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Building good sibling relationships

Building good sibling relationships

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Lizette van Huyssteen
Building good sibling relationships 

Lizette van Huyssteen has been heading up the team of therapists at the Practica Advisory Service for more than 25 years.

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

Episode 7 Part 1: Episode 7 Part 2:

When there is more than one child
You may feel like a veteran parent by the time your second baby arrives, but having more than one child in the house is a whole new ball game, and the playing field can feel more like a minefield. Parents typically have one set of questions about their older children during this time: “Is it normal for a big brother or sister to feel so insecure?” and “Is it just a matter of time for him to get over the adjustment, or is there a possibility that he may feel resentful forever and things will never be the same between us again?” And then, usually, comes the final question: “If I need to do something to support my child, what exactly is the best plan of action?” Let me go ahead and tell you what we usually explain to parents to answer this question.

Getting less attention impacts older children on a deep, survival level.
In a child’s world, his parents’ love and attention is his lifeline. If they don’t pay attention to him and take care of him, he won’t survive the week. So when he sees that having a baby in the house means that he will be getting less attention, this realisation threatens the older child on a very deep, survival level and he typically feels overwhelmed and anxious.

Children express their fears in various ways, usually by being clingy.
Some older children regress. In other words, they act as if they themselves are babies again as a way of getting their parents to devote more attention to them. Others withdraw, and it’s very common for children who are going through this to become overly picky about things. Some may even show unexpected bouts of aggression, but the number one complaint is that older children become demanding and they’re extra whiny and clingy.

Discipline is counterproductive when children feel anxious and disconnected from their parents.
It’s understandable that parents most often interpret an older child’s clingy behaviour as being selfish. And, of course, they’ve heard that paying attention to a certain behaviour is a way of rewarding that behaviour – so they most likely try their best to ignore the child. When things really get out of hand, as a last resort, they send him to time-out. This sounds perfectly reasonable, until one stops to consider what the child’s needs are, and what he must be going through.

Ignoring your child’s pleas for attention or sending him to time-out when his feelings of being disconnected from you are turning him into an emotional piece of Velcro or a loose cannon is a bad idea. You’re sending the message that you cannot stand being close to him, and you’re doing it at a time when he has an overwhelming suspicion that you’ve finally grown tired of him. An anxious child needs the exact opposite of being sent into time-out when he feels disconnected. What he needs is a parent’s attention and reassurance.

Letting your child know that he really is your ‘sunshine when skies are grey’ is the surest way to reassure him on a deep survival level that, although you may seem distracted, you’ll always be around to protect, feed and take care of him.

Instead of going down the slippery road of withdrawing from your child, try this five-step plan instead.

  1. Stay calm. Aim to appear as unfazed as possible. Your child’s behaviour may be out of character, but you need to understand that you don’t have the luxury of looking or acting surprised. Your calmness brings hope to the situation.
  2. Show your warm side. Use a loving tone of voice and make sure your facial expression is kind and warm.
  3. Stand your ground. You want to be accommodating, but only to a point. When your child is really being impossible, put your foot down gently and state the facts. For example: “Honey, the fact is I cannot let you hurt you brother,” or “Sweetie, it is cold outside and you need to put that jacket on before we leave the house. Those are the facts.”
  4. If he explodes, proceed to the next step and ‘staylisten’. The concept of ‘staylistening’ is a powerful tool that has been coined by a non-profit organisation called Hand in Hand Parenting. Staylistening is particularly helpful when a child is so emotional that his thinking brain is not working well and you cannot reason with him. The idea is for you to simply stay with your child and listen. Brace yourself and allow him to cry or tantrum and get it all out. Focus on being warm and reassuring, without offering explanations or trying to fix the situation. And, when you need to say something, stick to describing your child’s feelings, for example: “This is really hard for you, hey?” or “You’re feeling very sad”.
  5. The last step is called ‘start over’. When the storm is over, hold your child and say, “Don’t worry. I’m not holding this against you. Let’s start over, okay?” When parents use words to express their forgiveness and their willingness to start over, they teach their children the most important lesson in self-compassion that they will ever learn. According to author on ‘Natural Family Living’, Peggy O’Mara: “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.” That is so true. When we say to our children: “Let’s start over, okay?” after they have misbehaved and they are feeling bad about themselves, we’re effectively saying to them: “I’m not crazy about what you did, but I’m crazy about who you are, and starting over is possible for us simply because we decide to do it.” This message is training your child’s inner voice to one day, when he has messed up at work or in a relationship, say to himself: “Hey, bud. You’re still a good guy. You can decide to start over right this minute. Now quit moping and pick yourself up.” That is self-compassion in action.

The crux of the matter is that you need to believe in your child’s inner goodness.
That’s it. Why? Because your strategy is to provide a safe place for your child to be real about his feelings, without allowing those feelings to upset you. You won’t remain calm if you’re not truly convinced that, in his inner being, he really wants to get along with everyone. You’ll need to remind yourself that he is an amazing person who is merely going through a rough patch, or else you won’t be able to be reassuring. Compassion is not something that a parent can fake.

On the other hand, there really is a lot of hope. With enough faith in your child’s inner goodness, it won’t be difficult to provide him with your loving presence when he’s overwhelmed and off track. That’s all he needs to make it possible for him to get down to doing the hard emotional work of processing his feelings and getting back to being his true self.

Three ways to bring more peace into your home. (Part 1
There are three ways to make our children’s circles bigger. Touch therapy is our first line of defence. The other two ways involve spending daily special time with every child and embracing your role as your child’s first teacher.

The circle of resilience and how touch therapy can make that circle bigger How much conflict is normal?
Whenever parents call the Practica Advisory Service to ask whether we think the level of conflict in their home is within the normal range, we say something along the lines of: “If you’re asking whether conflict is an issue in most homes, the answer is ‘yes’. So, from that perspective, sibling rivalry or marital strife is ‘normal’. However, we don’t advise you to use that as a yardstick.”

What happens in other homes is not an indicator of what should be regarded as acceptable in yours. A certain amount of conflict is inevitable and sometimes even necessary for growth, but we all have a threshold for how much we can handle coming at us. Your personal threshold is not aligned with everyone else’s. Why? Because each of us is living with a unique combination of certain expectations, a personal life story and an inborn temperament. So, let this be your yardstick: If the level of conflict in your home is interfering with your functioning as a proactive parent and you’re constantly reacting to crises, instead of planning ahead, you’re in survival mode.

When you’re in survival mode it is impossible to bring your best self to the table.
When the level of conflict in your home is keeping you stuck in survival mode, it’s robbing your family of its greatest asset: a happy parent. And that should always be regarded as a red flag.

You’ll need both a long- and a short-term plan of action.
Without a long-term plan, you’ll remain in survival mode forever and without a short-term plan, you won’t have the necessary coping strategies while you wait for the effects of your long-term plan to kick in.

The information I am about to share in this series of podcasts is focused on getting you out of defence mode, as they offer long-term solutions, but I understand that it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to invest in long-term vision when you have two children screaming at each other in the next room while you’re reading this.

The reality of your situation calls for a dual action plan.
Every parent going through a rough patch with regard to sibling relationships needs to somehow find his or her own way of balancing energy between making it through the day and making things better in the long run. One of the professionals in our team always says: “You need to water your garden every day, and at the same time work at building a dam for yourself.” Wise words.

So, for more short-term coping strategies, I would advise you to read Laura Markham’s book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. It’s very practical and hands-on with headings like: ‘When your child says he hates his sibling’ and ‘Intervening in a sibling fight – the basics’.

Real progress in a family starts on the day the penny drops for a parent that being proactive is not optional.
When conflict is an issue, parents need advice. It’s not an option for us at the Advisory Service to offer therapy over the phone. Our role is to be available and on call to share information with our parents on a relevant topic when they are ready to be proactive. The information that we share is universally valuable to all parents, so that they can use it at their own discretion. We act as a personalised parenting resource for parents. It really is the best job in the world!

Here is the first thing that we share with parents who are ready to limit conflict in their home.
Imagine for a moment that there is a circle around every child that gives them emotional energy and makes him or her resilient to stress. We call it: a ‘circle of resilience’. Now, two things influence that circle to make it smaller: everyday frustrations and the feeling of being disconnected from parents.

Everyday frustrations include everyday disappointments and troubles – small or big.
Most of these frustrations are largely inevitable. Mom and dad may have conflict; the child might struggle to get something right or a friend at preschool may be sick or mean today. It’s impossible to shield your children from these things.

The feeling of being disconnected from parents also influences that circle to make it smaller.
Feeling disconnected refers to that anxious, nagging feeling that all children experience when they suspect that they are somewhat of a burden to their parents or that they are, to a certain degree, invisible to them. When parents are never truly 100% present when they’re with a child, and they are quick to attend to other things but slow to respond to the child, the little one cannot help but suspect that his parents have finally grown tired of him and that his relationship with them is hanging on a thread.

When a child’s circle gets too small, everything that happens feels worse to him than it actually is.
Now when typical frustrations, along with a feeling of disconnect, have eroded a child’s circle of resilience to the point where it’s being compromised, children get so vulnerable to stress that it doesn’t take much to upset them. In fact, they will be upset by the most unlikely things. Does this sound familiar?

Parents have circles too.
The problem is that children aren’t the only ones in the home who have invisible circles around them. Parents do too! And our circles also erode when typical everyday frustrations eat away at them and we feel disconnected from the people we love. So you can imagine that all of this is not good news for the size of our own circles either. And, before you know it, everyone in the family is edgy and caught up in a negative cycle.

Fortunately, circles can be nurtured to grow bigger again.
The connection between you and your child can be repaired and deepened, and the effects of stress hormones eventually wear off after the source of the stress is removed. What’s more, there are special tools and techniques available to us as parents that we can use to grow our children’s circles at mega rates.

The first line of defence that we advise parents to use is to do touch therapy.
It’s a way of using deep pressure touch to connect with your child and combat the effects of stress. Deep pressure touch on your child’s muscles triggers his brain to release a valuable hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is remarkable because of its dual function. Firstly, it works to counteract the negative effects of stress hormones in the body and secondly, according to research, it also helps people bond with others and to trust them.

That’s why it has long been a popular topic of discussion amongst students of child development for the key role it plays in helping parents and children develop the special, deep bond that is so immeasurably important for parents to be happy and children to have their core emotional needs met.

Oxytocin acts like a silver bullet to help curb conflict in the home.
Touch therapy has really earned the right to be described as ‘therapy’, because it provides such quick results. Practica parents who make the decision to apply our simple technique for five minutes in the morning and five minutes before bedtime usually report within two to three days that their children are less whiny and clingy, and much easier to live with. I’ve had someone say: “It’s as if my child has had a personality transplant!”

Now that you know it works, here’s how to do it.
Sit with your child on your lap, with his back facing you. Cup the palms of your hands over his shoulders. Then squeeze… and release. Repeat these squeeze and release movements slowly and move your hands a little farther down towards his wrists every time you do it. When you reach his hands, squeeze them together in front of his body. Repeat, but now move your hands from his hips down towards his feet. Then, place your hands on either side of his head to cover his ears and give his head a long and loving hug. Keep going: arms – legs – head for at least five minutes to get the impact that you’re looking for.

Touch therapy is exceptional, because it’s a way of being proactive and reactive at the same time.
The beauty of it is that it’s always available, quick to apply and a practical way to immediately help relieve the effects of stress and disconnect in a child when he has a small circle. But it’s also a great way to help prevent that circle from shrinking again once it’s back to its optimal size. It really has an almost uncanny effect on a child’s stress threshold within only a few days. It’s best to do it for five minutes twice a day for a few days, and then switch over to doing it once a day for maintenance.

Three ways to bring more peace into your home. (Part 2)

Notes on ‘special time’ and the joy of being your children’s first teacher
We all have an invisible circle of resilience around us that gives us emotional energy and makes us resilient to stress. Both everyday frustrations and a feeling of being disconnected from the people closest to us eat away at those circles. If we don’t find a way to work through our feelings, our circles of resilience can shrink to the point where we are emotionally very vulnerable.

This happens to everyone – adults and children alike – but it’s understandable that this is more disturbing for children for two reasons. Firstly, in their world, the people who are closest to them are their parents and being disconnected to them isn’t just awful, it’s also life-threatening. Secondly, adults rarely extend the same level of understanding to children when they express emotional upset or have an emotional outburst as they would extend to other adults.

We’ve discussed in Part 1 that there are three ways to make our children’s circles bigger and how to use touch therapy as our first line of defence. The other two ways involve spending daily special time with every child and embracing your role as your child’s first teacher.

How to have ‘special time’ with each of your children
Set 20 minutes aside to focus your complete attention on one child, and do this every day at a specific time. Call it ‘special time’ or ‘Johnny time’ if that’s your child’s name, so that the two of you can talk about it during the rest of the day and he could ask for it by name.

Allow your child to choose what he wants the two of you to do during this time, and accept that you will simply be playing along. It’s difficult if you’re used to setting the pace as a parent, but you need to resolve to move away from your default setting. This is a time when you don’t teach or give instructions, nor multitask. You will not even be checking your phone or answering it.

Arrange with Dad to take care of the other siblings, or do this at a time when the other one is sleeping or away from home. You need to be present with this one child and 100% focused on enjoying the time with him. Also, stick to the time limit. When the time is up, special time is over.

To learn more about ‘special time’, visit

Embrace your role as your children’s number one teacher.
Actions speak louder than words. That’s why there really is no better way of showing a child how much you enjoy him as an individual than helping him get better at doing things for himself and doing them well.

Dr Laura Markham, parenting expert and clinical psychologist, makes a useful observation in an article titled, ‘How to stop your child’s irritating behavior’, where she explains that children who taunt or compete with siblings often need to feel more valued for who they are and need to feel more connected to their parents. She notes that: “Kids who are always rebelling usually need a chance to feel more powerful and competent.”

A great way of helping a child feel powerful and competent is to spend time with him, teaching him to master age-appropriate challenges. It’s important for your child to see that you’ve taken some time to prepare something for him. And having you there to coach and encourage him without getting angry when he struggles, makes your child feel valued for who he is. It creates a deep sense of connection. In other words, you’re enlarging your child’s circle of resilience.

The problem is that most new parents are so isolated from extended family nowadays that many have never had a relationship with a young child prior to becoming parents themselves. This fact leaves our parents with a huge gap in their confidence. The vast majority don’t feel even remotely equipped to fulfil their role as their child’s primary educator. By the time we first engage with parents, they are typically as unsure of teaching their children anything as they would be working on the electronics of their car or performing open-heart surgery.

Being your child’s first teacher is not complicated and you don’t need formal training. It’s about teaching him nursery rhymes, practising his ball skills, counting the steps as the two of you walk into a building, playing educational games and reading to him – that kind of thing. It can be lots of fun to come up with games and rituals that teach, like: “Let’s clap one-two… one-two-three whenever the light turns green” or “Let’s think of three things we know about cats!”

At the Practica Programme, we refer to this as ‘game-based play’. In fact, we specialise in helping parents play games that build skills in children. Whether you have a Practica kit at home or not, the crux of the matter is that all children are born with a deep need to make the adults in their lives proud of their achievements. They want to impress their parents with how they learn to do things for themselves and how competent they are. Psychologists refer to this as a child’s ‘need for autonomy and independence’.

This explains why children who have parents who teach them little things are not only smarter and more competent than those who learn everything they know from school, but they’re also more confident and because they have a deeper connection with their parents, they are less likely to rebel.

To summarise, it all comes back to being either proactive or reactive in your parenting. Children need connection. There is no way around this. So when you choose to do touch therapy, schedule special time with each of your children and embrace your role as your children’s first teacher, you are being proactive. This may cost you some time and effort, but you will be spending your time and energy on your own terms instead of being caught up in a downward spiral of conflict and unmet needs.

How photographs can help build good sibling relationships
Photographs have a way of capturing important moments and letting them live forever.

They have been used in phototherapy to help people heal and change for many years. They are also used in therapeutic photography as a bridge to help people connect with their thoughts, memories and feelings. Photographs are so powerful, because every photograph has a story to tell and feelings are embedded in it. When we look at photographs of moments that were very important to us, we can almost smell the suntan oil we might have been using that day, hear the sounds that were present in that moment or experience whatever sensory experience stood out for us at that particular time.

The wonderful thing about having young children in your life and a camera in your hand is that you can go all out to take a wide range of pictures and put them together in the form of a book that they can touch, handle and treasure – so that it can become a window into their lives and eventually a gateway into their hearts.

Ultimately, this exercise teaches our children why we take photographs in the first place.
Photographs tell stories and they bind us together. They say: “You are loved. You come from somewhere. You belong somewhere and you are important to us.”

How to create a personalised picture book for each child:

  • • Aim to create an overview of your child’s life.
  • Include photographs of your child’s daily routines, some of his favourite things, familiar places and all of the important people in his life.
  • When you focus on routines, think about chores, fun activities and self-care activities, like when your child brushes his teeth, eats breakfast, arrives at preschool, plays with his siblings and tidies up his room.
  • Don’t be rigid. Try to give an overview, but go with what you think is important to your child.
  • Also, try to photograph him in different rooms of the house doing the things that he typically does along with different people who are important to him.
  • Then, using your computer, put together A4-size pages where you have one picture per page and a caption beneath each. There’s no need for a storyline. It’s all about the pictures.
  • When you write the text, stick to basic information about every picture, for example: ‘Here is Peter getting dressed’ or ‘Look at Peter and his sister, Rosie! They’re in the backyard, watering the herbs’.
  • Don’t write anything about why your child or anybody else in the book is doing something.
  • You also shouldn’t write anything about what anyone is thinking or feeling. It will be your child’s job to give that information.
  • Print the pages and insert them into a Flip File®, or have them printed onto photo-quality paper and bound at a local printing shop.

Then use the books that you’ve created for your children to connect to each of them on a deep level.
Start by giving it to your child. Allow him to explore the book and share his thoughts. You can also page through it together and read the text for him, but don’t be rigid about reading it from front to back like a typical book. When the two of you are sitting comfortably and both of you are focusing your attention on the book, ask simple questions and point to obvious things.

At times, simply sit quietly, stare at a picture with your child, and ask: “So, what do you see?” Wait and listen. Sooner or later, maybe after quite a number of readings, he will open up and share thoughts and feelings about what he sees on those pages. This is your opportunity to remain quiet and listen. Don’t judge, teach or direct. Leave that for another time and place. Focus on enjoying and celebrating your child’s willingness to explore his inner thoughts and feelings about the details of his life and share the experience with you.

Also read the books with two siblings at a time.
Researchers say that children whose parents talk to them about thoughts and feelings develop more empathy. That’s a great reason to encourage your children to talk about what they see happening in each others’ lives, and share thoughts about their own books. The experience will foster a deeper understanding and a stronger connection between them.

For fun, observe the differences between a three- and a six-year-old child.
As you listen to your children talk about their lives, be on the lookout for something interesting. There’s a very important development that takes after a child’s fourth birthday, when they discover that people may have different perspectives and since they may view things differently, people may misunderstand each other. In other words, a three-year-old is likely to express only his own views when he looks at his book of photographs, while older children would find it much easier to talk about what other people in the pictures may be feeling and thinking.

Lizette van Huyssteen founded the Practica Programme in 1993 and she has been heading up the Practica Advisory Service since then. You can learn more at

*IMPORTANT NOTICE. A-well balanced diet, both during pregnancy and after delivery, helps sustain an adequate supply of breastmilk. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended during the first 6 months of life followed by the introduction of adequate nutritious complementary foods, along with sustained breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond.

“NANKID® 4” is not a breast-milk substitute. As babies grow at different rates; seek advice with your health professionals on the appropriate time when your baby should start receiving this product.

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