I recently posted about the troubles we have been having with the rivalry between our children. This has been a long-winded, drawn out affair between my two girls aged nearly three and nearly two. Much of the animosity in their relationship has come from my eldest daughter, Lucy who has been displaying acts of aggression and control towards her sister, Penny for quite some time now.
This has meant we have needed to provide constant intervention in their daily struggles as we have aimed to prevent physical acts of aggression and sportscast most other battles. It has recently become apparent to me that due to our ongoing involvement in their affairs, our children have not really been given the space they have needed to forge their own relationship. Sure, we have seen snippets of a little sibling relationship emerge from time to time, little previews into what might eventuate on a more permanent basis in the future. But I have been left wondering whether their true sister – sister relationship is being somewhat stifled by our constant interference in their interactions with each other.
Currently, much of the girl’s communication comes through my husband and I as we translate their ‘words’, shouts, actions and inactions to each other. As Penny screams and holds tightly onto her doll whilst Lucy tries to take it from her, I translate with “Lucy, it looks like you would like that doll. Penny, you’re telling Lucy you haven’t finished playing with it yet”.
Now, this is my interpretation of the situation. Obviously I am only guessing what each of the girls are thinking / telling each other in these scenarios and there is always a chance that I am off the mark. Lucy, for example, may not want the doll at all, she may just not want Penny to play with it. Penny might be wanting to tell Lucy more than that she hasn’t finished playing with it. She may also wish to let Lucy know that she is frustrated that she keeps taking her things, that she wishes she would leave her alone or that she will in fact be finished using the doll soon and will happily give it to her then. Who knows, maybe they both enjoy the tussle and the drama created. They might like that it brings me running and ensures they both have my undivided attention.
I sometimes feel as if our verbalising of the girls’ communication throughout the day has limited their opportunity to fully express themselves to each other and work each other out and hence restricted the development of their relationship. With Penny being pre-verbal and Lucy not always able to articulate her thoughts succinctly, it is obvious that this level of expression is not likely or even possible at this stage in their lives but I have often wished that I could take a big step back and allow them try to interpret each other for themselves. I don’t want to be a part of their relationship. I want it to grow uniquely with each other without my involvement. Unfortunately, with the continual risk of physical altercation and Penny’s developed sensitivity to Lucy’s outbursts I have not been able to give them their due space…until now.
In my last post I detailed how I experimented with punitive discipline to help ‘cure’ Lucy of her incessant attack on Penny, with disastrous results. Life in our household has been downright miserable and I knew after that I needed to find a respectful way to help the girls on their way, without needing to resort to punitive punishment.
I am currently reading Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and I am learning a lot. In one of the early chapters in the book it talks about introverted vs extroverted children and the differences in the needs of these children. Both of my children are quite introverted and one thing it suggests is that the introverted child needs to be given opportunities for alone time periodically to recharge and regroup. They say that a decline in behaviour when around other children for extended periods can be a cry out for space.
So, I took this on board and have begun to make a more conscious effort to give the children time to play on their own – separated in order for them to be able to be with each other without constant struggle. I look for signs that they need a recharge and then, depending on the situation, offer ways for separation. Now, I know this sounds like interference and I guess it is but by allowing them the space they need, they are able to find their own equilibrium before coming back together for extended play without the constant need for hovering supervision.
To assist the process somewhat, over the past few weeks we have turned Lucy’s and Penny’s bedrooms into little sanctuarys. We wanted to give them a relaxing space with some books and quiet toys, an inviting bed and access to soothing music. Their rooms needed to be a place they could enjoy being in throughout the day, not only for sleeping. These rooms are their own and are the only places in the house where I will respect their directives to not have anyone else around them. I.e. if Lucy is in her room and doesn’t want Penny in there, I will remove Penny as she wishes and vice versa. This is a space they are free to vent with support and a retreat for them when things are becoming too much.
So now that they have these spaces, I have changed my interactions with the children during their struggles.
My first rule is that any physical act of aggression indicates to me that they are in need of time apart, regardless of the situation. It seems like a natural consequence to me that if there is violence in any form, they are removed from the situation until they feel more in control of their actions. I will state “You are having a hard time being around X, I will take you to your room so you can have your own space.” I will then lead her to her room and let her know she is welcome to come out whenever she feels ready to come back and play. Often, if there seems to be more to it, I will offer to stay and connect but I usually read each situation separately.
For other instances, I listen and observe. I determine whether the struggle is minor and seems to be within the realm of their capability to solve it themselves. I am not afraid of short, sharp shouts of protest with struggles over toys. Normally a minor altercation is over within seconds.
If the shouts become prolonged or they both have firm grip on an item, I move closer and start sportscasting. “You both have the doll. I will crouch between you here to keep you safe.” I have to do this in these situations because they now have a similar holding strength and Lucy will often use her free hand to dig her fingers into Penny’s gripping hand to reef it from the object. This hurts Penny so I can’t allow it. I gently move Lucy’s hands away in this case and let her know that I won’t let her hurt Penny. Once the altercation is complete and there is an outcome one way or the other, I sportscast each other’s feelings and then let them know that if they need space they are welcome to spend some time in their rooms.
Following this, if there are more struggles in quick succession I thank them for letting me know they need their own space and tell that in one minute they will need to go to their rooms to play. They are to then choose a toy to take and make their way there. There is no set time limit on how long they stay in there. It is just until they naturally gravitate back to each other. If they come together too soon and they are still having troubles then I offer them time apart again.
Sometimes I am able to use these separation periods to spend a bit of quality time with one of them. I normally gravitate towards the one who seems to be having the hardest time and offer them a cuddle.
Now, I have to admit, these separations have not always gone smoothly. Particularly in the beginning there was a lot of protesting when I enforced separation. I have always been very careful to acknowledge these feelings and offer the necessary support and now, once they have been separated, the girls will play contentedly on their own for long periods of time without even wanting to come back together. And when they finally do, I see much less struggle between them which means I have been able to take that step back from them that I have been wanting. It is like they are able to recharge, bring themselves back to a centred state and subsequently feel more at peace with each other when they are reconnected.
It has been nearly four weeks since we first started offering time for separation throughout the day and the girls have turned a huge corner in their relationship. There are days now where the girls play delightedly with each other for upwards of an hour at a time without a single word from myself or my husband. I no longer panic when they are together, out of my vision, in another area of the house. They happily play in each other’s rooms but are both confident in letting the other know when they want them out (which I am still happy to enforce). They both just seem more content somehow and although we do still witness daily spats, they are not a patch on what they have been for the past eighteen months or so. The need for me to separate the girls is now much more rare than it was four weeks ago as they are naturally taking themselves to different areas of the house to play periodically throughout the day.
The RIE parenting approach advocates for allowing children to work through their struggles in their own time and in their own way wherever possible. Another piece of advice presented to RIE parents is to provide a safe play space for young children such that they can play happily and comfortably without the constant need to hover. It seems that I have finally been able to find a balance between these two philosophies with huge success.
The key things I feel that have contributed to the success are:
1. Transforming the girls’ rooms into a relaxing space with just a few prized toys, a cosy nook for reading and access to soothing music.
2. Not treating this time apart as a punitive punishment. This is not a time-out with a minimum sentencing period. It is simply recognising that the children need their own space at times and providing them the opportunity for that.
3. Connecting with the children whenever necessary so they never feel abandoned or alone in their rooms. If they come to associate being in their room as a negative experience they will be much less likely to see it as a retreat.
4. Always being respectful in tone, temperament and words when talking to them about needing separation time.
You might also enjoy these articles:
Sibling Struggles ~ Janet Lansbury
Creating a Safe Play Space ~ Respectful Caregiving