If your children also kick each other and argue 24/7, you will understand why parent Alex Galbinski needed help.
When my daughter told me she wished she were an only child, I was calm. I remained equally calm when she and her younger brother started squabbling over anything and everything.
Usually, I would have reacted like Dr Bruce Banner evolving into the Incredible Hulk, but I wanted to be calm enough to attend a workshop on reducing sibling rivalry.
Fittingly, the free introductory talk I had signed up for was run by the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting programme and the title was enough to make me feel hopeful. Hopeful, but anxious, as I dreaded being judged for inept parenting skills and raising two children who turn into feuding warriors the moment my back is turned.
In preparation, I listened to the Siblings with Less Rivalry CD, featuring Noël Janis-Norton, the founder of the West Hampstead-based not-for-profit centre, so I knew what to expect, but not if I was going to be the only parent with children who bickered and sniped from the minute they surfaced until lights out.
I needn’t have worried – thankfully everyone in the room was enduring similar battles with their offspring. And Robyn Spencer – one of 13 practitioners worldwide – put us at ease, asking us what we all wanted to change at home. What ‘we’ wanted was: a calmer environment. “To feel less frustration or anger,” said one red-faced parent. “For the children to bond and be more caring and inclusive,” said another. “Less competitive and more confident,“ noted a soulful father, but it was the mother who said: “I’d like for my children to be able to be together for more than two minutes without fighting” that made me want to leap in the air shouting: “Yes! I’ll have what she’s having!“
Robyn told us Janis-Norton’s core strategies for creating a ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ family life, start working within days, but I wanted to be sure so decided to speak to Janis-Norton directly. In severe cases, she goes to live with families for a few days to help implement her strategies, and I was prepared to tidy the spare room if necessary.
Parents have to be in charge, says Janis-Norton. “They decide on the lifestyle, the values, rules and routines,” she points out. “If you’re not, there will be a vacuum so the children’s values will rush in to fill it. Let’s say your children are squabbling underfoot, so you tell them to go into another room. If they won’t go, then you’re not in charge.”
So how do I get (back) in charge? “Remember that children want to please their parents, so we need to show them we are pleasable and what exactly pleases us – and that includes small steps in the right direction, not just wonderful achievements” says Janis-Norton, whose father is Jewish. “
Descriptive Praise [a key concept that involves praising a specific action or behaviour you want your child to do more of] is so much more motivating than the usual superlative praise. A lot of what we say is ‘fabulous’ is not – it’s what they should be doing. With Descriptive Praise, you might say something like: ‘You walked by your baby brother and you didn’t knock him over.’”
“But, won’t that just put the idea into their heads?” I splutter, thinking that this will remind my son to shout in his sister’s face. “It’s already in their minds!” Janis-Norton retorts and I concede. Parents should remember, says Janis-Norton, 70, a grandmother of six, that a small amount of sibling rivalry or squabbling is normal, natural and even useful. “Parents inadvertently mishandle that small amount by reacting as if it’s a problem. And the more attention you pay to the bickering, the more of it you’ll get.
“We can guide siblings to be more tolerant of each other’s foibles by Reflective Listening, by not assuming children are telling the whole truth when they complain about each other and not telling them off. After a few days of Reflective Listening without reprimanding, children start to learn how to sort out their conflicts themselves.”
If you’re concerned squabbling children will inflict serious damage without your intervention, Janis-Norton says: “Very few families are so dysfunctional that the children really want to hurt each other. All they’re doing is being children, and they’ll do more of whatever gets the parents’ attention.”
Speaking of attention, Janis-Norton emphasises: “Children need and crave and deserve special time alone with each parent. If they don’t get it on a frequent, predictable and labelled basis, they’ll take it out on their sibling.”
This special time should consist of at least 10 minutes day with each child, doing something you both enjoy that doesn’t cost money and isn’t in front of a screen. And if, like me, you wonder where you’ll find the time for this “special time”, Janis-Norton says staggering bedtimes (putting the youngest to bed first) should help, or even getting up early to play. The older child should get special privileges for having to be the more responsible one.
Another key point is independent play. “Children need to be in the habit of playing by themselves, not only when they feel like it, not only when there’s no sibling or friend around, but also when they’re told to,” she says. “This gives siblings a rest from each other, and teaches them to entertain themselves so when they’re at a loose end they don’t automatically go and annoy their sibling.”
I wonder how my children will take to all these new rules I’m going to enforce, but Janis-Norton says: “Rather than springing it on them, choose a neutral time to tell them that there’s a new rule.
Then Prepare For Success by asking them questions about the new rule so that it sticks in their minds.”
I tell Janis-Norton her programme involves some major groundwork, with the parent having to be one step ahead rather than react after things go wrong. She agrees, saying: “Preparing For Success is our most important strategy. It improves behaviour rapidly and gives you a lot more that you can descriptively praise.”
Janis-Norton says her methods are 90 percent effective as there’s no strategy that will get you saintly behaviour. “But you can definitely achieve 90 per cent cooperation,” she says. “My definition of cooperation is that your children do what you ask without a fuss the first time you ask. Cooperation leads to self-reliance, confidence and respect and to a calmer, easier, happier family.”
Not even my kids could argue with that!
• Details: www.calmerparenting.co.uk