Ep. 40 – Deborah MacNamara – Sibling Conflict: Why Our Kids Fight
- Four key reasons why our kid’s fight
- When, why, and how we intervene when our kid’s fight
- How we promote caring between our kids
In this episode, Child Psychologist Dr. Deborah MacNamara unpacks the myriad reasons and motives as to why our kids fight, and has great perspectives to offer.
From everyday questions to complex problems, her strategies for making headway with our child or teen is grounded in a rich developmental framework to give constructive hope for parents immersed in their child’s sibling conflict.
Deborah MacNamaraChild Psychologist, Deborah MacNamara is dedicated to helping parents make sense of their kids and themselves from the inside out. She provides counselling and educational services to families and professionals around the world, working from the relational developmental approach of Dr. Gordon Neufeld and the world renowned Neufeld Institute.
Deborah is a dynamic teacher and experienced counsellor with over 20 years experience in educational and mental health settings. In addition to her sought after counsel, Dr. MacNamara is also the author of the best selling book, Rest Play Grow: Making Sense Of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), and the acclaimed children's book, The Sorry Plane.
Transcript: Ep. 40 – Deborah MacNamara – Sibling Conflict: Why Our Kids Fight
Rachel Cram – Deborah, thank you so much for your time today, it is such a pleasure to get to talk to you.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Rachel Cram – You have such a wide range of topics we could have discussed today, and you graciously let me choose. And I’ve chosen the conversation of sibling conflict because that is where I am at in my life today. So I’m coming to this conversation as a learner and as a podcast host.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I think if you have more than one child, that is where you will probably live, is thinking about your kids and their conflict, especially as they go from toddler to teenager, it’s a long journey.
Rachel Cram – Sometimes it feels like a bit of an uphill climb and when our kids are enjoying each other, the journey’s a lot more fun.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, that’s very true. And, you know as a parent, I think you’re invested deeply in wanting your children to get along and to have relationships with each other. What do we do when they have conflict? What is our role in all of that? They’re all our children, but their relationships between each other can be complex depending upon the personalities involved and the situations that they find themselves in their own stressors in their own life.
Rachel Cram – Well, you know, I took great comfort in reading your articles to see that not only do your kids have conflict, but also you had conflict growing up as well. So, we’re all complicit in that complexity. And your writing offers generous understanding for that.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I had four sisters, so I was the eldest of five and there was lots of conflict. In fact, it’s funny, actually, when we get together, how we’ll still talk about some of that conflict? Of course, the stories still emerge. I wasn’t privy to all of them, especially with my younger sister, where there’s a 10 year difference. So, we had lots of interesting stories to tell. People taking food, hiding it so that the other siblings wouldn’t have it. You’d open up the drawer to get your toothpaste and there’d be pepperoni in there. Sometimes you’d go get an Oreo cookie and they would have licked all the Oreo filling inside and just put the wafers back. And it was incredible, you know, having the span of ten years and five children.
Rachel Cram – Do you all get along well together now?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – We do and I tell my children that the greatest gifts I think that I ever got as a child were my sisters. I didn’t always feel that way, of course. And some of them I was closer in age to than the others. And so it was natural to play differently with each of them. For the most part I did enjoy that experience.
Rachel Cram – You know, I feel I can totally relate to that because I am the oldest of four girls myself. And we fought so much growing up. And I remember my mom saying to us, “You’ll get along when you’re older.”
And I thought, “We never will.”
But now they’re my best friends.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, yeah. No, it’s true.
Rachel Cram – We had lots of fights over clothing. That was our big issue.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah. You don’t lend stuff to your sister. That always begs for an argument,
Rachel Cram – No, but they’d take it. Even though you’ve got a lock on your door, they pick it and they go in.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – That’s true. And your perfume and makeup.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh. Well before we jump into this conversation even further and you’ve already offered a hint to this, I like to open with a question to learn a little more about you. And here it is. I’m wondering, Deborah, is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, there’s so many different events that shape me today. One of the ones I would highlight the most is that I just feel so privileged that I grew up at a time when play was just taken for granted. We had incredible adventures. We made up fantasies and stories and spaceships and air guitar and skits. And we’d have garbage picking day back in Ontario where we grew up and garbage picking day everybody just threw out the garbage on the end of the lawn. And so we would rummage around and find all the garbage and we would set up high jump and track and field kind of events on our driveway or around our house, and my mom would be horrified, she’d come outside and find somebody’s old gross mattress. We’re like, “Mom, we’re just playing high jump.”
But it was fantastic. And then my younger sisters, of course, it was more caretaking so I would do tea parties and stuff like that with them.
Rachel Cram – Well, that older sister role, it has such a responsibility to it, but also such an opportunity for learning when you get to stay and play even longer, I think, because you’re living life alongside your younger siblings.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, that’s very true.
Rachel Cram – Well, as we head into the interview today, there’s two key areas that I’d love to discuss with you and those are ‘why kids fight’ and ‘how we intervene’. You actually say, “How do we intervene in a way that preserves the dignity of everyone as well as your relationship with each child.” Which I think is beautiful, because often when I intervene. I just want to get it over with. I’m not thinking about those lofty goals.
So, let’s start with talking then about why kids fight. What are the reasons that bring conflict into their young lives? Their pre-teen lives? Their teen lives? Even into adult lives?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, if we look at the root emotion that might drive conflict, there could be many different emotions. Frustration will be the biggest emotion, right. Frustration that you want something to change or you want something to stop. So frustration is always looking for an answer to solve the problem that’s on the table. I want my sister to share her toys with me. I want my, you know, big sister to share her clothes with me. I want my brother to let me hang out with his friends. Like some of these things are going to be futile. Some of them, they won’t come to pass and some of them your sibling may accommodate. But that might mean for that child who has a desire, that there will be incredible frustration. So what happens to that frustration then? Frustration needs to be expressed.
Now, you combine that with immaturity in a three year old or sometimes an overwhelmed thirteen year old, and you’re going to get attacking energy. And that attacking energy, especially in younger ones, will come out physically and in older ones it takes a turn towards more verbal. It can still get physical, but it takes a turn to more verbal. And we can be incredibly wounding with our words, with our sentiments. “I don’t want you to come to my birthday party. I wish you weren’t my brother or my sister. I hate you. You’re stupid.”
The kind of words that our children can say to each other out of this frustration and attacking energy can hurt because they can’t affect change but they need to find their tears about it. They need to accept what cannot pass.
Rachel Cram – That’s kind of a lifelong pursuit isn’t it.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah. Actually, someone said to me once, it sounds like this is the Serenity Prayer Deb. Did you take this from the serenity prayer? The prayer goes,
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I see where they were coming from about the prayer. That’s the needed perspective.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – It really is. But our kids don’t know that yet. They don’t understand what the futilities are. This is the tricky dance as a parent; knowing when we have to push in and affect change and where we have to dance our kids to release and to the tears about the things that will not, cannot change. This is where wisdom’s required in us.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well and siblings are instrumental in this early life discovery I think. That we are not always going to get what we want.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, it’s very true. It’s you know, your siblings oftentimes force you to have to adapt to the world you can’t change. Even their very birth. You know, things change automatically. You don’t have your parents quite the same way again. I remember one of my sisters got incredible tummy aches when one of my other sisters was born. You know, just this whole idea that life had changed. The contact and closeness with mom had changed as she was now the middle child instead of the youngest. So, you know, every time we add a new child in, you can see the constellation of the family changes. There’s always futility around every door. Having to share. Having to hear noises. Having people in your play and not always being able to get the attention of people that you want to get. Having siblings does push futility in your face in a different way, that’s for sure.
Musical Interlude #1 9:53
Rachel Cram – OK, I have so many questions about how we resolve that, but we’re going to get to that afterwards. So there is conflict because of this futility and frustration. What’s another reason for conflict?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I think a lot of times I see attachment seeking type behavior, right. So a child is wanting contact and closeness. We would hope that our children would seek out us as adults for that contact and closeness. Sometimes were not always available. And so the natural place where a lot of our children seek contact and closeness is each other because they’re the same as each other. They find the same things funny. They play often at the same level. Right. They enjoy the same type of activities often. And so they’ll go and seek each other out and you’ll get this type of pursuit behavior in one child. The other child may not reciprocate that. You know, “I don’t want to play with you right now. Quit following me.”
My sister would come and poke at me and physically try to get me to move in a different direction. And, of course, I would erupt. So we can seek attachment out in many different places. And it’s very common that siblings would seek it out with each other. When they are refuted, when they are thwarted in their attempts, when there is no desire to be together, then you can see eruptions of frustration because there’s nothing that frustrates you more than not being able to have your relational needs met.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. Well, and this is why I think we have more than one child. This is why we have, you know, in your case, in your family five and my parents with four, because you want them to have that type of relationship. But there can definitely be periods of time where you just can wonder, was this even the right move to make because there’s so much conflict between them.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, well, we might need to step back and say, “Should our children have to seek each other out to get these attachment needs met?”
You know, of course, they will be, as siblings, part of a family and being attached to each other. But if there’s such a hunger there, I think there is pause for thought as a parent to say, “Is there some way that I need to step in and take responsibility for this hunger? Have I left my children to their own too much to fulfill each other’s needs this way? Have I abdicated my role as being the answer some way? Do I need to step in? Do I need to take some of that attachment seeking energy as a cue to get into position, that I’ve dropped the ball here somehow?”
Rachel Cram – Humm, Well and that’s tricky because having our kids play together is part of how we hope to get what we need to do done. Like cooking, laundry, office work
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, yeah, no, it’s true.
Rachel Cram – I know, right. And that is often when the conflict begins. But we’ll address that I hope, when we get to “how we intervene.”
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Gottch ya.
Rachel Cram – Good. Ok, so our kids fight because of the need to express frustration, which leads to attaching energy, the need for closeness and contact. What would be another reason why our children fight?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, territory, territory and possessiveness when they get attached to things you know, sharing is overrated in their world. I mean, you get a three year old and it’s just, “My toy. My person. My whatever.” The capacity to consider someone else’s needs, actually requires development. And that is usually by the years of five to seven where they can hold into account their own views and their own desires, as well as look at someone else and say, “Hey, I think they also could benefit from this and I care about them. And I also want to share.”
So you can get incredible territorial battles before that, because this idea of consideration and sharing is just not there. So they can be quite fierce in protecting their turf. And of course, it just brings out very primal-like behavior. You’ll see it, you know, the scratching, the physical fights, the verbal fights that will ensue. And so it takes time to develop this capacity for empathy, for consideration. You can’t force it. And of course, we do a lot of forcing, you know, of children to share. But it’s not coming from a place of internal development. It’s coming from our need to script and have behavior look a certain way. So this idea of becoming empathetic and considerate, there’s a developmental underpinning that needs to unfold this way. So they can be very territorial and possessive. Sharing is not one of their hallmarks, especially in the early years.
Rachel Cram – Well you mentioned the three year old saying, “My toy. My person.” The word ‘mine’ starts so early. I even think of the seagulls in what’s the Disney show? Mine, mine, mine,
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Is it Finding Nemo?
Rachel Cram – Yeah! Finding Nemo. That is a word that comes very early in our vocabulary universally. What’s occurred within a child that gives access to this claim of ‘mine.’
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Oh, this is such a beautiful developmental story. When a child is born, the first person that they usually refer to, and I’m talking about heterosexual relationships, the first person they usually identify is dada. Da, Da, Da.
Now, I remember asking Gordon, “Well, what about the mother? Like, holy cow, you know, she’s on maternity leave. She’s breastfeeding. What’s going on here? Why isn’t Mother forefront?”
And remember Gordon’s answer. It’s beautiful, he said, “Because the child is not yet seeing themselves as a separate self from the mother. In terms of the formation of self, the child is only seeing the distance between themselves as father. OK, I’m separate from Father. Dada. And then, of course, you’re your own self. Mama comes after that, right, Mama? And then there’s me. But the child is still fuzed.
Now what comes after Mama? You might have different siblings or the dog’s names and they’re all interspersed in there. But there’s this beautiful development anywhere usually around two to three. You see one of the most beautiful transformations, I think, in human development where a child all of a sudden will just come out of the blue. “Me, I do. I do myself. Mine.” And they say it with such a veracity. “I do.”
We’re like, “Yeah, I know you’re there.”
And you just see this incredible psychological development where we should actually have a birthday for the child to say, “Welcome to the world psychologically.”
They’ve had enough attachment, there is enough brain development where they can now see themselves and then the outside world. And they just announce it with such, such possessiveness and territoriality, “My mummy! My daddy!”
And this is the hard part, is that is very easy to have a relationship with the child who doesn’t have a will of their own. But as soon as they start saying, “I do. I want,” you’ve got a child who has a will, who has a sense of self and who has their own ideas and their own preferences. And what are they say, “I want that toy. I want that dog. I want that mummy.” And they start asserting this sense of agency and we just often trip all over it. But I think it’s one of the most beautiful points in human development because you see ‘the self finally’ emerge out of the darkness. It’s like they appear.
Musical interlude #2 17:26
Rachel Cram – OK. So just as a quick recap to ‘why kids fight’. You’ve given three reasons so far. You’ve said it’s part of frustration, that notion that you can’t always get what you want. Attachment seeking behaviors. Territorial and possessiveness. Why else do children fight?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – One of the big ones that I see that I think seems to be quite invisible is that emotion can be displaced. Emotion isn’t always expressed in the environment in which it was created. So you could have a hard day at school. You could be picked on at school. You could get a bad grade at school. There could be lots of stuff going on for you. And you come home and your sibling will do the smallest of things, opening that doorway to the frustration that you’ve had to kind of push down on pack in because it’s not safe to erupt at school.
And so at home you have this little doorway that opens up with the sibling that just does something annoying and boom outcomes the wrath, outcomes the foul frustration onto that child.
Rachel Cram – We all do that.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, we all displace emotion and to be aware of that frustration moving in us isn’t always possible. Sometimes it takes us by surprise. Sometimes our emotions have to work in environments where we have to press down on them in order to concentrate, in order to be civil and social, to bite our tongue. But there has to be a time, and there’s usually a time, where all those emotions come back. And often it can be a sibling who’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time and it just cascades onto them.
You know, like I remember one incident with my kids where one of my daughters dropped a water bottle on the other one’s toe. OK, obviously painful. The other one just let loose, though. And I thought, “This is disproportionate to the offense.”
And in tracing it back with her over time, she was actually worried about her dental appointment the following day where she had to have a cavity filled. And so this was on her mind. And so as soon as the frustration opened up, it opened up the doorway to all of the frustration that was there. And of course, it provided a means of expression. And children, it’s often like parents, if you have good relationships, there’s a sense of trust that this person will be there. You know, these are my people. And so I think it sometimes makes it a little bit easier for that emotion to come out on top of the person.
Rachel Cram – As you describe it, I sense that there is a curiosity that’s required on the part of a parent, a detective work into figuring out what the root of this conflict. What’s the bigger story behind what I’m seeing in front of me right now? But that’s so hard to do because conflict is stressful. When you started to hear that, “Mom,” you know, the tension that comes with it. I find it has a lot of, “Mom! Moms!” in it.
I feel like they up the volume and up the volume until you step in, wanting you to step in. The sensory overload of that makes it difficult to take the deep breath and be curious, to think, “What is it behind what’s going on here?”
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, I can’t do that usually. I’m not very curious in the moment.
Rachel Cram – And I’m so glad to hear that.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – It’s not like, “Hummm. Let me be curious. Look at them hurting each other. Oh, I’m so curious.”
No, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get in there and stop the bleeding.”
I had this experience when I worked in the counseling unit as well in the university. It felt kind of like the MASH unit, you know, incoming. And you’re like, “OK, I got to triage. I got to figure out what I’m going to do.”
No, I’m in triage mode in that. And that’s where the things that guide me there is; I want to preserve the dignity of my children, I want to preserve the dignity and the expression of their emotion but I can’t allow them to hurt each other. I mean, I’m not totally in control of that of course, but I can influence the context. I can influence what’s going on in the environment. I can influence through my relationship with each of my kids. So, no, I think we oftentimes think we have to do everything very fast and in the moment. And, my goodness, is that ever a recipe for disaster.
Rachel Cram – Well, the reality is, too, that if you don’t nail it the first time, chances are you’re going to probably get about 17 opportunities to retry it a different way over the next week. Because the same situations come up again and again. So there’s that small piece of comfort.
But in the midst of that incredible humility that you just offered there, you do have some wonderful wisdom on how we do intervene. So can we switch then from ‘Why kids fight,’ to ‘How we intervene?’
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I think there’s a couple of things that are helpful to keep in mind or to kind of sit with. And so if we understand conflict as about frustration and expression, I think we’re going to be guided a little bit better in terms of trying to get to our children’s side and to try to allow for that in a way that is safe for their relationship. See, it should be safe for them to express frustration about a sibling. Yes, it is hard to have a sister who doesn’t share their clothes. Yes, I can see how that hurt your feelings. Whatever it is that we say, they can say those things to us one on one. So I think often trying to see this as an emotional problem, not a behavioral problem, is really key. It’s not about how do I get them to stop hitting. That’s obviously a factor but what’s driving the hitting and how do I work at that level? And using our relationship to come to the child’s side and open up that emotional expression in a safe way.
Now, some kids won’t be able to get there, nor will they know what their words are for it. And that’s why play and moving them to play instead might be a better way to also soften some of those emotions that are bubbling up. Playing at frustrating, playing at fighting, you know, breaking something, getting something out, destroying something, building something, putting something together, transforming it. Play can often be a softening agent for these kinds of emotions as well. So for children, who don’t have any words for it. Maybe what we do is we come alongside and we try to move that frustration to some sort of play.
Rachel Cram – Can you give an example of how you would do that maybe with a four year old? So what I’m hearing you say is they’ve come to you telling you, you know, “My brother and my sister, they’re this. They’re that. And I’m so angry.” How do you shift them from their words into a play situation?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, yeah. I mean, you’d have to intuitively dance with your child this way and understand the level of emotion and have a relationship there so that you could do this. But just for the sake of example, you know, a child comes to you and they’re upset. You come alongside, “This is frustrating. I know that your feelings got hurt.”
You’d have to decide whether or not it would make sense for them to play together. And if not, they’re going to play on their own for a while. You’d set that up. I’ve got an idea. Let’s go build a tower. Let’s go build some blocks. You know, let’s go smash it. I feel like I got the smashing and mean that needs to come out or let’s go outside and ride our bikes. You’d have to look for the particular bent of your child in terms of how they get frustration out.
One of my kids, even as a teenager, I can see she needs to move fast and movement is a good part of her emotional expression, like it really opens it up. And so the other day I invited her to a game of cards and I said, let’s play war. Let’s play war. Very fast moving war. And she’s just like,“Yeah, actually, I really want to play that.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, you need to play that.” We need to play that.
Rachel Cram – Your word, ‘Let’s,’ I’m just thinking that’s like ‘let us’ and, when that’s the case, when it is let’s play together, your saying play becomes the safe place for both of you to get to the restoration or release of frustration.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – We all have the play instinct, right, so yes, that’s why we should give so much of this emotion to this place because it preserves our relationships. It doesn’t wound our relationships. There’s nothing you get wrong in play and the shape of your expression can be contained in play. If you need to break something, build something, move something, play can handle all of that. And so this is one of the challenges today. A curious question would be, are we seeing more conflict between our children? Certainly in covid, there is a suggestion that there is more frustration and this is coming out in lots of places. The research does suggest that. What has happened, though, in terms of that frustration and aggression in connection to play? If we had more true play, would we be seeing these levels? And the answer that I would tell you is, no, we wouldn’t be. The science supports that. We are seeing the bubble up effect from losing the places that took care of our emotion.
Rachel Cram – One of our recent episodes is with Dr. Neufeld giving the seven distinctives of true play. So for listeners, go back and listen to that because that’s exactly what you’re talking about right now. It’s so important, so powerful.
Ok, so I’m going to act like a point monitor if that’s ok with you Deborah. So, when intervening in our children’s conflicts, your first point is appreciate their need to express frustration. Do you feel like you’ve talked enough about that point to move on?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I think so. It’s meant to be a slice of it, right? It’s not meant to be the whole theory.
Rachel Cram – Exactly. And we put links to your work on our website so that people can go find out more about it, so that’ll be great.
All right, what would be another way that we can intervene when our children are in conflict?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, you know, one of the things is to step back and to think about, “Well, what would I do to prevent conflict. How do I increase the caring between my children?”
So often we focus on the behavior we see and we need it to stop and cut it out. But what comes before that that would be the natural antidote? And it would be caring. So how do we promote caring between our kids?
And the wonderful thing that we know now through attachment science is that when that attachment is hierarchical in nature, meaning that one takes the lead, one follows. In a healthy marriage, this would switch up, one takes the lead, one follows, you know, that’s what we call the division of labor.
When it comes to taking care of kids, obviously the adults should be in the lead position and the child should want to follow that adult. When it comes to sibling hierarchy, though, it’s also the same. And you may know this as being the eldest of four sisters is that I was often put in that lead position. Can I count on you to play with your sister? Can you take her for a walk? Can you help change her diaper? There was many times I was called on to be the big sister. That was a constant reminder.
Now, that ensures that you are in that beautiful attachment hierarchy. If I am the eldest, then it’s going to draw out those beautiful caretaking instincts. It’s going to draw my natural caring right. That I’m more inclined then to want to take care of those that I see as more vulnerable, more needy and more dependent on me to be the big sister.
One of my daughters had taken her babysitting class and I said, “OK, you’re ready, I can leave you. I’m going to go to the store and go shopping. Can I count on you to take care of your sister here appropriately? Right. According to what you know.”
And her demeanor shifted. It was incredible. I got a call at the grocery store. “Well, it’s become very annoying. She isn’t listening to me. I need the backdoor to be closed for safety. However, she doesn’t want to do this.”
And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” Like, it was just like magic. This child emerged that was in this beautiful lead role. I am responsible for this now. How do I do this in a caring way?
Even if you’re running a daycare or preschool. If you have these age differences where you can say, “No, you are older, these are your responsibilities, and we have our younger kids, let’s help them on with their jackets, as sometimes they need some help with their shoes. Do you remember what it was like when you were brand new?”
The grade 12s being the answer to the grade 8s that are coming into the school. The peer mentoring programs. These are the natural ways that we actually draw caring and we get ahead of the problems.
If you’ve ever met a peer mentor on a playground who feels charged with the responsibilities of helping the younger ones on the playground, you will see tremendous caring, tremendous responsibility. Your job won’t be getting in there, trying to figure out how to solve conflicts because you’ve got your answer there. You’ve got more caring on the playground. So helping our children get into that nice hierarchical relationship and attachment by reinforcing. Right. One leads, one follows, it’s just a small miracle when it comes to, increasing the caring and consideration when kids are together.
Rachel Cram – What about for those middle kids or the younger kids? There can be that tension of, “Well why does she get to be the one that’s in charge because I’m older than them too.”
Or the younger ones feeling like, “Well when do I ever get to be the one that’s in charge?”
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, it’s just not the eldest that’s in charge. Everybody can have a role. Everyone can have a little kingdom that they help with, you know, and that’s why we get pets or some representation of that caretaking, or a garden. There’s many ways to express your leadership.I would create opportunities all down the line.
Rachel Cram – I so often find with my kids that when I truly need them for help, they always step up. Just the other day I could not get the zipper on my running jacket to go up. And I was so frustrated and my fifteen year old son came into the room and I was like, “Can you please get the zipper to go up for me?”
And he had been kind of grumpy that morning and right away he’s like, “Totally Mom.”
And he got on his knees in front of me and he’s like, “We can totally get this up, it will work.”
And I was like, “I’m so frustrated because now I’m only going to get a short run in.”
And he was just like calming me down and got my zipper up. I just think giving that opportunity to care is so meaningful. It really is a game changer.
Dr. Deborah MacNarmara – Yeah, it really is. And it helps them listen to those caring emotions and instincts that are inside of them and allows for that expression. Giving feels good and helping without getting a reward, without being praised, without turning it into something that’s less than altruistic, if we can allow for those spaces for our children to care about the things that are meaningful to them, yes, it changes who they are.
Musical interlude #3 31:40
Thanks for listening to family360. This week we’re with Child Psychologist, Dr. Deborah MacNamara talking about sibling conflict. Why our kids fight and how we intervene.
In our next episode we Zoom to Scotland for our conversation with author, professor and mental health advocate Dr. John Swinton, discussing ‘the human experience of disability’ and the important distinction between inclusion and belonging.
And now back to our conversation with Dr. Deborah MacNamara who is about to describe a third consideration for intervention when our kids are in conflict.
Rachel Cram – All right. Allow for expressions of frustration. Create a hierarchy of caring. How else can we intervene?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, I think one of the biggest things as parents is, in the moment, not to play judge and jury. This is really hard for our relationships. It’s hard on them and it’s hard on us. If they feel like we’re coming alongside or siding with one over the other, if you’re siding with a particular person, how children or teens often see it is, “You are for them.” They don’t distinguish the issue from the relationship. And so, “You are for them. Then you’re not for me.” And it becomes a question of belonging. It becomes a question of mattering, which is an attachment issue.
They may bait you and want you to fix this and to lay down a claim on who’s correct or who’s not. So it’s real important to try to hold on to your relationship. “I’m going to help you here. We’re having trouble. This isn’t working. You’re both upset,” you know, and just try to find a way through that impasse until you can do some work with each child separately. I think that’s usually the most important way through if things are really heated not to try to work in those moments.
Rachel Cram – Are there ever times where you would see that a child was being wronged and state it?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, well, sometimes when we get into our incidents, it’s very clear to us that things are not even when it comes to the conflict and that can be trying. I think one of the things that helps us is to keep in mind good intentions, that there is care between them, that our frustration got the better of us. And to state that, “I know this was a difficult situation. I know you care about each other. This went over the top.”
What is important, though, is when you’re dropping the infraction flag, as Gordon Neufeld says, right, to state basically what isn’t working, what you can’t allow, what needs to change. I can’t allow us to continue this. This isn’t working. I’m going to have to help here. Whatever it is. If it’s a younger child or two older teens, is to keep in mind that if you don’t say something that indicates that you are taking the lead, and oftentimes dropping the infraction flag indicates you’re in the lead, “This is what I see and I’m going to take care of it.”
What happens is, if one child who’s so frustrated, and doesn’t feel heard or seen or understood in this way, they may actually take matters of justice into their own hands. And so there needs to be a sense that someone’s taking the lead, that someone is going to find a way through, that someone’s responsible for that, that something has gone wrong here and that they have been hurt and that they will deal with it.
When I was on yard duty at a school, oftentimes children would come up to me and say, “So-and-so is doing this and so-and-so is doing this.”
And I’m like, “OK, well, thank you. I’m glad you let me know. I’m going to go deal with this right away.”
And I said, “Is there anything that you need for me?” And I remember this one little girl. She looked up to me and she said, “No, I just needed you to know.”
And that really is what this is about. I need to know that an adult is going to assume responsibility. Now, I don’t need to tell her what I’m going to do. I don’t need to mete out punishment so that she’s satisfied. But I do need to let her know I’m going to take care of this. I can see you’re hurt. I can see this didn’t work. I am responsible and I’ll take the lead on it.
Basically I went to the other child and said, “Hey, what’s going on? I heard there was some troubles. Can you help me understand?”
And then I heard their side of the story, OK? And I can’t remember how it resolved itself. But this idea of, ‘I just need you to know, I need you to see, I need you to understand.’ If we don’t take the lead, if we don’t sometimes acknowledge the infraction, I think we court our children to taking the lead out of our lack of leadership.
Rachel Cram – Can I ask you another question on that? There can be weeks or even months that, for example, one of my teenagers is just going through their things. They’re stressed at school. They’ve got exams, their hormones are moving in. And it can seem like day after day, week after week, they’re really hard on their younger sibling. Is there ever a place to come into that younger sibling and say, and I am aware that you don’t want to sound like a judge or jury, but say, “You’re in a hard place right now,” like to maybe give a perspective that doesn’t sound judgmental, but let’s them know, “I see you’re in a tough place, but your older sibling is going through this stage of life.” Is there any space for that?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well, yes, absolutely. And I think this is really what’s important in the coming back around and debriefing and coming to each children’s side. Like when we step in to deal with an incident, we’re really just triaging, we’re trying to find a way through that preserves dignity, keep our attachment, do no harm, drop the infraction flag, whatever it is that we need to do in this moment to find our way through the impasse. It’s a mess. Get through it with as much dignity for everybody as you can, with as much leadership.
But when you come back around to a child, I always try to keep in mind we don’t need to work the incidences, that we wait for the emotion to come down and to be lower. And then we move in, we move into the child in the context of relationship, meaning we go in, we collect the child. Can you get to hello? Can you come to their side? Can you bring them a cup of peppermint tea? That’s what I do with my kids. Can I help you with your homework? The dog wants to visit you. However it is that you move in to collect the child.
Look for signs of receptivity. Is that child open to you? Is the emotion still lingering? This is not a good time. You’re looking for receptivity. We do this in our adult relationships. We’re always looking for receptivity to deal with conflict. We’re not going to just barge in because,we need to get it off our chest. So look for receptivity, come back around to the child, come alongside. That was hard today. How are you feeling about everything? My sense is you’re still pretty frustrated. Those words, I imagine, would have hurt. Like touch gently into the bruise, you know, or if the child seems to have the capacity for it, name it as it is. But use your relationship to come back around to those incidences, especially if a child has been wounded.
I would often say to my kids, “Please don’t take that into your heart. That is someone else’s frustration. It comes out on you. This is what we do, is we can take our frustration out on each other. This also exists inside of you and so don’t take it into your heart. Your sibling is having a hard time. That’s my responsibility. I’m working on this. You can be as frustrated or upset. I am here to talk about it.”
Whatever the maturity level of the child. But the message is, is don’t take this into your heart.
And I think we need to take it into our heart if there really is a lot of wounding between our kids. What I found in private practice as a counselor is that some of the greatest wounds in a family is not just from your sibling but from that child seeing and feeling that they weren’t taken care of because their parents didn’t step in.
Rachel Cram – And that’s the worry.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – And that is such a big wound, so step in, step in. “I see what’s happening isn’t OK, I’m here for you. I’ll take care of you. Let me hear whatever is going on.” Move to play, move to tears, move to whatever you need to do to take care of that child’s heart
You move to the other one who’s full of attacking energy. “How can I help? You seem so frustrated. What’s going on? Help me understand. Here’s a cup of peppermint tea and I made muffins because we need muffins when it looks like you’re overloaded with work, right?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That’s OK. I’ll be here.” And you bide your time. You move in and out. But you’re looking for receptivity. You’re warming each child up. You put the focus on your relationship with each child instead of focusing on getting your kids to get along.
That’s where you get your caring, you put them back into right relationship, not expecting them to figure it out.
Rachel Cram – Well, and what kind of pressure would it be for us as adults if somebody was staring at you saying you got to work this out? Yeah, you know, it’s too much sometimes in those moments.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Well and they’ve already revealed that they can’t handle it because they’re already erupting. And then we say we have to handle it somehow better. You’ve got to somehow magically pull out some insight that you’ve obviously going to find now, even though you’re losing it. Yeah, it’s not even logical.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it’s not logical. You’ve just run though this list of very wise and articulate sounding phrases, very logical, that I am now scrambling to remember. I think we can worry that we will step in to intervene and do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, scrambling for our focus of intent in that moment which seems to get very blurry when our kids are in conflict.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, well, when we’re worried about doing it wrong and we’re parenting from a place of alarm, then yes, of course, then our children can’t feel we’re leading them. Right. So I would say the idea that we would be perfect will paralyze anybody. So just take that off the table, move in.
So when I’m in those situations, I’m not running through a checklist in my head. I’m trying to think about my intentions of preserving my relationship with my children. I’m trying not to add more frustration to what is already a burning fire of frustration. And I’m trying to find a way through to triage, to prevent more injury, to prevent more harm and get my children into a place where I can work with whatever it is that’s going on. Or, you know, sometimes we just need to go to bed. Sometimes you’re just hungry, just try to fix what’s not working.
So in terms of intervening, though, there can be some helpful scripts that I have found over the years just to keep in mind. And again, I encourage everybody just to, you know, think about their intentions when they’re moving into sibling conflict and to just create some scripts of your own. But mine would be simply to say, “This isn’t working. I can’t allow this. There’s so much frustration here right now. You’re all upset. I see that. I’m going to help you with that. No, we’re not going to tackle this right now. No, we’re not going to get into it. I will talk to you all later about it.”
And those would be just some of the ways that I could remember who I wanted to be in that moment. And, you know, it’s interesting when I would say things like, “We’re not going to talk about it now,” it cued me up. ‘No, don’t get into it Deb. This is not going to work right now. You know, we’re all upset. This isn’t the time to deal with it.’
It was also cueing me up and holding me in place so that I wouldn’t be adding more injury, more frustration, which I don’t always do. But, you know, and that’s when you have to come back around. And that’s the hard thing is when you have to come back around and you’ve blown it somehow. I always start with how I blew it. And sometimes I won’t get to whatever the issue was, because I’ve blown it. I got frustrated. I added to your frustration. I’m sorry for that.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, that’s a very powerful moment, though. I can remember times in my life distinctly that my parents came back afterwards and said, “I am so sorry, I did not deal with that well.”
I have no idea what the situation was. That thought has long gone. But the impact of them coming back and apologizing to me, that’s what sticks. And it’s so meaningful.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – It’s so powerful because what it feels like to me and what I know it is through science is you’re taking the shame off the child and saying, “This does not belong on you. Those words, my actions are not a reflection of you,” because children are looking to us all the time to get a sense of who they are, you know, ‘Am I significant? Do I matter?’ And when our words and our conduct convey, ‘You are the problem,’ then they’re carrying that for us. That’s what shame is. There’s something wrong with me.
So when we come back around and we say, “I blew it, I was frustrated, I took it out on you, I apologize. And you may need to be mad at me for a while. That’s OK. We’ll get through that. I know it hurt and I’m here.”
And you just continue on taking care of the child and get on with business. You don’t need to self-deprecate or grovel and make sure. Are you OK, you know. Do you forgive me. Just get back to taking care of them again. But remove that shame that said, “There’s something wrong with you because I had to act that way.”
Holy cow, is that ever a toxic thing that our children have to carry? And that’s the legacy of shame.
Musical interlude #4 44:36
Rachel Cram – Just picking up on apologies, you have written a beautiful book for children called The Sorry Plane. Of all the topics that you could have written a book on, and I hope and believe you’re going to write many more for children, what made you start with that? That importance of this apology of, you know, really what you’re talking about right now?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara- Well, there’s a couple of reasons. One, a personal reason is that my daughter at the age of three and a half created ‘the sorry plane’ when she didn’t want to say sorry, she kept telling us the sorrys were all gone. There underneath the bed. They flew in the garbage and finally they were on the sorry plane going to Paris, eating French fries and French toast, and they weren’t coming back. So she is three and a half.
Rachel Cram – Were you asking her to say sorry? And she was telling you they were not there?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I said, “Does anyone have any stories?” And one child had stories and she did not.
And so I said, “Where did they go? Because I didn’t want to force it. Right. I was curious, where did they go?
So she came up with the sorry plane and she said, “I just didn’t want to say sorry so I just said they flew out the window Mom.”
So that’s the personal side of it. So I thought it was kind of an interesting view from a three and a half year old who is in conflict but doesn’t have this caring inside of them. And they know darn well they don’t have the caring. They have such integrity. I will not say sorry when I don’t feel remorse.
Rachel Cram – There’s something that we can take from that as adults as well.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – I know. That’s the whole point.
Right. And then juxtapose with what I know through developmental science about one of the most important emotions that helps us grow and become fully human and humane, socially responsible individuals capable of caring, consideration, all the things that we want for our kids. And it boils down to the root emotion of caring. And we have such a behavioral view of caring. We think we can teach it. We think we can force it. We go about rewarding it, we praise or we take away things. All of those things erode true caring, and we encourage our children to have caring performances that are devoid of any meaning.
Manners must have meaning behind them. If you say sorry, there must be remorse. If you say thank you, there must be gratitude. If you say I love you, I hope there is deep caring behind it. And so it came out of a need and a desire to ensure that we understand that we must preserve caring and authentic presentations of caring and in our haste as parents to get children to look mature, to act mature, that we don’t force contrived performances on top of them out of our own needs.
But respect, development. Caring is there. They’re born with it. We have to facilitate it, promote it, make sure the words match the meaning, you know, and give it time. Kids will get back to their caring, as my daughter does in the sorry plane. She draws her sister a picture of the balloon that popped and gave her a peppermint and gave her a hug. And to her that was caring. And her sister felt it as caring and felt it is as the sorry that it was.
Rachel Cram – That’s such a good story. I’m just thinking, when there is a sorry, however we express it, sorry plane or otherwise, the other side of that is forgiveness, which like sorry also can’t be force, reward, praise. How does that fit in as we help navigate conflicts between our kids?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, well, forgiveness is an interesting developmental turn, and that happens usually between the ages of five to seven, where forgiveness requires you to be able to hold on to two competing emotions at the same time. One side of you is really frustrated that something has happened or that you’ve been wounded in some way. The other side of you also feels caring, though. Caring about the relationship.
When you have been hurt, it takes a tremendous amount of caring to finally get to forgiveness. Judith Herman, had the best definition of forgiveness that I’ve heard. She works a lot in trauma and it is, “I forego getting even.” I forego getting even. It doesn’t mean that the wound disappears, it’s just that it has been allowed to mix with caring, which gives rise to this beautiful temperament of forgiveness. So it is maturity and we would do far better in just getting our kids to their caring, getting to their remorse and getting to expressions of this and eventually knowing that time is meant to deliver some mixing here. But my goodness, this takes a lot of energy, time, focus, reflection. We’re in far too much of a hurry. We throw these concepts around without really understanding what they actually require of us developmentally.
Rachel Cram – Amazing answers Deborah. Thank you. Now, I like to close the interview with one last opportunity for kind of a really kind of if you could say one thing to parents in one minute, what would it be on this topic? Is there something that you haven’t discussed yet that comes to your mind? Like one last piece of encouragement you’d want to offer maybe to parents as we live within the daily realities of our kids in conflict?
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Yeah, I think that it’s just to remind ourselves that being the answer to one child is daunting enough. And then to have more than one child and trying to be the answer to all of them, this is formidable in many ways, balanced with everything else that we also have to take care of. And in those moments when your children are fighting, I would often feel inside of myself, “Well, I’ve got to protect that child. They’re being harmed.”
And then it dawned on me, “Well it’s my other child that’s doing the harm.”
And I would feel these competing emotions inside of me. Who needs me? How do I protect both of my kids? How do I take care of both of them? Right. Because they’re both mine. It’s so easy to just go for one that needs the protection, because in your head, there is a sense sometimes that one, you know, the loudest one, or the one that’s bleeding or seems injured. So these can be tough situations. Just pause long enough to remember that you need to lead and to anchor yourself into that place of, ‘I don’t want to lose any child here in terms of my relationship, yet I must lead through a difficult situation. I have to be the answer to it.’
And when we can take care of our relationship with our kids this way, when we can preserve that, when we can preserve their caring, then we can massage the relationship between them. So work on your relationship, keep that strong and proceed always from that place.
Rachel Cram – Deborah, it’s hard to end, but if I don’t I’m going to need to edit out far too much of this conversation to fit into our episode time frame, so I am going to put aside a long list of questions I still want to ask, perhaps for another time.
Thank you so much for this conversation.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – Thanks so much Rachel. It’s lovely to be here with you.
Rachel Cram – I need to have you back. You’re so articulate.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara – You’re very easy to talk to and you have great questions.
Rachel Cram – Thank you.