Family holidays can be a special challenge for us parents. It’s good to spend time together. But often getting to the holiday destination can be stressful, and by definition, everyone is tired and worn out to begin with. We parents are often really, badly, in need of some down-time. And at times like these, things don’t always go well between our children. Happy play quickly turns to trouble. What can you do?
On our holiday, I’ve been sitting pool-side, watching things unfold. Three children – siblings – happily playing, running off the deck into the pool. It’s a cheerful, creative, cooperative game. Something about chicken wings (hands tucked under armpits as they jump into the water) that seems to be hilariously funny.
When things turn bad
But suddenly, the game turns. Middle brother is trying to push younger brother off the edge into the pool. His face is locked in a tight, focussed grimace. Younger brother fights back, initially with laughter but as he resists with growing fierceness, it becomes a yell of protest. He looks frightened. Being smaller, he loses the fight, and ends up in the pool. He surfaces in tears and heads to the other side of the pool to Mum, and middle brother drifts off up to the other end of the pool, carefully not looking in her direction.
It will happen again…
Mum’s attention is pulled away from her phone, and she comforts the younger one, and calls the older one to her. He comes, and they sit together. I presume she is telling him what he did wrong, but he doesn’t seem too defensive, so I reckon she was doing a pretty good job. Soon after she packs them all up and they leave. Clearly, everyone has run out of slack. Good to move on. It’s good she didn’t seem to rouse on the kids too badly.
But I can guarantee, it will happen again. And chances are, at some point she will run out of slack herself, and her response may not be so gentle.
What went wrong?
What is happening here? How can children go from happily playing one minute, to bashing each other the next?
I’m not sure there is a clear answer. What I can tell you is that middle brother was not making a rational decision to turn things nasty. In fact, I would say that his “thinking mind” had gone offline altogether.
What happened is that he was overcome by feelings. A tight knot of feelings welled up and, in the grip of them, he lost his sense of connection.
There’s not necessarily any rhyme or reason for why it happened at just that minute, or at just that point in the play, although if you watch closely, there is often a pattern to when he loses it.
It may be some old grievance. Surprisingly, these hang around, lurking below the surface, liable to be triggered by some small incident or slight. Perhaps they are feelings left over from when his little brother arrived in the world. Or from earlier, his own birth, or some hard time as a very young child. It could be that he is being bullied at school, or he has a memory full of hard feelings directly relating to water play.
Feelings overwhelm thinking
But whatever the underlying cause, the important thing is that when it comes up, he can’t remember that he loves his brother and wants the best for him. He can’t keep the play on the enjoyable side, where his strength is well matched to his younger brother, and the tussle is more-or-less even. He is suffering a kind of emotional flooding, where feelings overwhelm his thinking. The part of his brain that governs reasoning and judgement, and which can assess the consequences of his actions and exercises impulse control, is as “off-line” as any computer that has run out of power.
So, overcome by some fierce feeling (which may or may not be about his brother), and having lost his moorings, he hits out at his brother. At this moment, he can’t make a different choice. Feeling suddenly victimized, he seeks to feel better by gaining the upper hand.
There can be a certain satisfaction in doing this. But it doesn’t last long. He was feeling bad, so he hit out, but now he feels worse. As well as the feeling that initially overwhelmed him, he probably also feels guilty and defensive as well, scared he will get caught, or get into trouble.
Developing a Connection Plan
Is there another way? I know from experience there is. But it requires that, both in a general sense, and right around the moment that he is overcome by bad feelings, someone helps him through the difficult, troublesome feelings, and helps him to reconnect.
In the moment, it requires that we parents are paying attention and that we stay close enough to intervene effectively when things get hard between our children. (We call this the “friendly patrol” – you are close enough to intervene if necessary, but keeping out of the way if they are doing OK.)
And in the medium to longer term, it requires we be organised to work with our children over time to increase their overall sense of connection.
Doing both these things is hard work. Especially when what we really need is a holiday. But if your children are running low on connection, as they most probably are at the end of the school term, you probably won’t get all that much of a holiday from the bickering anyway.
So consider developing a Connection Plan for the holidays.
The Relationship Bank Account
With each of your children, you have a “Relationship Bank Account”. Connection is the thing which builds credit in the account – the thing that keeps it from going “into the red” or into deficit.
When you need to set a limit, you use up Connection Credits, so it’s good to keep the Relationship Bank Account well topped up. A good sense of connection will also help your child through times when big feelings are getting in the way of their ability to think, or their ability to make workable decisions, or stay out of trouble.
Your Connection Plan will need to take account of the things which are likely to drain the Bank Account. You can probably predict the times when Connection Credits might get low. These are times like the end of the day, the end of the school term, the challenges of packing and travelling, illness – any numbers of stressors on your child, yourself, or your family.
Part 2 of this article explains a key Listening Tool – Special Time – that will help you periodically top up your Relationship Bank Account to help stop your children from getting into fights with one another in the first place. Part 3 will talk about how you can intervene to and set limits once they are in trouble with one another.
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.
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©2022 by Madeleine Winter