How to address sibling rivalry in the home

Families being forced together for months in lockdown has led to increased tensions in some homes. Cork Child psychologist Catherine Hallissey offers JANE MC NAMARA some solutions
How to address sibling rivalry in the home

Cork Child psychologist Catherine Hallissey

AFTER three months of families living in lockdown, a Cork child psychologist of 20 years says she has been inundated with reports of sibling rivalry in the home.

Catherine Hallissey, a Senior Child, Adolescent and Educational Psychologist based in Waterfall, has some strategies parents can use to resolve conflict.

Catherine, who deals with children from birth to adulthood, says: “The experience in lockdown has been different for each family but one common thread is sibling rivalry. Children are not getting to see their friends. Their playmates are now their siblings. This is showing up dynamics that were maybe already there but are now intensified.”

What can parents do when children fight?

Catherine explains: “Let’s take the age group between eight and 12. If children are fighting and it gets physical you have to interrupt them. If it is low-level fighting you might not, but once they start hurting each other you say ‘OK, I am getting the sense that you need my help right now because hitting is not OK’.

“The first thing is to ‘allow all feelings’. It can be hard for a parent to hear one child say they hate the other, but the ideal thing is to get them to name their feeling. For example, ‘I am really angry’.

“We know from functional MRI scanners that when we accurately name our emotions or they are accurately named by another, it calms the emotional centre of the brain. The strategy is called ‘name it to tame it’.

“We deny a lot of children emotional experiences to make them feel better but the first step is always to name it. We all know how good it feels to have someone understand you, it is the ‘I get you’ feeling.

“Just because you name the feeling doesn’t mean you stay on that feeling for ages. You name the problem, acknowledge the feeling and then move quickly into solution focus thinking, so the next step is ‘win-win problem solving’.

“Let’s say the children are fighting over an object. Each child explains the problem from their perspective. The adult then reflects this to the child. The adult says, ‘OK, the problem is you both want this and you are both feeling angry. Let’s see if we can figure out a solution to this problem’.

“Then you get them to start generating solutions. They will usually come up with terrible solutions in the beginning but you accept all solutions. Then check-in to see how the solutions work for both children. You might say, ‘OK, this sounds like a ‘win lose solution’ if both children don’t agree. You keep going until you find a ‘win-win solution’.

“It might take a hundred practices but what you are doing there is you are hard-wiring the brain for reliance.

“You are teaching children that there is a solution to every problem. Children are naturally resilient but equally, parents need to know reliance can be cultivated.”

What about a situation where emotions have escalated?

“You want to deactivate the threat state. When you come in shouting at your children, it doesn’t deactivate the threat state, you may just make it worse. So, as hard as it might be, try and stay calm.”

Catherine explains that her approach is based on connective parenting as opposed to a behaviourist.

“I don’t advocate time-out or naughty step. It is against what we know about human functioning.

“Think about if you are upset at work and you lose it. Someone tells you to go to your room and think about you did. You probably wouldn’t be thinking about what you did, you would be thinking about how you were rejected when you needed love the most.

“We are not rats or pigeons, that is where all that reward and punishment science came from. We are attachment-seeking animals.

“We know from 40 years of longitudinal research that the best type of parenting is high on warmth and nurture and high on structure and expectations.

“I think in general Irish parents are quite warm. Our true nature is connected, but a fear came in that if we were really connected to our children we were mollycoddling them.

“My guiding principle is how would I react if my husband used this strategy on me? If I came to him dis-regulated, maybe crying and upset about something and he said, ‘I don’t want to reward this behaviour by giving it any attention so I will turn my back’. Think about what that would do your sense of self.”

Catherine says that it is important for parents to not expect perfection and to look after themselves.

“Good enough is good enough. Look after yourself, if you are not OK, the house won’t be OK. And try and tune into your gut instinct. If you feel there is something amiss, go and talk to your GP.”

Catherine gives a free talk for parents every Tuesday at 8pm on her Facebook page.

She answers parents questions and the most common topics are behaviour, sibling rivalry and anxiety.

She also has a free parent club that parents can sign up to receive a tip of the week by email.

Sign up is on the Facebook page. @CatherineHallisseyPsychologist

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