Angela has two children, four-year-old Bella and two-year-old Fin. Bella wants some of the blocks that Fin is playing with. Bella desperately wants those blocks to complete her little village, Angela intervenes telling Bella that she’ll have to wait until Fin is finished, at which point Bella’s frustration reaches overload to the point of a tantrum. Bella eventually calms down and offers Fin a deal of swapping toys. Fin happily swaps, both kids happy again…that is for about ten minutes until Bella needs more blocks, again offers to swap, but Fin refuses. Bella is in tears again and shouts out “You’re the meanest brother ever!” Now Fin dissolves into tears as well!
What doesn’t help. It’s tempting to tell Bella; “Don’t you speak like that about your brother!”, but this will fuel her resentment towards him and add conflict to conflict. Most children interpret this as “You’re only caring about him” (sound familiar?). You could try and solve it for them “OK, why don’t you take turns playing with the blocks and I’ll time you.” You could think of a clever bribe or threat to encourage your toddler to share, but is this what you want to model? Or encourage them to forgive and forget, “Come on say sorry to your brother”, “Share nicely with your sister”.
Any of these options may end the conflict in the short term, but they probably won’t help them resolve any frustrations that have built up. It won’t resolve the inevitable misunderstandings, and it won’t give them the opportunity to practice listening to each other, to own their problems or practice solving problems together.
What does help. One of the best ways of helping your child make their way back towards being calm and reasonable again is to express empathy; “Hmm it looks like you’re really frustrated my girl, you really wanted those blocks didn’t you?” Empathy heals and helps children feel acknowledged. To listen and reflect back what you hear shows that you’ve heard and understood their problem and invites them to share more.
You may think, “Surely I shouldn’t encourage upset feelings”, but actually the more you support them to get it all off their chest, the quicker they’ll get through it. If they don’t get it out, they WILL act it out. Letting the bad feelings out frees children to feel good again. Children gain strength from our acceptance of their feelings. Empathy is mostly expressed through tone of voice and body language like a caring hand on the shoulder.
Most of the time you don’t have to fix their problems, you only need to show that you really care. Our children love to gain their own insights and solutions when we give them the space and encouragement through our patient listening, reflecting back and validating their feelings and wishes.
The best guide is always to listen to your own heart and attune to your child’s needs. But if this approach is new, here are some guidelines that may help.
- Connect with both children with messages of support; “Looks like you kids have a problem, can I help?” Intervening in this way can diffuse tensions from the beginning. It reassures each child that you’re not laying blame or taking sides, which you might have noticed, most children are very sensitive to!
- If one child is in danger, physically intervene if necessary, while staying calm and non-threatening.
- If one or both children are particularly upset, just listen and let them get it all out until they’re ready to seek a solution, if the problem still exists at that point!
- Facilitate them taking turns to give their side of the story and hearing each other. With pre-verbal children, you can express in words what you interpret they’re expressing, “John it looks like you pushed Maria because you didn’t want to share the truck, is that right?”
- Reflect what you hear, re-framing where necessary. “I hate him, he NEVER shares, he’s mean!”; “You’re really upset because you really want those blocks.”
- Encourage them to contribute ideas to solve the problem, then respect and restate all ideas as non-judgmentally as possible; “Bella you want Fin to swap blocks for cars and Fin you’re suggesting Bella go outside and play, hmm this is a tricky one. I reckon you kids can work it out. Are there some ideas you haven’t thought of?” Children who were unwilling to discuss options previously are often enabled to do so with the adult’s support.
- Help them decide which idea they prefer, if any; and help them carry it out.
- Reinforce the process when the problem is solved. “You both shared your feelings and ideas, you listened to each other, you found a solution. You kids are really good at working through and solving problems.”
When no solution can be found. For Bella and Fin, it reached the point where there wasn’t an easy solution – they were both upset. It’s hard for child and parent, but it’s understandable and they need to be allowed to be upset. Trust that your soothing messages are being received despite continued cries. Nice messages can be; “I’ll be with you while you wait Bella”, “Fin you’re upset that your sister is angry with you”, “I’m looking after you both and caring for all your feelings – what a good cry, you’re getting it all out”. Try to avoid rushing them out of their feelings, the more you resist, the more their hurt feelings will persist.
In such instances, the girl or boy may need to express a backlog of feelings that have caused them to be generally out of balance, the conflict may be just a catalyst, what they need is for mum or dad to share the moment with them and be their loving empathic rock of strength as they get it all out.
The great thing about working out these strategies is that our children give us lots of opportunities to practice!! But with the right kind of intervention, we can support children to work through both their feelings and their problems, giving them the skills and the confidence to be constructive problem solvers for life!
For constructive parent coaching, visit www.peaceful-parent.com and contact Genevieve, or her husband Dan who specializes in helping dads. A great resource for parents is our Stress Relief for Parents CD, it helps parents relax, de-stress and practice self-regulation.
Genevieve Simperingham, Dip. Psychosynthesis Counselling, Certified Parent Educator and Instructor and co-founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute – www.peaceful-parent.com