Kicking, hitting and screaming.
It’s what happens at my house from the moment my kids wake up to the moment they go to sleep.
My sons, ages 2 and 4, fight with each other over everything. Whether it’s sharing toys, the color of their dinner plates or even who has the bigger sippy cup – everything is a competition, and my husband and I are the referees.
The fighting is constant, and I wonder every day if it’s normal.
I grew up with a brother 18 months younger than me, and we bickered. But my parents and I don’t remember it being as volatile as what I’m experiencing with my two kids (although I realize we adults tend to block out some of the bad times).
My mom friends say their children throw tantrums, but no one seems to relate to my situation.
I did some digging, and it turns out I’m not crazy. Sibling rivalry, especially when it comes to kids of the same sex, is common – and even more so when they are less than two years apart, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Knowing that I’m one of countless parents going through this issue brings me solace, but I need to do something to change the dynamic. I can’t handle the constant screaming.
I know in my heart that I’m not handling their conflicts well: I threaten to take away toys; I attempt time-out with my 4-year-old, and sometimes I yell.
Since nothing is working, my husband and I decided that we needed to flip the script for our sanity. This challenge led me to seek out two parenting experts to change our parenting tactics. (They also have kids.)
Being a sibling is hard
“We just have to understand that it’s hard to have a sibling,” said Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and host of the “Good Inside” podcast. “So many of us have kids and … think, ‘Oh I’m going to have kids that get along. They’re going to have a playmate.’ ”
When that doesn’t happen, Kennedy, better known as “Dr. Becky,” said it can be a letdown. “You say to yourself, ‘I didn’t expect this to happen for our kids to be fighting all the time.’ But fighting in some degree is a normal part of sibling relationships.”
I thought that having two boys meant that they would be the best of friends building block castles and giggling, not having MMA-style fights before the sun has risen.
Kennedy suggested that I look at it from my 4-year old’s perspective.
“A first kid has a whole family system, and then a second kid comes along, and everything that the first kid knew about how to feel safe in the world, how to get love and attention from their parents, is totally thrown in the air and mixed around,” she said.
“The person who we want our kid to see as a playmate feels like a competitor,” she added. “Not a competitor for the green truck that they are fighting over but really a competitor for feeling valuable and worthy, getting one-on-one time and being seen.”
A 4-year-old doesn’t know how to express those feelings, she said, so he gets attention by “walking up to (his) brother and smacking them.”
Replace the word ‘stop’ with ‘I won’t let you’
On a typical Saturday morning, I take my boys to our playroom and watch them play. For the first few minutes, all will appear calm, so I’ll go upstairs and heat up my stale coffee.
Whether I’m with them or not, it’s guaranteed that one will want the toy the other one has. Then a wrestling match ensues, which turns into screaming and crying with me breaking it up like a bouncer at a nightclub.
I almost always tell the older one to share with his little brother, and I always find myself yelling some version of “Stop fighting!”
Kennedy said I’ve got it all wrong.
“We cannot say to kids, ‘Give the toys back.’ And we cannot say, ‘Stop doing that,’ ” she said. “You’re saying to a kid, ‘I see you’re out of control, but I’m not willing to step into my role as an authority as a parent. … Can you stop doing the thing that you clearly can’t stop doing?’ ”
She’s right. I ask my 4-year-old to share because I know my younger child has a more difficult time doing so.
“That’s actually very terrifying for a kid because your kid is thinking, ‘Wow, my parent isn’t able to help me here and they’re asking me to do an adult job.’ We can always replace ‘we don’t and stop’ with ‘I won’t let you.’ ”
Kennedy also said no to time-outs, which I resort to if my older son repeatedly does something I’ve asked him not to do, such as jumping on the couch. “All that happens when you send a kid to time-out and especially if you spank them is, ‘I don’t want to be around you. You’re a bad kid.’ “
She doesn’t like threats either. “You can’t learn to manage a feeling by punishing a behavior. … We can tell our kids what we will do, not what they can’t do. Saying, ‘If you don’t stop jumping on the couch, you won’t get your iPad.’ That requires my kid to do something. That’s why threats and consequences don’t actually work.”
Kennedy plays out various scenarios for parents and caregivers in videos on her Instagram page, and she did it for me.
The next time I see my children are fighting, she suggested I say: ” ‘I won’t let you take his toy.’ Because really what you’re saying is, ‘You’re a great kid, but you’re doing something that is not a great decision and because I love you, I’m going to stop you.’
“Your kids aren’t making good decisions because they don’t have the skills,” she said. “You and your husband have to teach them the skills.”
When they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing, she suggests another option. I should say, ‘I won’t let you jump on the couch, but you can jump on the floor.’ Or ‘I won’t let you say those potty words here, but you can go say them in the bathroom.’ ”
Emily Edlynn, a child clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book “Parenting for Autonomy: Stop Doing Their Laundry and Other Radical, Science-Backed Practices to Raise Self-Sufficient Kids,” agreed my husband and I can teach them the skills they need to learn.
“Especially at 2 and 4,” Edlynn said, “they don’t have the self-regulation when their brother is antagonizing them. I always think of we (parents) are their brains. That’s why letting them fight to the death doesn’t really work. Teaching some skills helps them as their brains develop and will help them later in life.”
It’s important to narrate the issue at hand, she said: “You take the toy and say, ‘Hey, we have a problem,’ and the 4-year-old will probably tell you the little brother took the toy.
“You will need to narrate and identify the problem calmly, and then hopefully their emotions are turning down. Then working with them to solve the problem, you could say, ‘What do you think it’s like for your little brother to not have the toy he wants? I think he feels really jealous or angry.’ ”
Then separate the children and sit with the one having a difficult time.
“You are co-regulating (emotions) with him. They need the physical comfort, the one-on-one connection,” Edlynn said.
I had my doubts, but I promised I would try her recommendations. It de-escalated the situation much faster than in the past. Usually, a playroom battle would take 20 minutes to handle, but the first time I tried the new techniques, I diffused the situation in less than five minutes.
“A kid’s job is to have feelings,” Kennedy told me. “Because if you want your kid one day when they are an adult to be able to deal with disappointment or jealousy – which we all know adults feel – you want them to have coping skills for those feelings. A kid has to feel the feelings. So their job is to scream, ‘No, I want that toy!’ “
Practice, practice, practice
Practice makes perfect.
Kennedy suggested an exercise my husband and I could do separately or together: We’d take one of the children and role-play a scenario such as dinnertime or a dispute over a toy.
“You’re problem-solving when things are easy,” Kennedy said. “It’s the equivalent of practicing a free throw during practice versus only waiting to practice a free throw when the game is on the line.”
“Ask your 4-year-old, ‘What would it be like if I had the blue block? I have the blue block. What could you do if I have the blue block and you want it? I’m not going to let you hit me or grab me because that’s not safe for anyone so I wonder what you could do?’ “
Both experts told me that parenting at this age is about creating boundaries for the long term.
“The way we present information to our kids is either building up their own understanding and sense of responsibility and their own internal motivation to do things a certain way,” Edlynn said, “versus the more controlling stance, (which) ends up working in the short term, and then the children aren’t learning.”
It’s never going to be perfect
Edlynn, who has three kids of her own, ages 12, 10 and 7, said we should all give ourselves a bit of a break, noting that children’s brains are still developing. “We are their coaches for their brains,” she said, noting she is always asking, ‘How can my child learn from this moment?’ ”
“I have a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old,” Kennedy said. “I’m the first parent to need to read my own Instagram and take my own advice. I have plenty of stuff that’s hard with my kids, too.
“There is no such thing as a perfect parent,” she said. “We all mess up.”