Q: Here’s the situation. Kids: 13-year-old (boy, solid teenager sulky/rude) with anxiety issues and 9-year-old (girl, “bright ray of sunshine,” helper, needs lots of attention) equals lots of conflict right now. Parents are working (one at home, one out of the house). We have tried to institute “kindness reports” at dinner, but do you have any suggestions for helping them to get along better? Or at least to not be jerks to each other? I also know that we need to try to find ways to connect with them individually, but we’re at a loss there, too. Thanks.
A: Thanks for writing in. I wish I could say this unhappiness is a rare occurrence in families right now, but it isn’t. Quarantine plus working from home plus the uncertainty of the future equals misery all around. Siblings who may have already had a rocky relationship are suffering mightily under the weight of spending this endless time together, so I am impressed when parents tell me their kids aren’t fighting.
I know you want your children to get along better, and that is a worthy cause. No one wants to hear their children’s unkindness as you try to get on your fifth Zoom call of the day, but you need to shift priorities from the first stated goal (the kids “get along better”) to your second one (“connect with them individually”). Why? Whereas the problematic behavior may manifest in sibling conflict, the solution lies in leadership from you and your partner (rather than kindness reports from the kids). Families are hierarchical, with the parent at the top of the food chain, and because you have a hormonal 13-year-old and a needy 9-year-old, you need a stronger stance in two ways. First, schedule one-on-one time with each child, and second, draw some stronger boundaries around the unkindness.
I love that you have instilled a “kindness report” at dinner, because it means you have a system in place, even if it isn’t working. So change the “kindness report” to the creation of two lists. One list is an idea of fun one-on-one time with each child, and the second is a list of offensive behaviors and the rewards/consequences of getting rid of or participating in the behaviors. I would like you to see both lists as works in progress; they are not meant to be perfect, nor are they expected to be followed rigidly. The lists are a jumping off point for connection and clarity, so please, allow this to be a flexible process.
The one-on-one time should be practical and slightly child-centered. That means your first choice of fun may not be learning about the newest video game, but it still counts as fun one-on-one time with you and your son. Definitely include items on the list that you both enjoy, and look up what is happening around your town during the pandemic. I want to stress that you are better off with frequent and short one-on-one moments than convoluted, expensive and drawn-out plans. Easy one-on-ones are also more reasonable in quarantine for your parenting sanity. When you sit down to make these lists, let the children drive the conversation and the ideas. It may feel like pulling teeth, or it may be easy. Just go with it.
As for a reward and consequence system, please invite the children to hash out which behaviors are unacceptable; they are more likely to buy into a system if they agree to the standards, and you also may find out some interesting information. They may clarify the meanness you are seeing, as well as create interesting consequences and rewards. Whatever it is you decide with the kids, put it in writing. When you deliver the consequence, they will fight it tooth and nail, but you will have a better chance of defending it if they created it.
Whatever happens, never take away your one-on-one time as a punishment. It may feel counterintuitive, like you are rewarding your children for being bad, but when we take away our parental love and connection as a form of punishment, it creates a cycle of pain and shame that does not improve our children’s behavior. Hence, one-on-one time is nonnegotiable, no matter how sulky or needy a child is.
Also, I know we are in quarantine and you must keep safety first, but is there any safe way for your children to see their friends? Call some of the parents and figure out a way to get out into nature with other children. It will be a nice buffer from each other, and it will give you a much-needed break. There are also tremendous volunteer opportunities at this time, and volunteering may be a lovely afternoon spent with either child making lunches for families who need them.
Whatever you do, keep offering the children empathy (separately and together). These are difficult times, and simply enduring with as much grace as you can muster is a win.
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Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach. She is also the author of “Parenting Outside the Lines” (Penguin Random House, August 2020).