Sibling rivalry seems to go hand in hand with, well, having multiple children. Now I know there are some siblings out there that live harmoniously day in and day out, causing no concerns for their parents in that regard, but surely these are the minority!? Certainly in our household sibling rivalry became tangible the moment we arrived home from the hospital with a new baby sister for our then 13 month old, Lucy! Almost instantly Lucy’s sleeps went into disarray, she became much more clingy and whingey and her general demeanour changed.
As the girls grew, so too did their rivalry. Unfortunately we knew nothing of RIE or respectful parenting in these early days and so our harsh reactions to small altercations did more to fuel the squabbles than to build a healthy sibling relationship. As Lucy was set in time out, shouted at and occasionally spanked for her escalating behaviour, she became more and more extreme and disgruntled.
Luckily within six months of the arrival of the new baby we were introduced to RIE parenting and set ourselves on an immediate course to connect more with both our children and show them the respect they deserve for the people they are. This worked well for us for several months as we sportscast through sharing issues and blocked acts of aggression towards the younger sibling, Penny; all the while offering understanding and empathy to both children for the individual hardships they were facing.
Gradually, we began to feel more at ease with the blossoming relationship between our two daughters and were happy to give them their due space, allowing them to come to their own natural conclusions for their squabbles. There were times early on when our calmness waned and we reverted to a punitive discipline style but it never lasted long and always made me more resolute in my pursuit of respectful parenting.
In those early days Lucy displayed a lot of aggression towards Penny. Mainly pushing and hitting but occasionally biting also. This, of course, was upsetting for Penny and luckily we were able to shadow them when they were in the same vicinity, picking up on cues that we needed to stay close and blocking many of the aggressive acts before they occurred, reminding Lucy that we would not let her hit or push Penny. In the times we were not quite fast enough and Penny was pushed etc, she would cry loudly and we would offer her comfort for as long as she needed it (which was not usually long). Often Lucy would run to her room crying as well and would come out cuddling her security bunny. I would sit with them both and talk about what each may have been feeling and usually they would both run off and play within minutes of the beginning of the initial altercation.
Fast forward a year and recent dynamics in our household have taken a turn for the worse. Lucy (now 33 months) is aggressive towards Penny (now 20 months) less often but has developed an intense desire to control every aspect of Penny’s life from what she wears, to how she sits, where she plays, with what she plays, for how long and in what way. She reacts strongly towards Penny if her demands are not met and although physical acts of aggression are much more rare these days, they still occasionally occur and often take us by surprise, meaning we are not there to prevent them as we would like to be.
This overwhelming need Lucy has to boss and manipulate her sister combined with a number of physical tussles between the two, has caused a significant change in the reactions of Penny. It is this change and our desire to keep our children safe that has had us running for the textbooks, sifting through the forums and praying for a quick end to the disarray we have all been thrown back into.
Penny’s sensitivity to Lucy’s outbursts has grown and it has become increasingly more difficult to offer the girls the comfort and connection they need during these altercations. If Lucy takes a toy from Penny or interferes with her physically in some way, no longer does she whinge slightly or cry out in annoyance before moving on, she cries a loud, sobbing, angry cry that lasts upwards of an hour and includes jamming herself into a far-reaching corner, away from me, Lucy and anyone else who dares try to offer her comfort. Her arms will swipe across her body as if to say ‘go away, I don’t want you or your comfort.’ She will even hit herself in the face at times.
Of course this is completely distressing for us as parents to witness. We can see this as a child crying out for help, wanting us to do something to stop the barrage of Lucy’s incessant need to dominate and yet not wanting us to be there to even offer a cuddle in those meltdown moments. A final straw for us came when Penny’s physical safety was severely compromised after she was pushed out of a trampoline enclosure onto the ground below.
We had been so trusting of RIE parenting to this point but we knew something needed to change and didn’t think respectful, peaceful parenting could help us through it. It was time to start defending the emotional and physical welfare of our youngest child even if it meant breaking some of the connective bonds we have been so carefully tying to our eldest.
So, my husband and I made the decision to deviate from respectful parenting and pave our own parenting pathway to get over this bump. We both agreed that spanking was not an option so in our limited knowledge we decided we really had only shouting, shaming and isolation left to use – all commonly practiced discipline methods in conventional parenting. Every ounce of my being was begging me not to go down this route, after all we had come so far, but we were so desperate that I was convinced to give this a go for just two weeks and if things hadn’t changed we could always go back.
So the day came where my Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids slogan was to be laid to rest for the ‘benefit’ of our children and this household. As the early morning sun filled our house with light, it didn’t take long before both children were charging out of their rooms, excitedly ready to embrace the day ahead. My plan for the day was to speak harshly when Lucy acted aggressively in any way against Penny eg taking toys, pushing etc. She was also to be isolated from Penny in a ‘time out’ type manner. I was then careful to let the children know of this change in approach so they would both be prepared.
The first opportunity I had to use the new method came not long after breakfast. Penny was pushing a pram towards the playroom when Lucy made beeline for her, screaming that she had the pram first, grabbing it strongly and sending Penny flying in the act. I moved in quickly with “Lucy!! You did NOT have the pram first, Penny did! You have hurt Penny so I am now taking you to your room!” With that I picked up Lucy (who was screaming loudly at this point that she did not want to go to her room) and took her to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her as her screams went up a notch. I then went back to check on Penny, feeling less than ok and quite rattled.
A few minutes later, Lucy came out and sheepishly poked her head around the corner. I went to her and gave her a cuddle, explaining why I had taken her to her room and telling her that she is not to push Penny or snatch her things. Round one was over and we had all survived, although there was an indescribable shift in the mood and temperament in the house.
After a short while, there was another scuffle. This time, Penny was riding the toy motorbike and Lucy wanted a turn. It started perfectly, Lucy asking nicely if she could please have a turn, Penny. Penny, either not hearing her or ignoring her, continued riding away. I let Penny know that Lucy had asked for a turn of the bike but she was unwilling to give it up. Lucy, getting increasingly agitated, ran after Penny wailing “it’s my turn, Penny!” I raced after her and shouted angrily before she got there “LUCY! Do not touch, Penny!” Ignoring me she pulled Penny off the bike and onto the floor before trying to climb on to the bike. I helped a screaming Penny up before pulling Lucy off the bike and marching her to her room, telling her she was to stay in there for hurting her sister.
Shortly after, she came out, and the girl’s resumed their playing with Lucy going to get the other identical motorbike to ride next to Penny. All seemed like it was going well, on the surface but I could sense that the children were unnerved and I could feel myself giving in to my impatient nature. As the day went on and more altercations ensued, I found myself reacting more abruptly and with less and less patience. The children walked around on tenterhooks. They became clingy and whingey and the aggression Lucy was showing to her sister became more frequent and extreme.
It got to the point in the day when Lucy came out of her room following her 7th or 8th timeout and Penny was still crying in my crouched arms. Lucy tried to get close to me for a cuddle too. As Penny’s screams escalated so too did Lucy’s determination to reach me. I found I was losing control. They were both screaming, lashing out at each other and at me. I felt like I had reached the bottom of a hell fire pit and had no idea what to do. I had let my emotions take over my conscious thought and I ended up standing up, shouting “I’ve had enough of both of you!” before walking away from them and shutting myself in my room as they banged ferociously on the door for me.
As I sat with my back against the door, taking some deep breaths, I used that small amount of alone time to regather myself and make myself snap out of it. NEVER had I felt this low before but the children were feeling the effects far more – they needed me. I was able to shake myself out of it and go to them to give them the comfort they needed but that was all I could do. I was lost from there on out. I had expended all my parenting energy for the day and I still had 40 minutes until my husband returned from work. All I could do was put the television on and sit quietly with the girls as they watched it until their father walked in the door. As he took over, I quietly took myself to my room and sobbed into my pillow for what had been a disastrous day.
Now, I don’t write this for the criticism I am bound to receive from those who feel they need to explain everything I did wrong that day! Believe me I know where I went wrong! I don’t even write to harbour support from like-minded parents who want to let me know it’s ok, we all have bad days. I write this to help those of you who are questioning your decision to choose a respectful parenting path. I am well aware how hard life can be waiting for your children to turn that elusive corner and suddenly become the well-mannered, empathetic, kind child we are hoping they will one day become, but my advice is to stop waiting for it. Look at your children for who they are now and not who you want them to be. They don’t have the same future visions and goals as us and are content just taking life one day at a time. We need to meet them where they are and be there (with them) to guide them on their journey. It then comes down to faith and trust that with our gentle guidance their journeys will, one day, become in sync with ours.
To do this it is important to find ways to support each and every family member, child and adult alike in your quest for a respectful, connected household. Make it work for the uniqueness of your family. Find a level of peace in that what you are doing is the best you can. For only when you can truly do this will reach an equilibrium that will be able to sustain your commitment to respectful parenting.
Since that horrendous day we have made some significant changes here. When Lucy shows signs of aggression towards Penny I remind her (calmly) that it is not ok to hurt Penny and that if she is having a hard time playing in the same space as Penny she will need to play in her room. This is usually enough to trigger her to take herself to her room anyway but if she continues to act aggressively I help her to her room and let her know she is welcome to come back and play with us when she is ready to. Usually, after only a few minutes in there she comes out announcing, “I’m ready to play now!” This has calmed the household significantly.
We are also doing more to provide opportunity for separate play spaces either within our house or through the use of friends and family with more play dates and babysitting requests. My husband and I are also trying to look after ourselves and our own needs more with time away from the children to recharge and relax. A VERY important strategy for ensuring we are being the best we can be but so often forgotten about in the midst of being the “parent”.
There are not too many things I allow myself to regret in life because I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. This is no different. Because of this event, I now know for sure that I have chosen the best parenting pathway for not only my children but for myself also. I have a few bridges to mend of course but I am already working on these with extra ‘wants nothing’ time for each child but I believe I am somewhat back on track. I have made a point to speak to each of the girls about that day and apologise for shouting and acting roughly, acknowledging how it must have made them feel. I am grateful as ever to Magda Gerber via Janet Lansbury for showing me that there is a better way for me to teach my children to be respectful people and at the same time connecting with them deeply as their parent and guide.
If you would like some further reading on this topic, you may find these articles relevant:
Biting, Hitting, Kicking and Other Challenging Toddler Behaviour ~ Janet Lansbury
Toddler Discipline That Works (It’s About Our Attitude) ~ Janet Lansbury
Helping Toddlers Resolve Conflicts (Rules of Engagement) ~ Janet Lansbury