Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Book Author: Laura Markham
Full Title: Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life
Page Count: 352
I often pick up parenting books because they seem useful generally. I admit I sought this one out to address real time challenges. Sibling rivalry can be a special brand of challenge for those of us looking to respond to them as teaching moments, and avoid shaming anyone or adding fuel to their fires.
I found this book so helpful. I enjoyed the process of trying out strategies from this book. That’s right-- enjoyed! Maybe that proves I’m in the right line of work, but I also think, with the right tools, conflict isn’t so scary.
Going into Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, I had an awareness that sibling fights happen in part for grown-up attention. I trusted the children in my care had the ability to resolve their conflict and wanted more tools to help them feel secure and connected as they explored these essential social skills.
I practice minimal intervention when possible because I'm aware that in an adult-child power dynamic, it's up to me to make space for the child to grow into. I pictured myself as the coach of our little team. I appreciated that this book helped me get down to the children's level and explore social skills with them using empathy and play. I was able to offer some strategy to help them help themselves more later.
A little disclaimer here that the author’s ideas are mixing with my own in the following list.
How to Help Warring Siblings
Tools in the Moment of Conflict
“I hear frustrated noises. Do you need some help?” I love this script for establishing consent to intervene and subtly sending the message that they are responsible for their own relationships. My help is optional.
Listening to and empathizing with one child at a time. Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings offers scripts to help facilitate dialogue in which no child is blamed and there’s still room to assert that certain behaviors are not allowed. I appreciate the step in communication of confirming each child heard and understood the other, so they know that step is essential when it comes time for them to try these conversations out without a facilitator.
Opportunities for the children to be strategic. “What’s your plan?” Often their solutions are more creative and fun than mine would’ve been.
Physically blocking an attack, with optional language, “I will not let you hit.” Safety first.
Tools Outside of the Moment of Conflict
Encouraging “breakdowns.” It’s stressful being a little person in a big world. Tears come with wonderful relief. If a child in my care has a big reaction to a reasonable boundary I’ve set, I assume they really needed to express some frustration and I keep them company in that space.
Encouraging belly laughs. On those days when it seems like every moment is tense and dramatic, that might mean it’s time for a silly break. This was the most helpful tip for me, because I was at times too zoomed in on the moment of fighting and it helped me see how the overall flow of our day could reduce tension. Instead of putting out emotional fires all day, I could meet a broader emotional need for joy and connection that prevented fights from breaking out in the first place.
This is a topic for another post, but I want to open up to you here that learning the value of laughter for a child’s brain has helped me appreciate the need for more play for myself. Laughter is a powerful mental health tool. I know it’s not always easy or accessible. It's nice when it works.
Encouraging teamwork. Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings recommends, of all things, finding opportunities for children to band together...against their grown-up. You may have experienced this if you’ve ever been assigned to play monster in a game. My favorite activity the author suggested for this (I think she borrowed it from the book Playful Parenting, which is on my To Read list now) is a Kids Vs. Grown-up pillow fight.
Many in the respectful parenting community believe it’s not appropriate for adults to roughhouse with children because children cannot fully offer consent or communicate when something doesn’t feel good. I’m open to these arguments, as consent is vital. In my practice so far, a little bit of roughhousing, especially when the kids outnumber me, or are using me as a prop to climb on, can offer opportunities to model consent. The benefits of encouraging teamwork and eliciting belly laughs are worth it to me in times when children are struggling to get along.
When they’re playing well together, they create their own teamwork and laughs and I would typically not interrupt that to insert myself.
Inviting a game specifically when there’s been a lingering tension. A lot of times, initiating play is a tool I go to when I'm having an off day, maybe I didn't sleep well, and I can tell it's effecting the children (because they're so amazingly in tune with their grown-ups). I want to show them we're still attached. If other relationships in the household are strained, frustrations might come out on a sibling. It helps to look at the whole picture.
Exploring social skills with books, puppets, songs, shows, and through their own imaginative play with friends, each other, or alone. I thought it would be helpful to include a reminder on the topic of sibling rivalry that there are lots of ways children learn social skills and that this is a process. It’s not all about the adult saying the right things in the right moments.
Mealtime conversations or non-mealtime family meetings. For the under-4 crowd, meal and snack times are a great time to check in, and that’s when I might ask about feelings or set expectations for the rest of the day or an event coming up. For 4 and up, we can write problems on an agenda and address them during (whatever we want to call it) family meetings, household meetings, problem-solving time. Family meetings aren’t part of the book I’m reviewing here but I think they pair very well! I teach family meetings in my Positive Discipline Parent Coaching Series.
Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings was engaging to read, offered clear scripts to try out (which I gravitate toward as a lover of the power of language), and its strategies genuinely helped me help young, warring siblings. Later, I would hear them use the same language with each other that their parents and I facilitated regularly with them when conflict was at a peak and their peaceful negotiations warmed my heart. That doesn't mean I didn't also see the occasional biting injury or tears over toys yanked from hands. Emphasis on "it's a process."
I can’t get rid of conflict. I don’t want to. Conflict helps us address our needs. My adult brothers and I still get upset with each other sometimes, and children that have been coached will still need coaching sometimes, but if you can get to a place where it no longer feels like you're stuck in a culture of fighting, it's such a relief. Most of the day you hear laughter, and it’s the best.