Our children’s bickering or fights can evoke big emotions in us. Even minor disagreements can lead us into a big reaction because we just know how it will end. We may even have to step in before the bickering really starts, because we can’t stand the idea of having to ‘deal’ with it – and so our kids don’t really get much practice at resolving conflict in relationships.
If our children are not meeting an expectation around playing ‘together’ or managing to resolve minor bickering by themselves, we know that they need more support, not criticism. Perhaps no amount of support at the moment is enough and we need to be heavily involved – i.e. be preventative about arguments starting, to avoid arguments getting out of control. It is important to figure out where exactly your children are with this, so you can scaffold and be productive in terms of the level of support you offer.
We always want to be in a position where we hand over a small amount of responsibility to our kids, as this is how they learn and grow. The steps need to be small and mostly within our child’s zone of competence for them to feel successful. Steps beyond that zone need to be small, carefully planned and scaffolded so it doesn’t become too overwhelming. That would mean the learning opportunity is lost. Don’t worry – we don’t always get it right and we will at times overwhelm our kids. That is normal and part of life. However, with children on the spectrum, we do need to think a little more about their current abilities developmentally (rather than their chronological age), and plan our guiding around that.
Meet your children where they are at.
There may come a day when you can hear your kids starting to have a difference of opinion, and you’re able to assess that they can work it out for themselves, without your intervention. (what a wonderful day that will be).
More likely at the moment, is that they need you to step in as necessary. Prematurely leaving kids to ‘work it out by themselves can be seen as ‘endorsing bullying’. “Taking sides” on the other hand, increases sibling rivalry and reduces their ability to work it out!
So, here are the steps to intervening in such a way that the power dynamic is equalised (I’ll go back to the Pringles example of a few days ago to illustrate):
- That interacting went sideways quick and wasn’t helped by the parent barging in and joining the chaos. It may be more helpful with kids on the Spectrum and high levels of dysregulation, to simply walk in and not say anything other than, touching both kids to get them to orient to you. Oftentimes kids just expect parents to come in and start talking/yelling and so they pay them no attention. You walking in and waiting quietly for them to stop, may in itself, have then ‘pay attention’. Touch may be needed, even hugging/holding the one who was ready to throw the punch. If that is the case – lots of talking certainly will NOT help diffuse the situation. When you have their attention, proceed to nr 2. If not, skip all the way down this email to the paragraph after point nr 10.
- Say what you see: “I can hear loud voices and see two very angry kids in here!’. In doing this make sure you’re empathising with both and not pointing out who you think is right or wrong.
- Give each child the opportunity to talk to you/say their piece without interrupting. Turn your body to the one who is talking, giving them your attention, but at the same time, put your hand on the other child. Touch him reassuringly in some way so he knows he is not being left out. At this point remember that you don’t need to agree with what your child is saying, but you do need to accept that it is THEIR perspective. Their feelings, even if based on ‘incorrect info’ (according to you) are very real and deserve to be heard.
- Once both kids have had a turn to say their piece – describe the problem with respect: “So Amy, you were eating the pringles and you were really enjoying them, when James burst in and tried to snatch them from you. James, you describe that you saved those pringles for later and became furious when you saw that Amy was eating them! Two kids and one can of Pringles! What do we do?”
- At this point you have one of two choices depending on your children’s ability to negotiate and also on how calm they have become as a result of your intervention. Often times, the fact that children have been heard and seen by their parents, and the problem had been highlighted in a more succinct way, they can calm down enough to actually find a solution that works for both of them. If that is the case, you will say something like: “I am confident that the two of you can come up with a solution here that is fair to both of you”. You have given them many tools in the run -up to this point and are handing a significant amount of responsibility over in terms of managing conflict.
The reality for you may be that your children are either still way to dysregulated to take on this kind of responsibility. In that case, you will support this interaction further:
- Give each child the opportunity to think about and say what it is they need. Perhaps you may support them to say it directly to their sibling, but this is dependent on where your kids are at: You may say: “Amy, you really did not like James coming in and grabbing the Pringles from you. Can you tell him what you need or want?” (you can scaffold here by suggesting something and have her ‘approve’ it”. “James, you were very worried that Amy had taken Pringles that you had saved for later. Can you tell her what you need or want”
- Remember that when the kids ‘say their say’ to each other, it is always without attacking. So nothing like ‘you idiot I don’t want you for a sister’. You will need to intervene here and set this up as a family rule (think weekly family meeting discussions here!). Be specific and say something like: “tell her what you need or want”
- You may, with your children, be able to have them repeat back what they heard the other child say. (For some this may be too much language or that they just aren’t ready developmentally – again, see where your own kids are at and you may want to experiment. It certainly is something to work towards). It will also depend on how calm they are. It is a good strategy to give both of them the opportunity to say what they need and also to hear somebody else say what they need.
- At this point you may bring in ‘The Family Rule/Value” to help to guide them. “Our family rule is that we don’t grab things from each other/hit each other/tke each other’s snacks etc”. I wonder what the two of you can come up with to try to solve this situation.
- The children learn so much in this interaction and they are feeling safe because you are right there walking them through it.
Now…it may be that the kids are well beyond the point of no return, the situation had gotten dangerous – i.e. they were already hitting each other with the Pringles can over the head by the time you came in and you couldn’t calm them down then and there.
If that is the case:
- Describe what you see: “I see two very angry children that are about to hurt each other”
- “This is not safe. We need to get rid of this anger. Quick – you to your room and you to yours…or maybe you have cooling off corners, or you just separate them and holding each at opposite ends of your body in a one -arm embrace. Do what works for your kids. Some kids can’t go to their room to calm down by themselves. Maybe one of your kids can and the family agreement is that one of them go to the cooling off space while the parent helps the other calm down with the clear understanding that mom/dad WILL come back to the least dysregulated one in a few minutes to acknowledge their distress as well.
Some kids really can’t listen to the other when so upset and there really is no point in working it out while they are in such a state. Empathising with a child will eventually bring him down. If they are in full meltdown mode – waiting it out, while being there – ready to support - even when they don’t want to be touched in the moment, is key. Keep aiming to reconnect.
Your child will get there.
That is a lot to process! Go over the steps again and discuss with your partner how you may apply it to suit your family and children’s developmental needs.
Freeze Dance! Crank up some lively, well loved family tunes and play the freeze dance! When the music stops, everyone freezes ☺ This one lifts the mood pretty quickly after a rough day. Kids (and adults) need to move to work the tension out! Make the moves crazy and fun.
Consider one of your heroes or role models. Can you recognise that they suffer and struggle with imperfection too?