Preventing and Mitigating Sibling Melt Downs

Art Credit: Siblings Without Rivalry

This past week I attended a class with one of my favorite early childhood experts, Carrie Contey. This was a class on siblings. I walked away with a deeper understanding of the unique needs of children based on their birth order, new insights on what drives sibling conflict, and several light bulb moments on better meeting my daughters’ emotional needs in general. Austin Mamas – if you haven’t taken a class with Carrie, I highly recommend her. I’ve never left a class without several valuable new insights and workable ideas to put in practice.

I’ll share the high level take-aways with you here:

* Birth Order. Firsts never forget that they were here first and don’t want you to either. They need acknowledgment and appreciation of their role as first. Forever.  Middles need to hear how special it is to be in the middle. Youngests need to know that you understand how frustrating it is to be the youngest and not get to do what olders are doing. They need ongoing empathy for this.

* We’ve got 3 parts to our brains:

  1. Human – Thinking. Learning, talking, listening, reasoning, loving, playing.
  2. Mammal – Feeling. Not listening, resisting, crying, demanding, whining, clinging.
  3. Reptile – Fearing.  Fight or Flight. Fight: kicking, biting, screaming, hitting. Flight: avoiding, running away, shutting down.

Babies consistently live in the reptile part of their brain as they cry to get their basic needs met. And as they grow from age 0 to 7, they are working on developing their human, thinking brain. When children are apart from their parents in preschool or daycare or with a nanny, they are working really hard to contain their emotions, to think, to work, to learn. And even with all this positive, wonderful growing — it’s draining and stressful. When they reunite with parents, meltdowns are common because they are letting down from working so hard to contain their emotions without Mommy or Daddy.

Food. Sleep. Love.

* Sibling rivalry is normal AND they need their parents to be the Steady Eddies in the fire to help them regulate. It’s inevitable because they likely spend more time with each other than anyone else at home. And it’s through a sibling that they learn how to resolve conflict. Once again the cry for self-care comes through loud and clear for Mothers which so many of us find so difficult to do. But it’s when you’re depleted that you are more likely to join the fire with your own reptile brain instead of provide the calming, grown-up force to diffuse it.

Three Tips on Preventing and Mitigating Meltdowns with Small Children:

  1. Fill them up with Big Attention after every separation – including sleep. Whatever that looks like for you, and take it up a notch with the level of intensity.  Rather then feeding them the heightened negative attention of “STOP THAT!” intensity, feed them with big “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!”. Big silliness. Physical games.  Your eyes and ears completely on them and bouncing back and forth between each child.  In the mornings now I’ve been trying out Carrie’s suggestion of simply saying, “I see you!” to each child and going back and forth between the two, saying it over and over again.  When they are filled with intense attention, even in just small bursts, they’re less likely to get into sibling conflict or their own individual melt-down mode which is just another way to get your intense attention. Just not as much fun for anybody.
  2. If you are a working AP Mama like me, consider making those three or four hours a day that you have with your children during your week uninterrupted by anything else.  Put all screens away so that you’re not distracted by a single text or email during your time together. Knowing that transitions are hard and that I usually come home to kids having melt downs, I’ve been looking for ways to help make this time together more pleasant since we have so little time.  The “A-Ha!” suggestion from Carrie that I’m running with: When I come home from work, I’m not worrying about getting dinner on the table or talking to my husband or our baby-sitter about anything for a good 10 minutes. I’m giving all my attention to my girls and going back and forth between them quickly to fill them up, play, hug, be silly — whatever.  I’ll let you know how it works….
  3. If a conflict between siblings is underway, don’t try to reason with them or get to the “why”.  (like I do) I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “No honey, of course you’re not poopy. Just because someone says something, doesn’t mean it’s true. We don’t talk that way to each other.”  Instead, focus on a quick redirection and come back to a mini discussion on your family’s values at another time when all is peachy.  Carrie’s fabulous redirection suggestion:  Grab their attention away from picking on their brother or sister and say, “I think you need a challenge!”  And then give them something to do that’s both mental and physical.  Do three twirls. Then count to twelve. And then hug your sister while you sing.  You get the idea….

All these ideas for melt down prevention or “work-around”, by the way, assume that you’ve covered the basic needs:  food, drink, sleep.

So what happens when everyone is short on sleep because one of your children kept everyone else up all night with her coughing and crying and you have to run an errand the next day because there’s no other option?

I can confidently say that in these cherished Mama Moments, you must simply breathe through the kicking and wailing on the floor tantrums that take place at XYZ store because the child wants something you’re not up for them having or in my recent case — something impossible. My Littlest wanted the same kind of princess underwear I was buying for my Oldest at Target — and her size was out of stock (bless her heart). Absolutely no other kind would do and the eye of her hurricane was too intense to redirect her attention to anything.

And when someone stops to look at you with a why-aren’t-you-doing-something-to-stop-your-child-from-screaming look, you simply look them back in the eye in a penetrating sort of way and flip them off.

No, I didn’t give anyone the bird. That part was pure fantasy. Maybe in my next life.

All for now. Gotta fill my cup with some sleep!

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2 Responses to “Preventing and Mitigating Sibling Melt Downs”

  1. bridget lewin says:

    I love you moni!! Miss you!!! Thanks for these words!!! Perfect timing!!!!!

  2. McClain Sampson says:

    thanks for sharing Carrie’s wisdom!! My creative brain does NOT work during the intense moments so it is helpful to have some ideas.

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