Are you following all the advice about how to get your kids to stop fighting but it’s still not working?
If you are regularly doing Special Time with your children (regular one-on-one time immersed in their world of play), Being Switzerland, and helping them find Win/Win Solutions and they are STILL fighting like crazy…
Here are some potential reasons why your kids are STILL fighting:
1. Your child has a full emotional backpack.
What is a full backpack? It’s a metaphor my mentor Dr. Laura Markham uses to describe a backlog of unprocessed emotions. We carry our old tears and fears around with us in our bodies (represented by our emotional backpack) until we can process them. When our backpacks get full, the emotions come bubbling up to be processed and healed. If we aren’t used to feeling our feelings, it can be overwhelming and feel dangerous- sending us into Fight-or-Flight.
If your child is regularly explosive and quick to move into Fight mode with their sibling (or anyone else), they might need to empty their emotional backpack. (Let’s face it, we all know some explosive adults who really need to do this!)
If you have a child who is a little bit “more”- more sensitive, more anxious, more strong-willed, this is even more likely to be true. These kids have big feelings and need help processing them! Especially with anxiety. Anxiety is fear and can trigger the Fight (as in Fight or Flight) response and cause aggression.
How do you help your child empty their backpack? Emptying the emotional backpack is a fancy way of saying processing all the old emotions (fears and tears) we carry in our bodies.
We need to laugh and cry to process the feelings.
Crying releases old feelings. We don’t need to know what we are crying about, or cry about the specific things in the backpack (or even know what they are!) We just need to cry.
Help your child to cry by being as empathetic as you can, 24/7. Crying about anything is beneficial and will empty your child’s backpack. Skinned knee? Pour on the empathy. “Oh my sweetheart! Look at that knee. Ouch!” No second cookie? “I’m so sorry, darling. You LOVE cookies so much. It’s so disappointing you can’t have another one!” Get those tears rolling!
Laughter loosens up old stuck feelings and also changes our body chemistry so we feel better. Get your child laughing 15 minutes, twice a day. Do some good, fun roughhousing. Go for the belly laughs!
2. Your child’s brain is still maturing.
Every time you intervene as Switzerland and help them find win/win solutions, you are helping your children develop the skills and build the habits they need to solve their problems and get along. But if your children are small, you can expect that you will still need to stay close and intervene if things start getting heated- even with these skills.
What does brain development have to do with it?
Brain development is on a continuum. Children develop more impulse control during what developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called this the “5 to 7 shift.” In most children, between the ages of 5 and 7, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that governs critical thinking and impulse control) and the amygdala (the primal, emotional part of the brain) begin to work together. Before that, we can’t expect children to have good impulse control when things get heated.
To have good impulse control, the thinking part of our brain needs to work with the emotional part of our brain. For a small child: “The rule is no hitting” gets overwhelmed by “I’m so mad I’m going to whack you!”
In a mature brain, those two ideas can be held by us at the same time. We are so mad we want to hit, but we don’t. In a developing brain, logic gets overwhelmed by emotion and fists fly. The impulses can’t be controlled, which leads to siblings locked in hair-pulling and screaming.
What can you do? (Besides be patient!)
Help them empty their emotional backpacks regularly. Even though small children have poor impulse control, their feelings won’t be as overwhelming if they have a chance to regularly process them.
Talk about what happened. “You were so mad you hit your brother! I understand. No hitting! Hitting hurts. What can you do instead?” This helps to connect the the two parts of the brain and makes pathways so they can work together in the future.
Stay close. You can’t rush brain development, but you can do your best to be your child’s prefrontal cortex. Step in before they get too hijacked by their amygdala. Yes, this means that it may be impossible for younger siblings to play without you nearby. (I’m sorry! I know it’s hard to do that!) If you’ve tried all the strategies we’ve discussed so far and they are still fighting, you just might need to stay closer. Don’t worry though, this won’t last forever. You might also find you are more understanding knowing that impulse control is something that children have to become capable of- they can’t learn it.
3. Your child has a “chip on their shoulder” about their sibling.
Sometimes if we don’t help our child with their big feelings after the arrival of a new sibling (when they are grieving and feel they have lost us), those feelings can get entrenched and stick around. My mentor Dr. Laura Markham calls that having a “chip on their shoulder” about their sibling.
What can you do?
Help them by listening to all their feelings about their sibling (out of their sibling’s earshot!)
They might say: “He always gets more” or “She’s a little brat” or “He’s always around and wrecking things!”
Listen without judgement or shaming. Empathize with how hard it is. You can empathize without agreeing with what they are saying.
You can say, “It never feels fair between you. This is so hard!” or “It’s so hard to be the big sister. I’m so sorry, darling.” or “You never feel like you have enough time with me. It is so hard to share me. I understand.”
You might get anger at first. But if you can stay listening and compassionate and open, you can melt away the anger and hopefully get to the tears underneath. If your child can cry about how hard it is to have a sibling, they can begin to process all those big feelings and they can start to heal and move on. (They are emptying their emotional backpack- specifically about the chip on their shoulder.)
If you’ve gotten this far in my How To End Sibling Fighting series, you are either really struggling or dedicated or both. This is not easy! It’s one of the most common issues parents have. If you would like some support- please reach out. You can book a free 20 min consult here. We can figure this out together!
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 11, 14, and 17). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com.
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