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How to get young children to listen to you and stop fighting with their sibling

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By Lisa Salmon
No matter how accomplished a parent you are, there will still be stressful times when your child doesn’t listen to you, fights with their sibling or is simply naughty.

And how you handle those crisis points is crucial both to your child’s development and your parenting experience.

The parent-child relationship can benefit from using some stress-free psychotherapeutic techniques at crisis points, explains child and family psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, who promises you don’t need to be a therapist yourself to use them.

“Parenting is immensely rewarding and pleasurable, while also bringing a level of stress like no other,” she observes. “These techniques are play-based, connection-fuelling, stress-free strategies that will nurture your child’s development while being fun for you and your child, resulting in less tears and more laughter.”

Here Fortune, author of 15 Minute Parenting, outlines how to use psychotherapy at four flashpoints with young children.

1. Helping a child to listen
When children are listening, we have no need to ask them to. We ask because we’ve been trying to get heard by the busy, distracted, otherwise engaged brain of our child and we’re already frustrated by the time those words come out of our mouth. Hit your internal pause button and assess the situation.

Perhaps your child is absorbed in their play, which is more interesting to them than anything we could ask them to do. So, come down to their level and secure eye contact, say “hi” with a smile (combining the verbal with the non-verbal to deepen the connection). Say, with kindness and compassion, what you’d like them to do, for example: “I can see you’re really busy with your game. It’s time for us to eat together. If we do that now, then you get to play again afterwards.”

Gently yet firmly take them by the hand and guide them to the table. Make it more fun by suggesting you see how many giant steps or teeny steps it takes to get from where you are to the table.

2. Calming an anxious child you’ve asked to do something
Your child may be preoccupied with other thoughts that are bothering them. It’s very difficult to take in new information (like a verbal instruction or caution) when they’re in this heightened emotional state.

Do the communication before you speak it – so come down to their eye level, take their hands gently yet firmly in yours. Rub small circles on the back of their hands/gently sway them side-to-side and, starting softly and building up to mid-level tone, sing what you need them to do.

For example: ‘Now it’s time to eat, eat, eat so we must pause our play, play, play and rise to our feet, feet, feet what did I just say, say, say’. This is their cue to join you in the song and as they do, guide them to their feet and start to transition to where you want them to go. As they’re singing with you, change the last line to ‘We’re on our way, way, way,’ instead.

This works because rhythm and synchrony activate sub-systems of the brain associated with emotional regulation.

3. Dealing with sibling arguments
Our children, particularly when under seven years but also at times of increased stress, such as the current situation, take emotional cues and direction from their parents. Stress and tension is often played out as rows, especially between siblings, and/or challenging and acting-out behaviour towards us. When this tension bubbles over and children are arguing, try to avoid getting pulled into the row as a referee as this is a no-win situation for you – both will assert you always take the other’s side.

Take each child’s hand and walk them to a window. Ask each to find and name five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things that can be touched, two things that can be smelled, and one thing that can be tasted. Changing the field of vision, i.e. looking out of a window, helps to re-set the brain and counting from five to one helps to calm the heightened energy from the row, while engaging each of their senses to take them out of their heads and into their bodies. Plus, you’re holding their hands all this time and skin-to-skin touch is very soothing.

4. Creatively calming sibling rivalries
These are challenging times for all of us, including children, so behavioural outbursts and sibling tensions are to be anticipated. The situation may explain certain behaviour, but that doesn’t mean it should automatically excuse it, so ensure you use more creative discipline that teaches behaviour you want to see, rather than just punishing behaviour you don’t want.

To do this, aim for connection over correction by separating the warring siblings and having them each make a card for the other including three things they like about the other. Then they must exchange the cards and read aloud what nice things they’ve said about each other. This helps refocus them on what they like about each other rather than what they don’t like, and this shift fuels (re)connection.

If they complete this quickly, that’s the consequence over and done with, but if they protest that they like nothing about their sibling, they must sit for however long it takes to complete the task. You assigned the consequence, but how long it goes on for is within their control.
(PA)