The tantrum has been in full force for at least 20 minutes and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
While you’re doing your best to manage the situation, you glance over and see two sets of wide eyes peering at you from across the room.
Obviously, the child who is screaming needs your attention.
But what about his siblings? The ones who are forced to keep their distance and wait patiently until things settle down?
Suddenly, the tantrum isn’t the worst of your worries.
Now, you’re concerned about the impact these tantrums are having on the other children!
What can you do?
Keep the big picture in mind.
When one child is struggling, it’s normal to feel sad for their siblings. They have to endure the drama and meltdowns right along with you!
It doesn’t seem fair!
Instead of feeling uneasy when one child is getting more attention from you, keep the bigger picture in mind.
You are giving your children what they need.
Remember, “fair” does not mean “equal.” It means “giving each child what they need.”
Just like you would give extra help to your child if they struggled in math or tying their shoes, it’s Ok to give extra help to your child who is struggling emotionally.
Your melting down, angry, frustrated child needs help managing their big feelings. They need compassionate guidance as they learn and practice new skills. They need to know that you love them, even in this difficult time.
Your wide-eyed children watching from the sidelines, they need to know that you are able to handle the situation with calm confidence. Later, they may need time to process their emotions and be reminded that you have enough love to go around.
There isn’t a household in the world where all the children are treated exactly the same. In all households, one child is getting something another isn’t getting. Your not-so-challenging kids want your challenging child to stop having challenging episodes far more than they want everyone to be treated exactly the same.” – Ross Greene, “The Explosive Child,” page 216
What to do in the moment.
Unfortunately, there’s no “one right way” to respond to siblings when their brother or sister is acting out. You may need a variety of responses. Here are a few things to try:
- Announce your intentions: Tell your kids what you are going to do as you do it, “I’m going to sit with Henry for a few minutes. When I’m done, I will come color with you guys at the table.”
- Sit with all of the children together: If the siblings do not want to (or cannot) stay by themselves, put yourself in the middle while you address the upset child.
- Get the siblings busy: Sometimes, it’s best if the children are not in close proximity. In that case, take a second to find an activity for them to do until you can return your attention.
- Acknowledge feelings and empathize: If your kids don’t want to get busy playing or if the child who is struggling is upset that his siblings are around, state this out loud and empathize with their perspective. “It’s hard when Henry is upset” or “You’d like Sophie to move back a little bit.”
- Reinforce boundaries if needed: If your hurting child needs space, help the siblings honor this request. “I know you’d like my attention right now, but Henry’s feeling crowded. Would you like to color at the table or get the blocks out?”
- Reconnect after the dust settles: Return to the siblings, share hugs, play together, or listen. Give them reassurance that you’ve got this and they don’t have to take on your role, comfort you, or try to fix the problem.
If it’s more than a one-time thing…
Some children struggle with emotions more than others. Siblings in these families may have to live with big meltdowns on a regular basis. Here are some tips for helping siblings cope:
- Keep it respectful: Be mindful of the language you use to talk about the child who is struggling. Don’t go to your other children to commiserate about their challenging sibling. Set a positive standard for the family, including no name-calling, demeaning language, or phrases that pit one sibling against the other.
- Listen: When one child struggles with BIG behaviors, it’s easy to minimize the concerns of the other siblings unintentionally (“What? Someone took your pencil without asking? Well, at least you didn’t smack them!”). All children want to know that their parent cares. Take time to stop and listen to each child’s concerns.
- Empathize: Maybe it’s scary when their brother throws toys in anger, it’s upsetting to see mom cry, or it doesn’t seem fair that their brother gets to skip out on chores. You don’t have to fix it, over-react, or downplay their experience. Instead, put yourself in their shoes and relate to their experience.
- Connect with each child (even if it’s unbalanced): Each child needs to have special one-on-one time with each parent. Period. However, if one child is struggling more than others, they may need more of your time. Again, it’s not about keeping everything equal, it’s about giving each child what they need.
- Educate: Instead of sweeping challenges under the rug, talk about them as a family. Not in a way that puts one child in a negative spotlight, but to create a common language around it: “Sometimes our anger gets too big! In our family, we are going to be learning new ways to express big feelings without yelling or throwing things.”
- Work toward problem-solving: Sibling scuffles are a 2-way street, both kids have to learn how to handle it better next time. Rather than pointing the finger, focus on solving problems together. Listen to each child’s perspective, ask for suggestions, and help them work to find a solution that each child is willing to try.
- Seek help for siblings too: Sometimes, the drama in the house is too big for one child to handle on her own (even with your help). Some children need a safe place outside the home to process their thoughts and feelings and learn how to cope with their siblings’ behavior. A mental health professional or another caring adult may fill this need.
Meeting your children’s eyes across the room, you give them an empathetic smile.
“Feelings come and feelings go. I’ll be over to see what you guys are building in a few minutes.”
They feel reassured.
You feel in control.
And soon, your hurting child will too.
You do not have to go through this alone!
If you feel like sibling rivalry is tearing your family apart, let’s talk! Parent Coaching may be just what you need to get life back on track in your home. Contact me today for a free 15-minute phone call to learn more about coaching!
These tips and suggestions here are based on information in Ross Greene’s book, ‘The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children.” and Laura Markham’s book, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings.” Both books are highly recommended!