Miracles can happen: Persistence with Siblings Pays Off

blog parenting May 16, 2021

Siblings fight. Siblings annoy each other. Siblings can get on each other's last nerve. Parents with multiple children know that it happens. Siblings often have a love-hate relationship that can drive parents bonkers. I field questions about this all the time in my private practice. There are lots of popular parenting books out there about sibling rivalry, including one of my favorites, Siblings Without Rivalry* by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

As readers of my blog know, I have two children whom I adore. At the time of this writing, they are 13 and 11. My kids thankfully have never gotten physical with each other, other than the annoying occasional pinch or nudge. Mostly it was, "He keeps coming in my room and I've told him not to!" or "Stop singing all the time! Can you be quiet?"

When these types of interactions occur, thoughts of, "Here we go again!" often pop up. Parents wait with bated breath as to whether someone will come running downstairs complaining or crying and the other is usually not far behind saying, "I didn't do that!" 

Parents can use a combination of communication strategies, modeling and a healthy dose of mindfulness to navigate these rough patches. But it can feel exhausting at times, being coach or mediator, especially if these occurrences  happen daily. 

It can be difficult to remember to stay calm, especially as kids get older because parents expect children to just behave and "know better." But I wanted to share a personal story of where persistence pays off. 

I often find the most important first step is to maintain my composure whenever I choose to step in.  My husband and I strive to allow each party equal time to share their viewpoint and explain the problem as they see it. Over the years, I have found it was best to separate first and allow everyone to calm down. My strategy has been to find a quiet time to debrief with each child separately--usually at bedtime where I spend some quiet moments with each. I'll often broach the subject by saying, "Let's talk about what happened earlier." Taking the time to listen in before sharing my viewpoint of how it made the other child feel allows for self-reflection and problem solving about how to handle it the next time. Because yes, it was going to happen again. 

Did this work to allow each child the feeling of being heard? Yes. 

Did it work to prevent future re-run episodes of sibling squabbles? No. It still happened but what I am about to share with you hopefully imparts the importance of playing the long game and celebrating each win, no matter how big or small. 

So, the other day we were at the dinner table having dinner. It was just me and the kids because my husband had gone out on a bike ride with friends to mark the end of the work week. I could tell the dish was not my daughter's favorite as she was not eating with gusto. She was talking a lot more than eating her food. My son had already finished eating and brought his plate to the sink. He started asking me about a request for an in-app purchase for a video game--a conversation I had pushed off a few times during the day. As we were discussing this, it required me to step away from the table to go into the office with him for two minutes.

When I came back, my daughter was rinsing her dish and moving about to clear the table. 

Me: "You could not have finished your dinner in the time I was in the office. Did you just throw the rest away?"

Daughter: "I finished most of it."

Me: (Looking at her knowingly) "I don't think so, sweetie. You eat at a leisurely pace and you had more than 3/4ths of it in your dish when I stepped away. This is dinner and I don't want you eating other food because you are hungry later."

My son walks back into the kitchen at that moment and immediately chimes in, "Yeah, you shouldn't do that! You should have eaten your dinner."

That was it. My daughter never responds well when he steps in and adds his own color commentary. 

"I hate when you do that! It makes me so mad! You don't need to say anything, this isn't about you!" and she stormed upstairs in a huff. 

Before I could say anything, I whirled around to face my son who looked downcast and then said, "I've got this. I am a problem solver."

He followed her upstairs and I listened, straining my ears for any clue of an impending argument. To my amazement, it was quiet and then a minute later my daughter comes downstairs and says, "Ok, I shouldn't have done that. What should I eat?"

For my daughter to come back downstairs and act like nothing happened, especially after being so worked up, is nothing short of a miracle. She is a spirited girl and used to have tantrums that would last a long time where she would get sweaty and her voice would get hoarse. She usually holds on to her emotions for a while. I get it- she is passionate and fiery. To my surprise though, her face was calm as she looked at my expectantly. 

The next morning I was driving her to rehearsals. It was just me and her. She was listening and singing along to Hamilton (again). I decided to pause the tune and turned to her, "Can I ask you a question? How did you recover so quickly after what happened last night at dinner?" 

She smiled and then shrugged, "I don't know. [Brother] came up and apologized and even offered me a hug. You know I can't pass on a hug!"

As a side note, many of her frustrations about her big brother is that she always wants her big brother's affection and hugs (which over the past few years are not usually given freely to her unless there is an occasion; this had not been the case when they were younger) or wanting him to spend time with her and not his friends. 

We talked about how once she got what she needed from him, she was able to come right back and have a proper dinner. That she was able to manage her strong emotions and let it go. It wasn't easy but she did it and that I was proud of her. 

After I dropped my daughter off at the church, I headed back home to get my son to his band practice. Since we had a few minutes, I decided to follow up with him as he was putting on his shoes. "Hey, I wanted to let you know I talked to your sister about last night and she told me you apologized and even offered her a hug. That really made her feel better."

He looked over to me and smiled sheepishly, "Yeah, I did."

"I'm really proud of the way you handled that. I think you even said "I'm a good problem solver" before you, on your own, went upstairs to apologize. The hug was what really showed her you meant it. She really appreciated it. You don't even know much that meant to her."

He looked at me and said, "I do, mom. I do." He smiled again, and I could feel he was proud of himself. He had done the right thing when he needed to. 

Seems like not a huge deal, but in our house that a big win--a miracle even. We even rehashed the story for dad, who also expressed his delight in their being able to resolve the conflict on their own. 

Will they stop annoying each other? Likely not. But at least they have shown themselves and each other what it can be like to come together and work it out.

And that is what it is all about. 

*Amazon affiliate link.

**I want to thank my children who graciously provided me permission from to share this story. I am proud of you both. We're all growing and learning every day together.** 


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