In Part 1 we were pool side on holiday, and three siblings were happily playing, until suddenly, without much warning, the bigger boy was pushing the younger into the pool. They have lost their sense of connection (for whatever reason) and their behaviour is now driven by difficult feelings which are not “thoughtful”, caring or workable.
For the holiday to go well, you’ll need to develop a Connection Plan. This will help keep your children in good shape, and will give you room to step in, when necessary, to set limits to help resolve unworkable behaviour.
Resolving Sibling Squabbles
There are a few steps to resolving sibling squabbles. Step 1, which I’ll talk about in this article, is about how to build a deep sense of connection into your relationship with your children through Special Time.
If this is not enough to keep things co-operative, then you’ll probably need to move to a more direct intervention. In Part 3 of this series, we’ll cover how you can do this: the importance of planning for trouble, keeping an eye on things through a “friendly patrol”, and limit setting.
Building Connection Credits
Step 1 in your Connection Plan will be to build up a sense of connection in your family. You’ll be putting Connection Credits in the Relationship Bank Account. A healthy Bank Account will help to carry your family through difficult times, such as when the family, or family members, are under stress for some reason. Events like starting a new job, illness, a death in the family, starting school, or (odd as it might sound) getting ready for and taking a holiday, can all use up Connection Credits, making the routines of daily life more difficult and increase the chance that your children will start squabbling with one another.
Odd as it may sound, the difficulties your children have with each other also have a fair bit to do with their sense of connection with you. To some extent, they are bickering with each other over you. Every child craves and needs one-on-one time with each of their parents or other important adults in their life. Offering them a regular time when they know they have all of you, and won’t have to share you, will ease the sense that they are competing for a scarce resource. As Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting (Palo Alto) puts it “When their “gas gauge” is nearing empty, it’s time to put in more attention. You can plump up their capacity for tolerance. If their sense of connection with you is strong, they are better able to deal with whatever usually sets them off around their sibling.” 
There are many little ways you can build a sense of connection in your relationship with your child. You probably already have times when you are close with your children– hanging out together, preparing the food they like, reading to them. But one of the most efficient ways to build “Connection Credit” is Special Time, an adult-child playtime.
Step 1: Special Time – The Big “Yes!”
A key element in building your Relationship Bank Account is that your child has a deep sense that you are on their side. You’ll be able to draw on this when you need to set a limit. Special Time is really good for this.
One-on-One: First, find some one-on-one time with each of your children. Just you and each one of them, in turn. Don’t leave anyone out, no matter how young or old. (Although what I am about to recommend will look a bit different with your 18 month old than with your 15 year old).
Set the timer: Decide how long you have got – 5, 15 or 30 minutes. It’s helpful to actually put a timer on, so the time has a clear start and finish (and you will see later there are other important reasons for putting on a timer).
Name it: It’s also helpful to give this time a name – “Special Time” will do, but you can call it by any name that works for you. This means that both you and your child understand that this time is different from other, more casual play-time or hanging out time.
Your full attention: In this time, give your child your full attention, try to delight in them, lend them your confidence, and enthusiasm. (Warning: You may need to turn off your phone, or leave it in the hotel room.)
Follow their lead: In this time, tell them you’ll do whatever they want to do. Your child is in charge, as fully as possible while safe. Try not to offer direction, opinions, or suggestions. If they aren’t sure what to do, then be pleased with them while you wait. Guaranteed, they will figure it out!
Try not to set limits: It is important to set as few constraints as possible on what you and your child can do in Special Time. This is especially important as you start out with this adventure of Special Time, although it’s a good general rule of thumb even if you have been paying attention to your children in this way for many months or years. From time to time, issues come up in Special Time which may need some limiting and guidance – best to get some support to think about that – book a Consultation with me, or if we have not yet met, book a short Consultation and I can help you work out how to handle this aspect of Special Time. But in general, and especially at first, do your best to do whatever your child wants. (Of course, you need to help keep it safe – but stretch yourself on this – we parents are inclined to worry about safety, and Special Time is a time to take some risks).
Pay close attention and notice: The point is to establish that you are really, truly on their side. You’re working to create a space where they feel confident to show or tell you (in words or play) things which they might not be so sure you will approve of. Resisting your temptation to direct or limit the play opens up a time where your child can raise topics and issues, knowing you have committed to keeping your own feelings and thoughts under wraps. This will allow you to truly see what your child is trying to tell you.
This will probably be hard to do! Trust me that it is a necessary and important part of the process. You want to give your child the freedom to show what they are interested in, what they are pre-occupied with and concerned about. Children spend their lives in environments where adults and older people define the agenda. This is a time for them to show you what they would do, or say, or think, if left to their own devices, and if they were free to speak.
Don’t make it too long: If you are struggling to agree to what they want to do, make the time short. This way, you know you only have to “hang on” for a little while. Putting the timer on is as much for your benefit as theirs – you know exactly how long you have to last with that boring game with the trains, or seemingly endless and messy cooking experiments. When I first started doing this kind of play with my daughter, I went out and bought the biggest timer I could find, and stuck it in a prominent position. Many is the time when I’ve looked up from some activity I found hard to tolerate, relieved that there was only a minute to go!
Don’t be afraid to finish: When the timer goes off, feel free to extend the time if your child asks and if you have the time and patience, but don’t be afraid to end the time. Your child may get upset, and that is OK – try not to get mean about it. They are showing you what this time has meant to them, and they are probably working through feelings about all the other times they have had to stop before they wanted to. If you know your child will get upset, make sure you finish with enough time to listen to their upset at the end. Listening in this way will ease the emotional tensions your child is carrying about many things, and you may find over time, that other aspects of family life which were difficult in the past, slowly ease up.
But I hang out with my children all the time anyway!
It can seem odd that we might have to spend even more time paying close attention to our children! Especially when they are little, it can feel like we don’t get much time to ourselves. However, just because you aren’t getting to the tasks you need or would like to be doing, or just because you feel like you have been paying them attention, doesn’t mean that they have noticed! You can have dedicated the better part of your day to it, and their Connection Credits might still be low! The thing about Special Time is that it draws everyone’s attention to the fact that you are paying attention – and we value what we actually notice.
So if you are at that stage of parenting where you are spending a LOT of time with your children, you might do well to shift some of that “general hang out time” to Special Time. One bonus is that you might find that you don’t need to spend as much time, overall, paying close attention to your children – but no promises about that! However, Special Time is a very efficient way to spend time with children – you get a lot of “bang for your buck”.
Connected to this, Special Time needs a beginning and an end which is clear to everyone. It is, after all “Special”. It works because it is time-limited. Your child knows just how long they have your full attention, and they will use that time well once they understand the commitment you are making. When they are confident of your attention in Special Time, they can embark on experiments and take some risks.
Building a sense of connection helps children make workable choices
Special Time is perhaps the most marvellous of our Listening Tools. There are so many ways that it works, but for this purpose, it builds Connection Credits and your children’s sense of safety in their relationship with you. Children fighting with one another may be a sign that their sense of connection is diminished. If your child is to have much chance of making better decisions when hard feelings come up around their siblings, they will need a strong sense of connection with you.
When you need to step in
Special Time is also one of the most efficient ways to communicate to your child that you are on their side. They will borrow from this if you need to intervene more actively when they start fighting with one another. Connection is the currency in your Relationship Bank Account, and Special Time is a good way to make a deposit. You want that bank account to be in good shape so that you don’t go into deficit when you need to bring a limit – which it what we will talk about next.
Part 3 will describe how you can intervene effectively to get to the bottom of the feelings which are driving your children’s bickering or fighting.
No need to go it alone!
Madeleine loves to help: why not book a Free 20 Minute Consultation, and she can help direct you to the best resources and support.
 Wipfler, Patty. “Three Steps To Stop Sibling Rivalry Before It Happens.” Hand in Hand Parenting, Oct. 2015 back to article
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