for one and the cat is on their lap) each day before dinner, and that you’ll ask them at dinner what those things are.
  2. Do things together as a family, play games, read a book, start with small increments of time (like 15 minutes) so that you can end on a happy, rather than fighting, note.
  3. And don’t expect too much of your young teen. Sure, she should know better, but in many ways, she’s just a kid too.

How to get kids to do random things?

For a video answer of this question, visit https://www.facebook.com/parentcoachnova/.

If you’re a parent, you’ve experienced the frustration of asking your child to do something…and getting the fish eye, blank stare, snark, flat-out refusal, or whine “I don’t wanna.” This is doubly true when your request is random—that is, not related to the child’s regular chores or schedule.

Kids resist more frequently when the task request comes out of the blue, even if they’re doing “nothing,” the default runs from refusal to whining about it. But the fact remains, we all have to do things we didn’t put on our to-do list because things just come up.

How can you get your kids to do random things with less resistance and a more cheerful attitude? Here are a couple of things for moms and dads to keep in mind.

  1. Consider your timing. If your child has just sat down with a book, asking him to get up to help you will probably annoy him (as it would you in a similar situation!). If the task doesn’t need immediate attention, let a little time go by before voicing your directive.
  2. Avoid focusing on one child. If you have more than one kid, chances are, you default to asking one over the other for random tasks because of that particular child’s easier compliance. While you don’t need to adhere strictly to fairness in all things, this is one area you should strive to spread the, er, joy of helping you. To help you keep track of that, consider the two-then-switch rule—you ask two things of one child, then ask two of another.

Now, to help the kids be more compliant, here are three simple suggestions.

  1. Remind them of the clause “Other chores as assigned.” I actually wrote that on my kids’ chore charts and periodically tell them to be ready for “extra” tasks on occasion. Just like employees are generally expected to do things outside their written job descriptions, so should kids be prepared to execute tasks not on their chore descriptions.
  2. Try the ticket system. Have three slips of paper for each child (such as each child has a particular color), then tell the kids that each day, you might ask up to three random things of each child. When you do, you’ll give that child a slip of paper as a tangible marker that you’re “calling in a favor” or something similar. When the slips of paper are gone, so are the random tasks for the day. Some kids respond better to boundaries and this ticket system can help their hearts respond better to your directives.
  3. Use praise judiciously. When a child does complete the task without complaining, don’t always go overboard with your praise. However, if a child hasn’t been compliant in the past, but is in this instance, do tell him that you noticed. Be specific, like: “Thank you for not grumbling when you helped me carry in groceries.”

How do you get your kids to more cheerfully do those ad hock tasks?

Freedom Goes to a Two Year Old’s Head

Q: My 2-year-old recently transitioned from crib to bed. The freedom seems to be more than he can handle, and he has taken to destroying the bedroom he shares with his 3-year-old brother. Of course we’ve childproofed the room but there are clothes in drawers and some books on the shelf, mainly for the older brother. Typically in the mornings, I would make both boys help me pick up the mess before breakfast, but I’m now focusing on just the one boy since he is the perpetrator/instigator( I can see it on the monitor and we did not have this problem with the older one).

Since I’ve singled him out though for correction and sent the other boy down for breakfast without helping to pick up, the behavior has gotten even worse and he’s more mad. He refuses to clean up at all and the day goes downhill right from the beginning with him. He will only clean up if his brother is helping and I stay in the room with them. Left alone with instructions, he refuses. I do not show any frustration but simply let him know he made the mess and now he needs to pick it up or he will spend the day in his room except meals. He then proceeds to have fits, fiddle around in the room and look for other items to pull apart. We’ve stripped the room to bare bones but this is making things difficult. Should I be doing something else or is there a way to get some quicker action on his part?

Image courtesy of num_skyman/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It’s amazing how different our kids are, isn’t it? Where one is more laid back, another is a spitfire. Where one stays in bed, the other one is a human tornado.

A couple of things to keep in mind with your particular situation. First, a toddler doesn’t have the long-term memory to put two and two together—in this case, that he wrecked his room, therefore he must pick up and stay in his room until it’s done. When you expect a child to do more than a child is capable, that’s when you build frustration—in the child and parent. Of course he doesn’t want to clean up by himself! He hasn’t connected the dots that it’s his mess.

Second, don’t expect quick action from a toddler. They are by their very nature dawdlers. They are learning so much in a short time frame, and everything fascinates and distracts them. This is the beauty and annoyance of twos!

But don’t despair! There is hope to turn things around. You don’t mention when he does this destruction—in the evening going to bed or in the morning when he wakes up. See if you can pinpoint the timing, then you can make your plan. If in the evening, you are likely able to hear him do this (or station yourself outside his door to listen). When you hear drawers opening, you come into the room and stop him in his tracks. Have him immediately pick up the items by the light of the hallway (with you alongside him) and pop him back in bed with minimal talking. If it’s in the morning, gauge when he usually wakes up, wake up a bit earlier, and repeat the halt him in his tracks/pick up routine.

Anytime he needs to pick up, do it alongside him, directing him gently. “You pick up the toy trucks, while I get the trains” type thing. Have him focus on one part of the job, not the entire thing. Clothes all over the floor can be overwhelming for any child, so picking out the shirts, then moving to socks, etc., will help teach him how to manage a larger task and help keep him on task.

Also make sure you have lots of positive touch points throughout the day with him, little interactions that give him your full attention and love. Keeping that close connection will make the discipline times go more smoothly and will help you have a better attitude toward him as well.

Those Fighting Girls

Q: My two girls, ages 2 and 3, constantly fight when together (expect for one to three minutes at the beginning of play). My 3 year old is aggressive to her younger sister in the forms of hitting, scratching, bossing/bully, and making her do her work. The 2 year old has no trust with her sister, and if the 3 year old comes close, the 2 year old will automatically defend herself by hitting, scratching, screaming and biting. I also have a 6-month-old baby and I can’t watch these girls every second, nor should I have to watch them every second.

I feel very paralyzed to accomplish minor tasks around the house because these two can’t be trusted. I try to ignore some of the fighting, but they harm each other pretty good if I don’t intervene after a minute. What are ways to minimize the sibling rivalry and build trust between the two?

Image courtesy of stockimages/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Believe it or not, they will stop constantly fighting, but that day isn’t going to come soon! My two oldest are similarly close in age and girls as well, so I well remember the battles between them at 2 and 3! So, what’s a mother to do?

Separation is your friend. As much as possible, direct the girls to play in different areas of the house or room with different toys. When you hear the first yelp, intervene to separate the two of them. Don’t pick sides, but remove the toy and redirect. Repeat. This will take some time because the girls have gotten into a bad habit of fighting.

Then in quieter times, work with them on how to play together. Perhaps when the baby naps in the morning, spend 10 or 15 minutes playing alongside the girls, directing them gently but firmly on how to play together. Show them by doing, and they’ll catch on about sharing, etc. This isn’t something kids learn on their own!

Also help the girls do nice things for each other, like bringing toys they like or having the older sister “read” a book to the younger one. This type of interaction—again, directed by you—will help build more positive interactions with each other. My book, Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace, has a lot of other suggestions on building positive sibling relationships and conflict resolution. You can order a copy through my webstore.

A Family Affair

Whether you have brothers or sisters or are the parents of more than one child, you know that siblings can be a blessing—and drive you crazy. Last month, I talked about sibling rivalry in the home from the parent perspective and sibling conflict as adult brothers and sisters on the podcast, Chained No More.

The topics hit a nerve, with thousands of listeners tuning in to hear my interview with host Robyn Besemann. Here’s some of what I discussed with Robyn during the two shows.

On parents wanting to get rid of conflict in their homes
Conflict is a part of life because we all want what we want when we want it—at heart, we’re all selfish beings, and sometimes those selfish wants/desires bubble over and clash with someone else’s wants/desires, etc., or our wants/desires mean someone else has to give up something.

Image courtesy of artur84/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On reducing rivalry between step-parents and step-siblings
The number-one way parents can prevent step family sibling rivalry is to remove the word “step” from their vocabulary and treat all the kids like their own. No special favors, no regulating one parent into the role of observer,

On why we should try to get along with our adult siblings
Because these are the people who know you best, who have been there from the beginning, and who will likely be the ones around at the end. And because you’ll want assistance in helping your aging parents one day. And because our own children are watching how we relate to our siblings

On issues that crop up into adulthood that trigger sibling rivalry
Parental favoritism is a huge one, with some parents continuing or beginning a family dynamic of always taking care of one adult child for a variety of reasons. This could be fine, but most of the time, parents don’t bother to explain or even try to explain to their other kids the why behind their actions.

On building a bridge to repair sibling relationships
Don’t talk about them behind their backs. Be civil at family gatherings. Be the one to walk away and not engage in fights. Try to remember the positive things and think about those. Notice these are all things you can do—you can’t change the sibling, but you can change how you think and relate to the sibling.

To hear these free, hour-long podcasts, visit Chained No More.
“Sibling Rivalry: How to End the War At Home” aired on January 10, 2017.
“Adult Sibling Rivalry: Building Bridges and Mending Fences” aired on January 17, 2017.

High School Sisters Struggling With One Class

Q: I was wondering what you would make of this situation. Two of my girls are a senior and junior in high school. Their report cards show that both of them got one grade in the low 70s, while achieving 80s and 90s in the rest of their classes (they each take about 9 classes). So all in all they did pretty well, except that they both failed one class (46 and 24!) in a subject taught by the same teacher (who teaches one subject to the seniors and a different one to the juniors).

Both are conscientious and take school work seriously. Does this reflect the teacher or my kids? I have parent teacher conferences coming up, and I’m trying to decide how to broach this with the teacher.

Image courtesy of Ben Schonewille/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It could be a bad teacher who simply goes through the motions and doesn’t care if kids get it or not. Or it could be a good teacher who’s teaching a harder subject that the girls maybe thought it would be easier and haven’t applied themselves or asked for extra help until it was too late. I’d ask each girl separately why they think they did so poorly in this class. Just listen without comment, then talk to the teacher.

I would approach it with the teacher in a way that was more puzzlement on your part than questioning the teacher. Something like: “I see that Junior/Senior have been having some struggles in your class, which is unusual for each of them. I’m wondering if you can shed any light on might be the reason. They are both hard workers but I’m concerned they may not be understanding the material or having some other issue/concern that’s hindering their learning.” Then follow up with, “What can Junior/Senior do to improve their grade?”
Of course, a good teacher will respond with an answer that will be helpful, and provide steps for the teen to take to improve, such as after school help, additional online resources/practice problems, etc.
A bad teacher will shrug and say it’s not her fault if kids can’t learn.
Also, talk to some other parents with kids in the same classes too and see if it’s a class wide problem or not. Then you’ll have more info on how to move forward with the girls.

Follow-up from parent: At the parent-teacher conference, the teacher was quite baffled, actually. And so are my girls. We’ll get to the bottom of this, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it, seeing how well they’re doing in all their classes and how hard they’re working. They get home at six every day, and don’t stop with the homework until they go to bed (they go to a bi-curricular school, so it’s academically very rigorous).

But your approach really helped me approach the teacher in a neutral way, which is exactly what I needed!

When Young Siblings Fight

Q: I have a 5-year-old girl, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. I need some wisdom on how to handle their conflicts. My 2-year-old grabs toys from his older sisters. I usually come in when the older ones yell for me. I have them say, “Brother, I was using that toy, please give it back,” but brother says, “No!” I tell him to do it, and sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. If he refuses, he gets put into his crib. This obviously isn’t working, as it happens probably a dozen times a day. He hangs onto the thing he grabbed until I intervene.

He also won’t take no for an answer when demanding that they play with him. When they say no, he yells, “please!” Then they respond by yelling “no”, and it’s a back and forth of NO PLEASE NO PLEASE until I intervene and separate all of them. 

The sisters are responding in anger and yelling to his aggressive demands (and he is very aggressive, he has bitten them on more than one occasion). My 4-year-old in particular is very quick to start crying and yelling in reaction to him. So then I discipline all of them and separate them into their own spaces for a while.

Things are not getting better. I am exasperated and feel like I spend all my time refereeing. I need a plan for dealing with this!

—Exasperated Mom

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Because your youngest is a toddler, you will need to intervene more often, but it doesn’t have to be so exasperating! Here are some ideas to help calm the overall situation.

First, have your girls pick out two or three toys that are special to them and allow them to not share that with their brother. Help them find a good place to put those toys so that they are not easily accessible to their brother.

Second, modify your schedule at home to all for more separation of the kids. In other words, restrict the access brother has to play with the girls.

Third, give the girls suggestions of how to interact with brother, such as reading to him (or making up stories to go with the pictures), helping him with puzzles, building towers for him to knock down, etc. This will give them all positive interactions.

Fourth, when brother does take toys, simply remove him from the room and distract him with something else in another part of the house. If you’re cooking, let him bang on pots and pans or stack plastic containers, for example. At 2, he’s not getting cause-and-effect, so removal and containment are keys to helping your daughters not get overly angry at something their brother truly can’t help. As he gets older, you can connect the dots more (“you took your sister’s toy, so you’re in your room”).

Once the youngest is at least 3 years old or a bit beyond, you can implement Do Not Disturb the Family Peace (explanation can be found here: http://sarahhamaker.com/wp/?p=535).

Small House, Many Kids

Q: We are the parents of four girls ages 8, 6, 5, and 3, along with an 18-month old boy. We are experiencing a variety of discipline problems with all the girls and are preparing to implement the tickets* program. We have a small house and all the children share the same room. 

We have several questions related to using confinement to their room as a consequence for losing all their tickets.

First, our son naps in the room generally twice a day in his crib. It would be inconvenient to move his crib to our bedroom to minimize nap disruptions when confining children to their room, but we could do that.

Second, we also expect that there will often be more than one child confined to the room at a time. Are there any considerations we should be aware of when this happens? They of course generally enjoy playing together. 

Third, what can we do about reducing the play value in the room? They have only a toy box and books. All of them enjoy reading and/or looking at the pictures. We plan to remove most of the toys, but do you recommend the same with the books?

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of jscreationzs/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It can be difficult when children share a room to figure out ways to confine them for misdeeds, but even in small house, you can do this. Use other areas of the house (a corner, the bottom step, an alcove or large closet even) to confine the disciplined child. Kids don’t need a lot of space—in fact, the less space, the better when it comes to jacking up the boredom factor, which is a major incentive to her self-correcting in the future. The more boring a spot is, the more she’ll want to avoid ending up there.

Not using their shared room would also eliminate the need to strip their shared room of play value and allow the youngest to continue napping where he’s most comfortable. This will also prevent one child’s punishment from impacting the rest of them (like losing access to their shared room for a time).

As to your question about removing or restricting access to books: Parents must be willing to take away the thing(s) their child most loves. For some kids, it’s electronics. For others, it’s playing outside or riding a bike. For some, it’s reading or books. Yes, it’s hard to take away things that you know is “good” for a child to do (i.e., reading or bike riding), but remember, it’s for the short term and for the child’s overall long-term good.

Keep your eyes on who you’re raising—and responsible, competent, kind adult—and you’ll find yourself more willing to inflict short-term “pain” or agony to achieve that goal.

* Visit the Discipline Methods page for details on how Tickets work.

Classroom Separation for Twins?

Q: We have always kept our boy/girl twins in separate classrooms since they started preschool. It is time for classroom placement for next year (fifth grade) and we wrote a letter to the principal after getting feedback from their current teachers about putting them in the same class next year. We thought it would be a great experience for them to have as well as a nice way to help and support each other with class work. The principal called me and tried to talk me out of it because she thinks separate classrooms would be best. We would love to hear your feedback as we need to decide soon.

Image courtesy of Tanya3597/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Tanya3597/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I’ve known parents of twins who have both separated them and put them together in the same classroom (or even homeschooled them, which means together in the same classroom). As you can imagine, success with either way has a lot to do with the twins themselves. Do they want to be in the same classroom?

I’d ask their opinion—not that you will necessarily take it, but it would be good to find out if they have a preference and why. They might enjoy having different sets of friends and knowing that they can “edit” their day when talking to Mom (and avoid telling about specific things they might not want to share—and I’m not talking about bad behavior things only). On the other hand, they might enjoy sharing more throughout the school day. If they don’t feel strongly about it either way, you could try it for a year and see how it goes.

Ditch the Aggressor and Victim Roles

Q: My kids are 5 (girl) and 9(boy). She is precocious and bates her brother regularly. She is an extrovert sometimes to the extreme. He is quiet, generally calm, and keeps things inside, always trying to please. He gets frustrated, yells, cries and will even push or hit her when she needles him. Then he feels badly and apologizes. 

I’ve read about “Do Not Disturb The Family Peace” and love it. How would I make this effective for my kids so that it’s fair to both? With just 3 tickets, they could end up losing all of them and it really wouldn’t be his fault—she is difficult!

hamaker fox5 family peaceA: Before we tackle how Do Not Disturb the Family Peace (DNDFP), let’s start with how you’re contributing to the sibling conflict. Yes, I know, they are the ones fighting, but by your own words, you are assigning blame squarely on your daughter—and absolving your son of any serious contribution, as in “they could end up losing all of them and it really wouldn’t be his fault…she is difficult!”

For DNDFP to work—and believe me, it really does!—you have to stop putting your son in the “victim” camp and your daughter in the “aggressor/villain” camp. They both have a hand in the fighting, no matter how “difficult” one of them might be.

Helping your son learn how to react to a “difficult” person is one of the greatest lessons in life–and he’s learning it at home at a young age. Just think about how many difficult people you’ve encountered–a teacher, classmate, co-worker, boss, etc. Difficult people are all around us, and we can’t avoid them. What we can do is help our children learn how to deal with them in a way that’s kind and firm.

So back to your question! The way DNDFP works is that you have nothing to do with its execution other than directing one of the kids to take a ticket (or taking it yourself). You write the top two or three things they argue/fight about (for example, when I had this up for my kids, it was no hurting each other, keep the noise level down, and no tattling), give them together three tickets each morning, then don’t try to figure out what happened–just tell them they disturbed the family peace and it’s a ticket. For more on DNDFP, click here.

Yes, they will likely blow through the tickets in short order—then they’re confined to their rooms for the rest of the day and put to bed directly after supper. Remember, your kids are caught in a vicious pattern of fighting that’s only going to get worse. They need help to get off the merry-go-round, and this will help them.