Siblings...they can be best of friends one minute, providing companionship and entertainment for each other, and enemies the next, fighting and hurting each other's feelings. What is a parent to do? How can caregivers navigate sibling ups and downs?
I've found the #1 most helpful tool an adult can use when interacting with child siblings is narration. So often parents fall into the comfortable traps of communicating to their children by either teaching/educating, giving commands, or asking questions. Parents also have a tendency to find themselves in the roll of referee, which doesn’t allow children to enhance their own skills of conflict resolution, and can even escalate, instead of de-escalate sibling conflict. Instead, when caregivers are narrating children's experiences, children find themselves able to problem solve on their own, increase their own communication skills, empathize with their siblings, and resolve issues without adult direction.
Here's how it works:
Let's say a pair of siblings is playing together in the living room. Maybe one is playing with the helicopter while the other is playing with the dollhouse. All of a sudden the child playing with the dollhouse decides the helicopter looks really fun and they need it for their pretend play story. If an adult is in the room and watching they would most likely be heard saying things like: you have to share...or...he was playing with that first...or...you have to give that back, no grabbing...or...you need to wait your turn.
Instead, what if the playtime looked and sounded more like this:
Marie says: "I want the helicopter"
Johnny replies: "No, I'm playing with it."
Marie looks upset.
Observing adults narrates:
"Johnny it looks like you're using the helicopter for your story...
Marie...I see you really want a turn with the helicopter.
Sounds like Johnny isn't done playing with it yet.
Marie, it seems like you're really feeling disappointed that Johnny isn't ready to share yet."
Usually at this point either Marie will find something else to play with for a while or Johnny will give her a turn. Either way, the children are able to understand where the other person is coming from because the adult is narrating the experience and feelings. The important things to remember about using narration are to try to talk about what's happening, what's going on, what the children are doing and how they are feeling in statement form, as if you are announcing a football game. There are no questions or directions, but simply being 100% present with your children without any distractions. It can be helpful to set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes when you're first practicing so both you and your children can know when "special play time" beings and ends. However, narrating can be used outside of pretend play and in a variety of situations. If you'd like to learn more about using child-centered narration in a variety of settings, you may want to check out chapter 1 of "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk." In the event that narration does not lead to children resolving the conflict on their own and you do need to intervene, it is still best to refrain from the role of referee. It doesn't matter who started it, who did what first. If you're going to intervene, have both children take a break in their rooms so they can calm down, get some breathing room, and both have the same consequences for the sibling conflict.
LCSW, CCLS, RPT-S
Morris County Play Therapy
(862) 242-0559 Denville, NJ