Fatherly Advice: Aggressively Negotiate the Sibling Ceasefire

Give other parents and older siblings a chance to not screw up. But keep an eye on them.

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“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly parenting advice column by the experts at Fatherly. Need hard-won insights and scientific facts to resolve a parenting dilemma or family dispute? Email advice@fatherly.com. Need justifications for parenting decisions you’ve already made? Ask someone else. We’re far too busy for that nonsense.

 

Fatherly crew,

I’m a father of a five-year-old boy. I feel like I’m constantly sending him to timeouts but he never stays in time out. In fact, it feels like time outs just escalate everything to the point where I need to give him a time out for not staying in time out. Honestly, I’m about ready to just stop using them. What the hell am I doing wrong?

Jason,
Amarillo, Texas

***

It sounds like you might be trying to use timeouts as a punitive measure. But timeouts for kids aren’t like putting a hockey player in the penalty box. Wait. Do they even play hockey in Amarillo?

Many parents consider time out as a way to isolate their kid from the family, ending whatever havoc they’re causing. But that’s not going to work (and it sounds like it hasn’t for you). The reason you’re even considering a timeout is to address your son’s antisocial behavior, but the cure for antisocial behavior has to be social. Your kid isn’t going to develop a pro-social attitude sitting alone.

In order to administer a good time out, a couple things need to happen. First, everyone needs to be calm. Timeouts are about thinking and communication, both of which are incredibly difficult when people are screaming. Feel free to encourage everyone to take a breath, even if you have to step away for a moment. Kids will often follow their parent’s lead, and your son doesn’t, it’s worth hanging with him until he’s tear free.

After everyone has reached a calm-ish place, it’s time to do a bit of talking. Ask your son if he knows what he did wrong. If he doesn’t, explain it to him simply and without anger or blame. From there you can launch into some empathy building.

Inform your kid that they are going to spend the next few minutes thinking about how they made you (or their victim) feel and ways they can make it better. Then, instead of sending him away, keep him close. Consider putting him in a chair in a common room where he’s still part of the family. That way, you can keep an eye on him and get him back in the chair if he hops out, and he will be less inclined to come find you.

Once his time in the chair is up, ask him what he came up with. Guide him through it if you need to. And, finally, give that guy a hug and let him know that nothing can make you stop loving him. Not even his apparent zeal for being put in time out.

 

Dear Fatherly,

My daughter is in Kindergarten. She is a very social girl with tons of friends, which means she’s always inviting them over for playdates. That’s fine and all, but there’s one little girl — let’s call her Lucy — who is a real piece of work. Lucy is full of sass and does not care to obey the house rules. Am I out of line if I discipline her? Because, she needs it.

Mark,
Lowell, Massachusetts

***

Cool your jets for a second, Mark. Lucy might be running riot in your house, but there are a few things to consider before jumping in and disciplining her — chief among them being what you mean by disciplining and whether that discipline will turn sweet Lucy’s parents into your enemies.

As you know, every parent has a different idea about how kids ought to be raised. Maybe you think Lucy’s parents are asleep on the job, but have you talked to them beyond arranging playdate times and cursory greetings during drop off and pick up? The fact that you’re asking us this question, makes me think you don’t know how Lucy’s parents would feel about you disciplining their child. And that means you need to have a tactful conversation with them right away. Simply let them know, in the kindest possible terms what your house rules are, and ask what you should do if Lucy doesn’t obey them.

Guess what! Her parents might have some great ideas. Maybe they do things at their house that you can do at your house. After all, it’s possible that Lucy is pushing boundaries at with you that are already well established at home. At the very least, Lucy’s parents can have a talk with their daughter about what you expect when she’s over at your house.

The important part is to couch this discussion in the idea that the girl’s friendship is the most important thing. It’s imperative that everyone is on the same page so that the girls can play together and maintain their relationship. None of this means that you can’t say no to Lucy. You can, particularly when her or your daughter’s safety is in question. And if it’s not a safety issue, there’s an easy way to let Lucy know she’s out of line. “That’s not how we do things in our house. Please stop. Thanks!”

 

Fatherly,

I’m a dad of two. One boy and one girl. My boy, Tate, is 7, his little sister, Meghan, is 5. They get along alright, but Meghan can get super mean with her brother. They’ll be playing and then the next thing you know she’ll pop him on the mouth. He knows he shouldn’t retaliate because he’s stronger than her, but he’s having a hard time with it. It’s getting scary. Is there any way to get Meghan to stop hitting?

Louis,
Memphis, Tennessee

***

You’re seeing a sad family statistic played out right in your house, Louis. It turns out that sibling relationships tend to be the most violent in any given house. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that Tate and Meghan probably spend more time with one another than anyone else and therefore know just how to get on each other’s nerves. Still, there is good news: You’ve recognized the problem.

In this situation, you’ll need to first stop Meghan’s violence and then begin to help the siblings act as a team. Because if you do step one and not step two, the Tate might continue to have bad feelings and decide he needs to get back at his sis. That’s when the cycle starts all over again.

The best way to address Meghan’s violence is to encourage her to engage in the “positive opposite” of her behavior — essentially, a way to express her emotion without lashing out with her fists. But you can’t just tell her what to do and hope she gets it, or try and correct her after the fact. You want to help her by practicing the positive opposite behavior through simulation.

Essentially, when things are calm, you set up a scenario and role play your way through, but instead of hitting when she’s angry, you’re going to have her yell into a pillow, or make a really angry face and stomp her foot. You’re going to do this several times a day over a couple weeks. And when she’s behaving appropriately with her brother you’re going to note it and praise her for it.

By the way, this technique was developed by Dr. Kazdin who runs the Yale Parenting Center and he’s used it successfully with violent kids who were on their way to psychiatric hospitalization. He has a free online parenting course you can check out if you’re interested.

Once Lucy has the tools to express her anger, make sure that you’re spending equal time with both kids, particularly if you’re all together. Look for cooperative activities, like building games, or games where they have to work together to win. As the relationship is repaired and Lucy uses her anger management skills things will get better.

That said, it’s not going to be the easiest thing you’ve ever done. Hang in there.

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