Dear Joanna and Julie,
I have 3 kids ages (almost) 5, 3, and 13 months. About 3 years ago, after reading a couple of parenting books along the same lines as yours (but nowhere near as specific and helpful!), I decided to stop using time out and other punishments and haven’t had second thoughts until recently.
My two oldest, both boys, have always struggled to some extent. They can be great friends, but they are very different personalities and my oldest really likes things just so. He has been lining his cars in rows since he was 18 months old. I have always tried to address their fights by helping them find words to express what they are thinking and feeling, helping them find a solution or compromise, and sometimes making a reparation of their choice, like giving a hug or saying sorry or inviting the other one to play a game. It’s been up and down, but for the most part I’ve liked that strategy.
Lately, my oldest has flat out refused to cooperate when I try to help him express his feelings. He just grunts. I have started taking him into another room to talk, I try to empathize and he will agree with my assessment of his feelings, but he won’t volunteer a single word to tell me how he is feeling or to work things out with his brother. I’ve tried problem solving, but with the same result. It’s a power struggle to get him to talk at all. It’s escalated into a lot of physical hurting and name calling from both boys, to the point where I can’t really be in another room and trust they will be safe. I feel like we’re getting out of control. They both lash out at the slightest thing, and I’m starting to lose my patience too. I’m just really not sure how to respond when empathy and problem solving don’t seem to work. It’s starting to make me really angry when he won’t talk, which obviously just adds to the problem. I am really tempted to go back to time out. It seems like it would make it easier for me not to lose my temper if I know beforehand exactly how I will respond instead of having to calm my own emotions before I think about how to respond. And I know they need time to calm down, too, so time out as a way for them to take a deep breath seems helpful in some ways too. I am sure part of the reason they are so hurtful right now is because they don’t feel safe, but I am at a loss to help them know how to stop hurting each other.
Do you have any ideas?
Trying not to lose it
We commiserate with you. There is nothing quite like having one of your own children hurting another. The fighting can really push your buttons! It sounds like you have done some wonderful mediating, helping to put into words how they are feeling without imposing a solution, and helping them to resolve their differences themselves. But what to do when the fighting continues?
First of all, if your instincts are telling you that you need a time out, we think your instincts are correct! If you are under the impression that we are not fans of “giving time outs,” it’s because most often we hear parents do this as a threat or penalty for some unwanted behavior (“If you do that one more time, I’m giving you a Time Out!”). You’ve already read Chapter 3, so you know why we don’t advocate this use of Time Outs.
On the other hand, if you want to use the words “time out” to mean, “we need a break!” then by all means go full steam ahead. Sometimes people (especially young brothers) need a break from each other. As you well know from experience, they can get so frustrated or angry that they can’t do their best thinking — they don’t even want to solve problems in that moment; sometimes they can’t even talk about what’s making them frustrated or angry. And as you described so well in your email, even adults need a break in the action to regroup and calm down. So you might say, “I need a time out! Let’s separate so nobody gets hurt.” The time out or break can be a tool for all of you to use, instead of a punishment that adds irritation to the already flustered older child. (You might take a look again at pages 121 – 123, which includes a discussion of time out and some language you can use.)
Once he’s had a break from the threat of destruction from his younger brother, your son might be ready to do some problem solving. But if he is continuing to grunt angrily as you apply gentle pressure to come up with solutions… he is not ready! As you described, the more you push (with the best of intentions) the more frustrated both parties become.
We’re going to try to see the situation from your 5-year-old’s perspective. He likes things just so. His cars lined up in rows. He has a lively 3-year-old brother who probably injects chaos into his organized world. Now there is a new storm brewing. A 13-month-old who is probably crawling and possibly learning to walk, with no concept of following rules. He is beset from all sides. It may feel completely overwhelming to your super-orderly first born. He may not understand, no less be able to express in words, his own feelings of intense discomfort when he gets overwhelmed. He knows you are extremely unhappy with his actions, but he can’t help himself. All he can do is grunt!
Joanna: I remember one conversation with my own young boys after a particularly ferocious sibling battle. Instead of trying to problem solve, I talked about how very difficult it is not to hit or kick people when you’re angry. “The anger goes right into your body!” (I made a fist and an angry expression.) “You want to punch! It’s even hard for adults. It’s even harder for little kids. It’s actually one of the most difficult challenges for all human beings.”
When I had this conversation with my kids I could feel a palpable release of tension in the room. Finally I was going beyond the classic, “We don’t hit, we don’t hurt people” and admitting the enormity of the challenge. The physical fights lessened after that conversation.
The idea is that you are all engaged in this struggle together, and you understand it is incredibly difficult. Without pressing them to come up with any solutions or share feelings, you can tell your boys, “Let’s have a special word we can say when people are getting mad.” It could be a nonsense word: “SCRAT!” Or a real word: “HELP!” Or they can make up their own signal. It will mean, “STOP THE ACTION!” Either boy can use the signal and Mom will come running. Or you can yell the word when you see a meltdown coming. Then you can use your time out. Maybe do something nice for a time out like jump on the trampoline, or play with water in the sink, or make a snack, or toss some flour and water together so they can pound on dough.
The take home message is, we all have to help each other. It’s so hard to control yourself when you’re mad. If we can listen to each other’s signals, we can help each other learn not to hit. When they do manage to use words instead of fists, you can notice with great appreciation. “Wow, you were really mad but you didn’t hit. You used the signal.” Or, “You just yelled and told your brother with words. That takes a lot of self control!”
Maybe your kids have moved onto new challenges by the time you read this. But if any of the above is helpful, we’d love to hear from you again!
Julie and Joanna