My son is very much a loner at his high school. He was never a very popular child, but in the last year, he has become more and more isolated. I know he would never become violent, but I worry about how to help him. When I try to get him to join clubs or call old friends, he refuses. I don’t know what to do.
We all knew one in high school; the nerd, the loner, the geeky kid who sat in the back of the class and didn’t say much. As teenagers, we didn’t have the skills to reach out to classmates who seemed different from us, not to mention the fact that most of us were afraid to risk sacrificing whatever social status we had by befriending a kid who was “weird.”
Mostly sweet and sensitive, socially awkward kids quietly inhabit the fringes of our world. If they’re lucky, they have one similarly-afflicted friend; someone to take the edge off the loneliness of not fitting in, someone to eat lunch and play video games with them.
But many, like your boy, don’t have a someone. They move like a shadow through their school day, desperately waiting for the end-of-school bell that signals relief from the seven hours of social hell. Some — those who are simply shy — come back to life when they get home, becoming animated, fiesty and fully engaged with family members.
Others, however, remain isolated, even in the midst of family. They retreat to their room, often spending hours in front of some kind of screen to numb their pain, boredom and depression. They often form alliances — “friendships” — with similar kids online, playing group online video games where their particular skill set feels valued, and where they experience a sense of belonging or importance.
Most of the kids I’ve worked with like your son go through the motions of daily life with a heavy heart, and are very much in need of help and support.
One young man I worked with taught me the importance of even the smallest gesture of kindness. Jeff* was a great kid — funny, very smart, emotionally immature and terribly awkward. Each time he came to see me he would catalog, in great detail, the ways he had been ignored or excluded. Jeff’s odd demeanor and quirky comments alienated others. He felt invisible.
I was always touched when this young man would tell me about someone who had acknowledged him with a simple, “Hi, Jeff,” or ask how he was doing on a science project. The fact that someone knew his name, or made even a small effort to connect, would lift his spirits for days.
Here are a few suggestions for helping kids like your son, both for you as a parent, and for those of us who have a youngster in our world whose day might be brightened if we became the one person who reached out:
• Avoid lecturing, shaming or advising. Many kids who suffer from social awkwardness are admonished by their parents to try harder to be friendly. While some may benefit from this advice, making your son feel that he is at fault for his lack of friendships can feel excrutiating, and will certainly make him resistant to any input or guidance you might have to offer.
• Don’t pepper him for information about his day. In your eagerness to draw your son out of his shell you may end up coming across as though you’re interrogating him. “How was your day?” “Did you talk to anyone?” “Who did you eat lunch with?” Kids who are socially awkward are usually quite sensitive, and can be easily flooded by too many questions.
• Create space for your youngster to connect with you at home in his own way. Come alongside, rather than at him. Don’t demand face to face conversation if he is more comfortable talking while the two of you are driving somewhere, or unloading the dishwasher. Show interest in the things he’s interested in, allowing him to come your way without feeling pushed or pressured.
• Identify and nurture his gifts. Social Intelligence is one of the eight forms of intelligence identified by psychologist Howard Gardner. Kids who easily establish rapport and forge friendships are strong in this form of intelligence, but there are many other expressions of genius, including Musical, Logic/Mathematic, Verbal/Linguistic, Naturalist, Visual/ Spatial, Body/ Kinesthetic and Intrapersonal Intelligence. Help your son identify his natural interests, and arrange for opportunities to explore and develop his unique talents.
• Provide him with a mentor. While your son may not have stellar social skills, he’s great at something. Whether it’s playing guitar, designing computer graphics or juggling, look for someone—perhaps a college kid, or a tutor at the local Boys and Girls Club—who can take him under his wing. These get togethers will provide him with the chance to develop his talents and improve his conversational skills in a more relaxed setting.
• Find outside groups or clubs he can join. Whether it’s a church or temple youth group, an after school computer club, or a volunteer organization, your son may come to life in a smaller setting where there are older kids/ counselors who can help youngsters feel accepted and celebrated as they are.
• Get professional help. There was once a stigma attached to therapy or counseling, but that is changing. There is no shame in seeking outside support for your son, and he may open up to someone skillful at drawing him out in ways that would surprise you. I have worked with very withdrawn young men and women whose parents warned me by saying, “I doubt if he’ll say more than two words to you.” These very kids often talked non-stop once their parent left the room, desperately relieved to have found a safe place to offload their pent up feelings.
In the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Sandy Hook, the focus on mental health came to the forefront as it was discovered that the perpetrator was a reportedly isolated and troubled teen. We cannot make it the sole responsibility of classmates, teachers or even parents to heal out a socially awkward youngster who may need professional help, but we can each pay more attention to those young men and women in our midst who struggle to create and maintain friendships. Even the smallest expression of care and interest can help boost the confidence of a child like your son. I hope he gets the help he needs and deserves.
Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to email@example.com and you could be featured in an upcoming column.
Is your child a loner? Tell us how you have managed this difficult social experience at our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox
Staying strong through tough times
Losing a loved one is probably the worst thing that can happen to someone.
When you are grieving a loss, continuing to be present as a parent can be difficult — especially if your children are grieving too. How can you give your children what they need during this time, when you aren’t even sure what you need?
Grief is a journey like no other. When you are a parent, you can’t just put your children on hold while you sort out your feelings of sadness and loss. Life goes on, children need stability and they may be dealing with grief as well.
Help yourself first
Jennifer Shurnas was in her early 40s when she experienced the sudden and horrific death of her husband. She was faced not only with grieving the loss of her husband of almost 20 years, but with helping her three daughters through the experience as well. “One metaphor that describes parenting during grief is the airplane oxygen mask instruction which flight attendants give you — in order to help your children you must first help yourself,” Shurnas shares. “Fundamentally, you can’t help your child unless you are helping yourself.” Find the support you need in close friends, family members or a therapist. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, and accept offers of help when offered.
“Don’t hide your feelings,” advises Christina Steinorth, licensed psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships. “Many parents make the mistake of ‘being strong for the children’ and hiding their feelings of grief.” Especially when the children are also grieving the loss, it is helpful for them to see how adults process those same feelings. “Parents need to know that it’s OK for their children to see them sad,” says Steinorth. “When parents hide their feelings while the kids are grieving too, it doesn’t help children learn to process grief. It almost teaches them that it’s not OK to be sad and have feelings of loss and hurt.”“Each year we release three dozen red, white and blue balloons
into the sky in his memory.”
“A child observing your own grief, mourning and processing makes you authentically human and credible to them — someone they can relate to,” shares Shurnas. “It sends a message that it’s OK for them to do the same.” Depending on the age of the child, they will understand and process feelings of grief and loss differently — but look to parents and other adults for guidance.
“While each individual’s grief journey is unique, they will hopefully settle into their own process with your guidance and the guidance of others,” says Shurnas. Each of her three daughters found a different way to work through mourning their father. “My youngest child made and edited amazing videos of her father and dubbed them to music. My middle child would draw for hours at a time, and my eldest would talk and write about her feelings,” she remembers. Her own way of working through mourning involved touching objects that belonged to her husband, reading things that he wrote, looking at photographs and writing.
Sometimes, just having someone who counts on you each day is enough to make you keep moving forward. “It isn’t an easy balancing act,” Shurnas adds, “but my desire to take care of my children while making endless necessary decisions actually saved me from falling into a deep ditch of depression. Quite simply, my daughters indirectly saved me.” After the initial period of mourning passes, many find that trying to return to a regular routine of work and family commitments helps them stay on track as parents — and helps their children see that life goes on.
For some families, observing special days of remembrance or having rituals they can perform together helps. Shurnas and her daughters decided to have special rituals from time to time to acknowledge her husband’s spirit and keep the good memories of him close to their hearts. “For example,” she shares, “his favorite holiday was the Fourth of July — Independence Day. So, each year we release three dozen red, white and blue balloons into the sky in his memory. Red represents the love we have for him, the white is for peace in our hearts and the blue represents our releasing our ‘blues.’”
Parenting can be difficult as you face the emotional challenges of grief and loss. By including your children in your process of grief and recovery, you are teaching them a life lesson and helping yourself at the same time.
Click on our freebies link to get new parenting tools to manage children’s behavior and build character into your family.
Have you ever lost something you know still exists? Perhaps it was an old picture, a sentimental letter or your favorite pair of shoes. Initially, you search and search for the item but you cannot recover it. It eats away at you, day after day, until you are lucky enough to be reunited with it. When this happens, you give a big sigh of relief, the panic eventually subsides and you move forward with your life.
This same scenario can apply to children in the foster care system. They have been separated from what is most precious to them, their families. They know that their family members still exist, but they cannot live with them. Clearly, those children who are reunited with their families feel a great sense of relief. The children who remain in care hold onto the hope of reunifying with their families as long as they are in foster care. Their losses are unresolved.
Ambiguous loss is also known as an unresolved loss. Boss, 1999, defined ambiguous loss as the grief or distress associated with a loss (usually a person or relationship) in which there is confusion or uncertainty about the finality of the loss. There are two types of ambiguous loss:
1. When the person is physically present but psychologically unavailable. An example of this might be when a child’s parent has a mental health diagnosis or a substance use issue that makes him/her emotionally unavailable to meet the needs of the child, even if that parent is physically present.
2. When the person is physically absent but psychologically present. Examples of this would be when a child does not live with a parent due to divorce, incarceration, foster care or adoption (Boss, 1999).
For children in foster care, ambiguous loss occurs over and over again and is very difficult to process. Children who enter foster care often lose contact with their birth parents, their siblings, other family members, friends and their physical surroundings. They enter uncertain situations and are left wondering if the separation from their biological families will be permanent or temporary. Frequently, the biological family stays psychologically present in the child’s mind, even though the biological family members are not physically present. While in care, many foster children fluctuate between hope and hopelessness with regard to reunification. This is due to the ambiguous loss, which causes them to block themselves from forming healthy attachments to their new foster families. To gain a better understanding of a foster child experiencing an ambiguous loss, consider the example of this 11-year-old boy who was in foster care:
I knew that my mom kept thinking about getting us back and that helped me hang on. She told me she wanted us back. I just could never give up on my mom even though she did so much stuff. I know no matter what she put me through she still loved me. There was no way I was going to call my foster mother Mom. I got a mother. At times my mom said she couldn’t stop thinking about us and wanted to kill herself because she wasn’t with us. I thought one day she will come back and get me, wake up and realize what she did wrong. After all the pain you go through you hope there is happiness waiting for you in the end (Manuel, age 11).
Nationally, there are 463,000 children in foster care, 49% of whom are slated for reunification with their biological parents. With this in mind, it is essential that professionals working with foster children and foster parents understand the concept of ambiguous loss and work with their clients to create more stable relationships between foster parents and their foster children (www.childwelfare.gov).
How Foster Parents Can Cope Ambiguous loss can be difficult for many foster parents to comprehend if they do not have a clear understanding of its role in the foster child’s life. As outsiders, we expect the foster child to be as angry as we are at the biological parents who caused them pain. We cannot understand why the children want to have anything to do with their biological parents after being treated so badly. This may be our reality, but it is not the foster child’s reality. Extreme loyalty remains between the child and the biological family members, and hope of returning home is kept alive by phone contact or visits with biological parents who tell them that they are attempting to regain custody. These statements by parents underscore for the children that reunification is not a fantasy; it can be a reality. Since the loss is unresolved, the children find it very difficult to detach from their biological parents and attach to a new caregiver; their parents are still very much alive.
Foster parents can ease the transition for themselves and their foster children by recognizing the symptoms of ambiguous loss prior to the child entering the home. These symptoms often include: Difficulty with changes and transitions, even seemingly minor ones like sleeping in a new bed Trouble making decisions Feelings of being overwhelmed when asked to make a choice Problems coping with routine childhood or adolescent losses (last day of school, death of a pet, move to a new home, etc.) A sort of learned helplessness and hopelessness due to a sense that he has no control over his life Depression and anxiety Feelings of guilt Fear of attachment Lack of trust
(www.nacac.org). Foster parents can also help alleviate the ambiguous foster child’s anxieties and fears and create a healthy attachment by:
Acknowledging that the foster child’s biological family still exists; denial can be a real enemy. Not taking sides but spending time exploring the foster child’s feelings if he is open to this.
Giving a voice to the ambiguity — give a name to the feelings of ambiguous loss and acknowledge how difficult it is to live with this ambiguity.
Learning to redefine what it means to be a family, both foster and biological. Giving your foster children permission to have feelings about being separated from their family of origin without feeling guilty.
Helping the child identify what has been lost (the loss may not be limited to the actual parent – loss could also include the membership of that extended family, the loss of the home or town, the loss of having a family that looks like them or the loss of their family surname.
Create a “loss box.” In her work with adopted adolescents, therapist Debbie Riley guides youth as they decorate a box in which they place items that represent things they’ve lost. This gives them both a ritual for acknowledging the loss and a way for them to revisit the people or relationships in the future.
Creating a life book and writing in the birthdays and names of their biological family members. Understanding that sometimes certain events trigger feelings of loss, such as holidays, birthdays or the anniversary of an adoption.
Alter or add to family rituals to acknowledge the child’s feelings about these important people or relationships that have been lost. For example, adding an extra candle representing the child’s birth family on his or her cake may be a way of remembering their part in your child’s life on that day.
Don’t set an expectation that grief over ambiguous loss will be “cured,” “fixed” or “resolved” in any kind of predetermined timeframe.
Explain that feelings related to ambiguous loss will come and go at different times in a person’s life and provide a safe place for the child to express those feelings (www.nacac.org).|
In addition to unconditional love, the best gifts that anyone can give a foster child coping with an ambiguous loss are patience, honesty and acknowledgement.
References Boss, P. (1999), Ambiguous Loss. Learning to live with unresolved grief. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. National American Council on Adoptable Children. (2011). Retrieved October 2, 2010, from www.nacac.org/links.html
Share your thoughts on this issue by posting your comments on http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox
While it’s perfectly natural for your child to be disappointed when she loses something she’s worked hard for, like the championship soccer game, it is important for her to learn to accept loss without feelings of bitterness or low self-esteem. A child who doesn’t learn to lose graciously has a hard time making friends and is often frustrated by failures. Here are some ways to encourage a sourpuss to sweeten up.
If your child regularly “loses it” when she loses, you might need to take a break from game playing altogether. Turn the focus to other areas of her life that she can feel good about. And teach her that mistakes are okay by not reacting harshly when she makes one. For example, instead of getting angry about a bad grade in school, talk about what she can do to do better. In time, you should see some improvement.
Share your parent tools on how to raise a gracious loser at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox
Philosophers, religious leaders, and anthropologists have long asserted that the true measure of the goodness of a culture is how it treats those hardest to care for — namely children and the elderly. According to a new report by the National Research Council, our society is missing the mark.
The report specifically examined the ability of U.S. healthcare workers to meet the mental health needs of an aging population. In 2010, 40.3 million Americans were 65 years or older. By 2030, that number will grow to 72.1 million. Currently, an estimated 1 in 5 of these older adults have at least one mental health or substance abuse condition. Depressive disorders and dementia-related symptoms are the most common problems. Additionally, age alters the body’s ability to metabolize medications and cognitive impairments lead to an inability for self-care. These age-related issues lead to multiple healthcare challenges, including high costs, decreased quality of life, and increased morbidity and mortality. To add insult to injury, the report claims that there is a shortage of healthcare workers who are able to care for these elderly patients.
Primary care providers are currently ill-equipped to care for the mental healthcare needs of an aging population. And, as the aging population grows and becomes more diverse, providers will fall further behind in their ability to care for the elderly. Most providers receive little training in geriatric care and virtually no training on mental health in this specific population. The authors of the IOM report cite a lack of financial incentives and mentorship opportunities within this specialty. They released the report as a wake-up call to the nation that will, hopefully, prompt an expansion and preparation of a geriatric healthcare workforce. The authors suggest augmenting Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for mental health and substance abuse counseling services and intensifying government grants and programs that encourage professional training in geriatrics.
However, all of these recommendations require money and time — two other things facing significant shortages in the American healthcare system. Inadequate training and personnel shortages are not easily overcome. Coordinated efforts by health professional and social services schools, agencies that promote training in geriatric care, and public and private care providers must espouse a new attitude toward caring for an aging population. Educational experiences that encourage a quality-of-life, rather than just a medical, approach to geriatric care has proved successful in some healthcare curriculums. Clinical knowledge and didactic education are obviously important for improving the care of elderly patients, but the attitude and affective knowledge gained through non-clinical interactions with older adults may be the best approach to expand and improve the care of our aging population. Affection and care for the elderly are truly gold mines of a culture. If we are not able to care for those who have spent their lifetimes caring for us, what kind of care can we expect in our own golden years?
Let’s start with the purpose of praise: to encourage children to continue to engage in positive behaviors that produce positive outcomes. Now you can start to see the problems with “good job!” First, it lacks specificity. It doesn’t tell children what precisely they did well and without that information they can’t know exactly what they should do in the future to get the same outcome. Second, “good job!” focuses on the outcome rather than the process. If you’re going to be lazy with your praise, at least say, “Good effort!” because it focuses them on what they did to do a good job.
Unfortunately, many parents have been misguided by the “self-esteem movement,” which has told them that the way to build their children’s self-esteem is to tell them how good they are at things. Unfortunately, trying to convince your children of their competence will likely fail because life has a way of telling them unequivocally how capable or incapable they really are through success and failure.
The reality is that children don’t need to be told “good job!” when they have done something well; it’s self-evident. They do need to be told why they did well so they can replicate that behavior in the future to get the same positive outcome.
Research has shown that how you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development. The Columbia University researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as compared to their effort, became overly focused on results. Following a failure, these same children persisted less, showed less enjoyment, attributed their failure to a lack of ability (which they believed they could not change), and performed poorly in future achievement efforts. Says Dweck: “Praising children for intelligence makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity.”
Too much praise of any sort can also be unhealthy. Research has found that students who were lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, were less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.
Children develop a sense of competence by seeing the consequences of their actions, not by being told about the consequences of their actions. The researchers Mueller and Dweck found that children who were praised for their effort showed more interest in learning, demonstrated greater persistence and more enjoyment, attributed their failure to lack of effort (which they believed they could change), and performed well in subsequent achievement activities. Rewarding effort also encouraged them to work harder and to seek new challenges. Adds the Clark University researcher Wendy Grolnick: “Parental encouragement of learning strategies helps children build a sense of personal responsibility for-and control over-their academic careers.”
Based on these findings, you should avoid praising your children about areas over which they have no control. This includes any innate and unalterable ability such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, or athletic or artistic gifts. You should direct your praise to areas over which your children have control-effort, attitude, responsibility, commitment, discipline, focus, decision making, compassion, generosity, respect, love, the list goes on. You should look at why exactly your children did something well and specifically praise those areas. For example, “You worked so hard preparing for this test,” “You were so focused during the entire chess match,” and “You were so generous for sharing with your sister.”
Particularly with young children, you don’t need to praise them at all. The best thing you can do is simply highlight what they did. For example, if your toddler just climbed a playground ladder for the first time, just say, “You climbed that ladder by yourself.” Their smile of pride will tell you that they got the message you wanted them to get, namely, “I did it!” Nothing more needs to be said.
As another alternative to praise, just ask your children questions. You can find out what your children thought and felt about their achievement, for example, “What did you enjoy most about your performance?” and “How do you feel about what you just did?” Allow your children to decide for themselves how they feel about their accomplishments, enable them to reward themselves for their own good actions, and encourage them to internalize what they observed about their own achievement efforts.
Or really go out on a limb and don’t say anything at all to your children. As I just mentioned, kids know when they do well. By letting them come to this realization on their own, they learn to reinforce themselves and they don’t become praise junkies dependent on you for how they feel about their efforts and accomplishments.
Here is my challenge to you. First, next time you’re at the playground or a youth sports competition, take note of what parents say to their children. I’ll bet you hear “Good job!” (or some variation) constantly. Next, monitor what you say to your children in the same situations. Then, erase “Good job!” from your vocabulary. We’ve already established how useless it is. Finally, start to praise your children in the healthy ways I just described. When you have broken yourself of the “Good job!” habit, you can then pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “Good job!”
Here’s a list of the hottest parenting tools posted on this blog during 2012. Read and enjoy…see you next year, in 2013, for more tips for parents:
25 Ways To Talk So Children Will Listen
Dream Parenting: Doing More of What Works
Cannibas and the Adolescent Brain
Parenting A Child With Anxiety
Co-Parenting After a Seperation or Divorce
Father’s Day Quotes: Best Sayings About Dads
The Terrible Two’s: Myth or Reality?
Chidren and Grief
Real World Stress Tips for Parents
Moral Development of Children
And the all-time, reader favorite of 2012 is…
10 Habits for a Well-Run Home
after a tragedy
Our hearts break every time we think about the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and how they’re struggling to cope with the horror of last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook School. In the midst of our sadness, we’re faced with needing to respond to our own kids’ queries about the attack, often clueless as to how much, or how little to say. My three elementary-aged kids want some details, for example: How many guns did the shooter have? How did he get in if the doors were locked? Did the kids see blood? Deep breath. Thankfully, Nancy Berns, associate professor of sociology at Drake University, an expert in grief, death and violence and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, stepped in to give us all guidance.
SheKnows: How can parents help their kids cope with the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut?
- Hug your children. Hold them if they are seeking the closeness. Don’t rush them as they are processing their own feelings.
- Limit their exposure to media if possible, including news reports and images. Be careful about how much they overhear you talking to others or listening to news. Children pick up more than you realize.
- Keep your kids’ routines as normal as possible. This will help give them a sense of security.
- If your family has a religious faith, you can pray with your children. Encourage them to pray for others — focusing on helping someone can give them hope.
- Spend time playing, reading and doing other activities together.
Take it slow
SK: What are some specific things parents can say to help kids feel safe at school? And what shouldn’t you say or do?
NB: Even if children are not asking about the shooting, they may be hearing other people talk about it. So you want to check in with them at different times to see if they have questions or concerns. By asking, you give them permission to talk about it. They may not know if it’s OK to discuss it since they’ll likely pick up fear and anxiety as they hear other people talk. If you don’t talk about it with them, they may get even more scared. You can start with a general statement like, “Something sad happened last week. Have you heard anyone talking about it?” And then go slowly from there.
Some children don’t say a lot when they’re upset. You can ask some direct questions. “Are you sad? Are you angry?” Even if they don’t answer, you can reassure them that it is all right to be sad or angry or confused. Let them know it’s all right to ask questions. You can tell them you’re sad, too, so that they don’t feel alone. But don’t lean on your kids for your own emotional support.
Be their safe place
SK: When your kids want to know details about the shootings should parents give honest answers?
NB: Each child may respond differently to this kind of news. You want to be honest with children and also age-appropriate. If children are old enough to be getting news from the internet and social media, you want to provide information so you can help them think through the details.“You can reassure them that it is all right to be sad.”
For younger children, answer their questions but keep the details limited and vague. If they continue to ask questions, try to answer because there is a need there for something. Depending on the age of the child, you have to discern how much detail is too much. If they are asking questions that you are uncomfortable answering, gently ask them why they are wondering. You can also ask what they’ve already heard to find out what images might be in their head. Keep the lines of communication open and let them see you as a safe place to express concerns.
Too young to understand?
SK: Should parents expect their kids to grieve and talk a lot about death?
NB: While researching my book, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, I found that some similarities that children have in grieving, differ from many adults. Kids can switch their attention and emotions quickly. Children may hear about a loss, cry and be upset one moment, and then they go play and laugh. It’s important not to assume that this quick change means that the shooting isn’t bothering them. They may come back to it later in ways we don’t always pick up on.
Adults may assume kids are fine after a death, thinking that “They’re too young to understand” and then the adults may be reluctant to bring up the tragedy. But when no one else is talking with a child about it, he or she may feel alone with the confusing feelings or start to think he shouldn’t talk about it.
Children are likely to be sad, scared and confused and wonder if the same thing can happen to them or their friends and family. Reassure them that you are watching out for them and that their school is safe. Hug them and tell them you love them.
How have you helped your child understand and feel safe during tragedies? Share your thoughts with us at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox
Parents have a shortage of time. The quickest way end a parents dream strategy is feeling “overwhelmed.” Map out your day with your family in terms if hours and minutes. Build in time cushions so that you can get everything done. Eliminate anything that is not absolutely essential to the type of relationships you want and deserve to have.
Share your tiny successes with us at http://www.facebook.com/ParentingToolbox
Kids who are closer in age are somewhat more likely to spend time together and to share toys and friends and interests, so there is more opportunity for conflict and rivalry to occur. Brothers and sisters who are of similar ages also tend to be closer to one another than those who are farther apart in age. It is important to realize, however, that there are many other factors that influence levels of sibling rivalry and closeness such as parenting strategies and children’s personalities and gender; waiting a specific number of years between children will certainly not insure a particular type of sibling relationship.
The melding of two families can turn kids who barely know each other into step-brothers and sisters. Many get along very well, while others carry disparate loyalties and resentments into these new relationships. You cannot force step-siblings to form close family bonds and should give them time and space to get to know each other. However, there are some things you can do to help them get along. Explain to the kids that they are part of a new family and that they cannot expect things to be exactly as they were before; arguments such as “that’s the way we’ve always done things in our family” won’t fly. Tell them that new schedules, chores, rules, and traditions may have to be developed. Have family meetings in which everyone is able to express his or her concerns and ideas. Also be available for your kids if they want to talk, and be sure to be understanding and accepting of their feelings. Try not to take sides with your kids in arguments with their step-siblings because this may encourage “us” against “them” feelings. Organizing fun family events with all the kids is a good way for them to enjoy their time together as a new family.
Is it better for a parent to avoid getting involved with sibling conflicts—to expect the children to work out their own problems? That approach seems unfair to a smaller or less assertive child, yet I hate having to act as judge or to try to figure out who did what to whom.
Trying to figure out who did what to whom and provide a fair solution can be a thankless job for a parent. Not only are you stuck in the middle of your kids’ battle, your children aren’t learning how to work things out on their own. In general, it’s a good idea to stay out of your kids’ conflicts, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. When kids are too young to possess the skills they need to manage conflicts on their own, you can help them with a process called collaborative problem solving. In collaborative problem solving, parents encourage children to tell each other what they need in the situation or what they want to have happen. Then parents can help them brainstorm a set of solutions to the problem that they can both live with. Ideally, it’s a win-win solution because the parent does not have to take sides and the kids are learning problem-solving skills.
As children get better able to handle conflicts on their own, a positive intervention strategy is to acknowledge each child’s side of the story, tell them you are confident that they can come up with a solution, and then leave them to it. For example, if your kids are fighting over a toy, listen to each side and say: “I see two very angry boys who want to use the same block. Jack wants it for his car and Owen wants it for his house. I know that you two can stop fighting and work something out. What are some ideas?” Then leave. If the children are unable to come up with a solution, you should remove the toy or separate them. Always intervene if children’s fighting could lead to one or both of them getting hurt.
I have four children (both boys and girls, 6 years old to 14 years old). At times they get along, but SO often they are at each other and arguing and fighting. “She looked at me…, he touched me…” I think pretty typical stuff, but it really bothers me because I sometimes wonder if they really do love each other, would they stick up for each other, and help each other if they really needed to. I know siblings will fight, but how do you promote more positive feelings and peace between them?
In general, sibling relationships are characterized by many different and complex emotions such as love, conflict, protectiveness, envy, warmth, anger, rivalry, and fun—all at the same time! One boy I knew protected his sister by beating up a classmate who threatened her, saying, “I’m the only one who’s allowed to hit my sister!” Although some fighting is common in sibling relationships because siblings spend so much time together and share so many things (particularly parental attention), these relationships also provide children and adults with emotional and physical support, friendship, information, love, and enjoyment. So the bickering you describe certainly does not mean that your kids don’t love each other very much and will not support each other throughout life—even if they drive each other crazy in the back of the car now.
There are many things that parents can do to help their kids get along. One way to promote positive interactions between them is to be sure to notice and praise the times they act in ways you want them to. Often, as parents, we only respond to the kids’ interactions when they are negative or annoying. When the kids are quiet and get along, we tend to breathe a sigh of relief and leave them alone. In doing so, we are missing great opportunities for rewarding kids when they engage in sibling interactions that we value and want them to continue. Attending only to sibling conflict may actually increase the conflict because they may fight each other in order to get you to intervene and get your attention, even if it’s negative.
It seems that families are having fewer children today than when I was growing up. What is the impact on a child who has no siblings or only one sibling compared to a child who has three, four, or five siblings?
Every family is unique, so it is difficult to make generalizations about all small families or families with many children. However, it is probable that in families with a lot of kids the children are more likely to spend time with each other and care for each other, and they are less likely to spend time alone with their parents, than are kids in smaller families.
There are positive and negative aspects to these differences. When children have more sibling caretakers, they may have an easier time making the transition to caretakers outside of the home (e.g., child care workers, teachers), and the siblings who engage in caretaking may feel more prepared for parenthood (although we know that’s not a criterion for parenting). On the other hand, moms and dads are generally children’s best caretakers. In addition, only children and first-born children who spend more time alone with their parents tend to be more adult focused and achievement oriented, and they tend to do a bit better in school. Kids who spend more time with siblings tend to be more focused on their peers and to be more socially skilled.
It’s certainly not true that only children are selfish, more self-centered, and unable to share. In reality, only children are just as well adjusted as their peers with one or more siblings. I want to be sure to emphasize that characteristics such as birth order and family size do not pigeonhole children. Parenting, personality, and intelligence are a few among many factors that play much more powerful roles in making us who we are.One of our children seems to excel at everything, from schoolwork to sports to popularity. The other struggles and constantly tests the rules. They’re so different: is there any way to promote a good relationship between them?
There’s no way to get around it—siblings in the same family are often very different, with different skills, interests, personalities, and temperaments. Some of these differences they were born with, some developed from their different life experiences, and some were carefully developed by brothers and sisters who chose to excel at different things. However, they do have one of the most important things in the world in common—their family.
Even if your kids aren’t inclined to be bosom buddies at this point in their lives, you can draw them into each others lives by making sure they do things with you as a family. Requiring that the television is off during dinner and that everyone talks about his or her day makes dinner an important time for families to check in with each other. Mandatory family game or movie nights during which you spend some relaxed time together without daily pressure can go a long way (and if your kids are grumpy about staying in, at least they can commiserate with each other and create a healthy “us” against “them” bond!). Make sure they support each other by asking for family attendance at, or enthusiasm for, some of the events or achievements of both the kids. It sounds like it would be easy for the family to attend your one child’s many sporting events or celebrate his or her grades. You may have to be more creative find ways for the family to show pride in the achievements of your other child without making him or her feel “second-best.” Family trips, special family traditions, and celebrations are also ways to enhance the bond between your children.
Although this is not necessarily part of your question, the issue of how different siblings are makes me think about how easy it is for parents to highlight these differences—something we need to try and avoid. Although it may seem natural to compare very different children, such comparisons can be hard for children and can harm the sibling relationship. For example, comments like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” can make children feel resentful or angry at a sibling. They can also make children feel that their parents love them less than their brothers or sisters and can cause jealousy. Comparisons that put one child in a better light than a sibling—for example, “You are so much more athletic than your sister”—can make a child feel guilty about, or sorry for, a sibling. You can avoid making comparisons by simply identifying and describing a child’s particular behavior or personality—without making reference to a sibling. For example, instead of saying, “Why are you so sloppy when your sister is so neat?”, you can say, “You look pretty sloppy; I think you should tuck your shirt in.”
When children are very different, it can seem natural to give them labels such as the “smart one” or the “artist” or the “wild child.” However, these labels can heighten differences and emotional distance between siblings and cause negative feelings such as resentment and jealousy. If Joe is the “talented one” who excels musically and Bob gets in trouble more and is labeled the “troublemaker,” Bob may resent what he perceives to be Joe’s favored status in the family, and his jealousy can harm the sibling relationship. Even positive labels can be problematic because children may feel pressure to meet their parents’ expectations, and they often feel guilty that their parents seem to like them more than a brother or sister. Labels may also serve to increase negative behaviors; the “wild child” may think that he or she might as well continue to do crazy things because parents expect it.
To avoid labels, remember that each child is unique and has the ability to do many things and act in many different ways. If a child engages in one type of behavior for a while (e.g., sports, getting into trouble, art) it doesn’t mean he or she will continue to do so forever. Encourage children when they do something positive unexpectedly. For example, if your child, who always seems to be running late, gets to the dinner table on time, be sure to praise him for being on time. Encourage children to try things they are interested in, even if a sibling is more talented. Realize that children may be born with certain personality traits, but as a parent, you can influence them to behave and act differently and not lock them into particular roles—or stop them from locking themselves into roles.I have two daughters. The older one is 6 and the younger one is 18 months old. My 6-year-old has Attention Deficit, and I find that she has difficulty interacting with her younger sister. My older daughter often gets rough, takes her sister’s toys away, or tries to force an interaction when her sister isn’t interested. What are some suggestions that you could give me to help enhance their relationship and to reduce the sibling rivalry?
Many of us worry about how our older children interact with our younger children and are frustrated when they engage in the behaviors your 6-year-old displays. These undesirable behaviors can be caused in part by feelings of rivalry and anger at having to share parental attention and love. It is also true that children simply may not be developmentally able to adjust their play to a baby’s or toddler’s needs. It takes relatively advanced mental and emotional abilities to recognize (and care) when someone is tired of a game or to understand that you can be rougher with a 4-year-old than with an 18-month-old.
Although your 18-month-old is not a newborn, your older girl is still adjusting to sharing your time and attention, and it can be difficult for her to watch the hands-on care that her younger sister gets from you. One way to address feelings of jealousy toward a younger sibling is to emphasize how great it is to be the older one. Make sure that you are spending some special time alone with the 6-year-old, doing things that only “big” girls can do. Make your older child proud of her big sister role by finding ways to engage in her caretaking activities: Can she pick out clothes for her younger sister? Help in meal preparation? Put her socks on? Talk about how much you think your younger child looks forward to being able to do things like your 6-year-old, such as reading and riding a bike and running.
When you are with them and you can tell that your older daughter wants to start an interaction, suggest (strongly) that she entertain her without touching her: “I’ll bet your sister would love it if you’d sing her a song/read her a book/show her how to do a somersault.”
Be sure to point out and praise instances when your older daughter gets it right: “That’s great, you made her smile!” “Hey, she started looking grumpy and you stopped tickling her—good job.” Keep in mind that the social skills she is learning in her sibling relationship, about empathy and picking up on emotional cues, will serve her well outside the home too.
There is a family that compares the development of a 33-month-old child with her older sister who is 7 years old. They want the younger child to reach the same level of academic achievement that her older sister had at her age. The younger child is meeting the typical developmental milestones for her age. What are ways to approach parents to help them to understand and accept each child as an individual?
All children deserve to be loved and valued for who they are and for their own unique gifts. As discussed in answer to a previous question, comparing children can cause problems in the sibling relationship. In this case, the parents are potentially harming their own goal—that of strong academic achievement for both girls. The younger daughter, if she is not as academically inclined as her sister, may simply give up. Why should she work to do her best in school if she can never do as well as her sister and her parents won’t value her achievements? It’s also possible that the older daughter will feel ashamed of her academic prowess because it makes her sister look bad, and she will degrade or even sabotage her own success.
Commenting on people’s parenting can be tricky. Ultimately, how you talk to them will depend on your relationship with them—what they are like, how you know them, and what your interaction with them is like. One way to approach the topic may be to relate their daughters’ differences to how the parents differ from each other. Which one of them takes care of the checking account? The car? The laundry? Who makes medical appointments for their children? Why is it the case that one of them handles some of these tasks rather than the other? (Hopefully they will see that it’s not that one is smarter or better than the other, but that they are different people with different talents, needs, interests, etc.—just as their children are.) It may be helpful to point out that, from a genetic perspective, unless their children are identical twins, they share only 50% of genetic material, on average. So, there’s a biological/genetic reason that the children will be different from one another and develop at different paces and in different ways.
You could also go out of your way to lavish praise on the younger daughter: “Wow, Natalie has such a sunny disposition! You are lucky to have such a happy child.” Ideally, by emphasizing the wonderful characteristics of the younger child, the parents may begin to appreciate her uniqueness.
This question speaks to how unique the sibling relationship is. The simple answer is—yes. Children who have better-quality sibling relationships in childhood generally have more positive sibling interactions in adolescence and young adulthood. Children who are not close and who experience very high levels of conflict in childhood generally do not have good-quality sibling relationships in adolescence or young adulthood, and many carry their resentments and anger to old age. (Of course, it is certainly possible for negative childhood sibling relationships to improve with interventions that help the children interact more positively.) So there is a relationship between how siblings get along across their lifetimes. However, what “good” sibling relationships look like generally differs quite a bit in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
In childhood, siblings are thrown together a lot without much say in the matter. They spend quite a bit of time together and are expected to share many things—toys, rooms, moms and dads (when parents are the most important things in the world), backseats, friends, etc. As a result, in childhood, good sibling relationships often have a lot of both fighting and playing. In adolescence, children spend more and more time outside of the home with peers, at school, and doing other activities. Siblings will still spend time together with the family and will probably still choose to “hang out” (often the older sibling serves as a teacher to the younger about social issues). Squabbles will occur, but their interactions tend to be less frequent than in childhood. In adulthood, unlike when we were children, we have a lot of choice about how much time we want to spend with our siblings. Because of this, conflict tends to decrease dramatically, and we are generally able to create relationships with our brothers and sisters that work for us. Some siblings may choose to room together at college, others may simply chat on the phone once a week, still others may simply enjoy seeing each other during the holidays. All of these young adults may consider themselves to have good sibling relationships. Later in adulthood, many siblings are active in each others’ lives. However, for many others, their relationships with their siblings are valuable simply because it is important to have family they can always count on and someone with whom they share a past—even if they rarely have contact with their siblings.
Children can have a lot of mixed, intense, and confusing emotions surrounding a sibling with a chronic illness, as I mentioned in answer to a previous question. It’s important to let your children know that it’s okay to have these feelings and to let them talk about them. You may even give them cues to show that you understand that it can be hard for them: “I’m sorry we had to miss your soccer game because we had to take Suzy to the doctor again. I’ll bet it’s frustrating for you when we can’t always do the things we’ve planned.” It may be a tall order if you’re already feeling stretched to the limit, but try to find a way to spend time alone with each of your children each week so they can count on your full attention for a period of time.
Here’s the good news—it’s very possible that your children won’t experience much resentment at all. What the literature suggests is that when children believe their parents pay more attention to a sibling because that sibling needs the attention, they generally have positive feelings about their sibling and parents. It’s when children don’t see a sibling’s need (but rather their gender or personality, etc.) as the reason behind parental differential treatment that they are more likely to experience negative emotions such as resentment. Because children who are chronically ill or disabled are so clearly in need of parental attention, siblings of children with disabilities or illnesses tend to be more accepting of parental differential treatment. To reinforce this idea to your children, when the topic comes up, explain to them that you love them all and work to give them each what they need—and that they each need different things from you.
I have two daughters, ages 10 and 14, who fight constantly. They tend to hurt each other with unacceptable words, and when I try to redirect them, they both say I’m taking the other one’s side. As a single parent, it’s exhausting to struggle with this issue on a daily basis.
You certainly shouldn’t have to be in the middle of their fights, particularly if they are using your intervention as fuel for their arguments. Your children are old enough to be working things out on their own, and they should be. If they need you to help them solve their problems for a while, I suggest the strategy outlined in a previous question: describe what you see, tell them you trust that they can figure it out, and then leave. I also suggest a more comprehensive approach. Sit down with the girls and talk to them about how you’re feeling about the situation in general. Try to avoid being angry and blaming, but tell them something like (and I’m guessing how you may be feeling): “I love you both so much, and it is painful to me to see you hurting each other every day. I work very hard for this family, and it would mean a lot to me if I could come home and have us all get along. How can we make this happen?” Try getting them to brainstorm solutions for their conflict in general and for specific arguments they may be having. Your job should be to facilitate their discussion, not to judge or evaluate what they say. You want them to solve their problems together, not to drag you into their conflicts.
I also strongly suggest you get the book Siblings without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish, which I think you may find useful. Finally, your girls are at an age when they should have the skills necessary to resolve conflicts on their own. However, if you have reason to believe that they don’t have these skills, that they really can’t solve their problems by themselves, then you should make sure they learn—either by explicitly teaching them conflict strategies yourself or by making sure they receive training outside of the home.
Are there any special things that parents or grandparents should keep in mind about sibling relationships when the family is going through a divorce? The children I’m referring to are all under the age of 5.
Sibling conflict often increases during the divorce process for many reasons. Kids can be anxious, confused, and upset by the changes and emotions they perceive in their home—a result can be short tempers and increased fighting. Parents are often emotionally caught up in the divorce and physically less available because one parent may have moved out, so they may be less able to engage in sensitive parenting and less likely to intervene successfully in sibling conflict. In addition, during a divorce, children are often particularly in need of parental attention and support. With parents less accessible, increased sibling conflict may be the result of children fighting to get the decreased parental attention that is available to them. Further, children may feel anger at their parents for changing their family circumstances but be unwilling to reveal all this anger to the parents (because the parents are already so sad or because they may worry that revealing their anger will cause parents to be even less accessible) so they may take their anger out on a sibling.
But wait, there’s good news. Kids are very resilient, and good parenting (and grandparenting) is the most important thing that can be done to help them weather the divorce process. Understanding that increased sibling conflict during a divorce is generally caused by children’s confusion about the divorce (and not, say, to a desire to drive parents crazy when they already feel emotionally tapped) may help you decide how to respond to them. Being sensitive to, and available for, the children as much as possible may be key to lessening some of the conflict. Grandparents can play a key role by being accessible and loving and consistent; things are changing rapidly for the children in their homes, so knowing that their relationship with their grandparents remains the same is important.
Even though sibling conflict may increase during a divorce, it is not the case that relationships between brothers and sisters necessarily become more negative overall. Experiencing their parents’ divorce can strengthen the sibling bond and provide children with a sense of support and security at a time when other family relationships are confusing. Children often look to each other to understand the divorce, and older siblings can explain what’s happening to younger siblings. Even increased conflict is a sign of the strength of the sibling relationship. Children may be worried about expressing anger to parents but not to a sibling. Why? Because they know that a sibling is going to be there no matter what. That knowledge is particularly meaningful to children when other relationships in their family are changing and may seem uncertain.