Before having multiple children everyone’s dream is surely for loving children to bond and be close for the rest of their lives together. But what helps this goal to be achieved? This blog helps parents to set a positive approach to encourage their children grow up together with a respectful, loving and happy bond. When having two or three children close together in age you can wonder whether they will grow to support each other’s differences and enjoy sharing in each other’s similarities in the many years to come. Whilst the outcome may be dictated by nature to some extent, gentle parents know that, with the right environment, every child can grow into the best person they can be. Being the best they can be individually opens them up to being the best together.
When I realised I would be a Mum to 3 so young, I worried about whether any sibling rivalry would evolve. I consciously considered what actions my parents took in raising me and my sister and worked out what they could have done better to encourage us to be closer. My sister and I were brought up to despise each other. We showed subconscious jealousy signals towards each other, belittling each other verbally and emotionally, we fought physically like cat and dog, we were disrespectful.
I did not find her supportive of my life circumstances one Christmas and it ultimately ended in a big family argument where I walked out. My mum seemed to be taking my sister’s side and nobody was considering my feelings. After I was back at my house, I called to check my dad was ok (I was close to my dad), and he was crying and said “your family will forgive you if you come back”. I didn’t go back, but it showed how little my dad could relate to my emotional needs too, stemming from his own childhood traumas. See my previous blog post about the importance of dealing with your own childhood traumas and steps in how to do so.
How To Improve My Kids’ Bond
I write this blog post in the context of my 3 year 4 month old daughter and her 20 month old brother and sister twins. I did not want the same sibling relationship to unfold for my children as it did for me and my sister. I wanted them to be thick as thieves, as close as hands and feet, together for the rest of their lives long after I’m gone. I wanted to help them build strong and loving bonds together. So how do we achieve this?
If you delve into the causes of sibling arguments, you often see big emotions at play. That can range from jealousy through to envy, preferential treatment by a parent, the expectation that the older brother / sister takes more responsibility or worse, takes care of their younger sibling. I strongly believed that, as a child, me and my sister hated each other. Now I realise we just don’t get on. I can see it even deeper now I’m not in contact with my Mum or my sister. The lack of genuine emotional expression being allowed in our house created a huge tension between us.
Since becoming a mother, my aim has now refocused away from how to fix my broken family and suppressing my agonising emotions, to allowing my babies to grow into authentic beings. The nature of gentle parenting, with its empathetic and kind themes, fully embracing emotional reactions, individuality and respectful behaviours, makes me feel strongly that my kids will not grow up with the same emotional hate that me and my sister did. I have consistently applied these gentle themes to my children, minus a couple of slip ups (hey, we’re all human!). I have written some steps below to help you encourage your children to be closer and have strong relationships.
Step 1 – Deal With Your Own Emotional Baggage
Acknowledging that we all have childhood traumas. They seep out of us unconsciously, without intention, and can have a huge impact on our kids. See my post about dealing with childhood traumas and emotions healthily. If you don’t, you could hurt your kids emotionally and your connection to each other, without even meaning to. It would be similar to my wonderful father psychologically hurting me that Christmas by essentially telling me I had to accept being disrespected for the sake of ‘family’ and not showing much consideration to the reasons for my emotional outburst.
Step 2 – Encourage Healthy Emotional Expression
This is also discussed in the above post about traumas, as it recommends steps to help you and your children express emotions healthily. I feel every little emotion that a child is feeling should be expressed and supported. Cheer at every authentic expression of anger, hurt, sadness, hate. You would not actually cheer, just an internal yay, my kid is free to feel and look how great they are at feeling!
Step 3 – Set Your Kids Up to Care Rather Than Hate
This is a key step. Try the following with your partner at the next opportunity. Start telling them about this blog you’ve been reading, really casually, as if this is going to be the most exciting topic in the world. Then gently say “…Right, so, close your eyes and keep them shut….” . This is the equivalent of you saying “Hey kid, here’s your breakfast.” Your partner closes their eyes willingly. Then you get a bit dramatic, like how they sometimes talk to your children when the kid is dolloping porridge on the sofa. e.g. in a slightly raised tone “No [partner’s name], you’re not doing it right. No, no, not like that. Why are you doing that?” They open their eyes and you straight away in a bold voice command “Close your eyes!”. Usually they do close their eyes, but they may be looking a bit angry and wanting to tell you where to go.
Now you switch to a gentler theme of talking, so once they’ve close their eyes after the above ‘no’ interaction, even though they have probably closed their eyes in the same way, calmly and gently say “Yes! Yes! That’s perfect! Just like that! Keep them just like that, great.”. You catch my drift? Suddenly you see your partner looking a bit confused, maybe, but more relieved they’re now doing it right according to your standards, even though they’re doing it the same as they did earlier.
This is the ‘The Yes Brain Child’ mentality, written in Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson’s book. This is definitely worth a read if you struggle with having a ‘no’ mentality towards your children. My first experience of the ‘yes brain’ was that I’d read early on to try and not say ‘no’. Instead to tell the baby / toddler ‘what they can do’. Rather than saying ‘no son, not on the sofa’, which has a negative vibe about it, you could say “ohh great use of the spoon, can you feed yourself with it?”. To the child, the last option sounds more like a challenge to achieve than a command to fail at. Over time, this type of talk fills your child with confidence that you believe they can and are able to do great things. Compared to the ‘no brain’ feelings that your partner will have had in the above closing eyes interaction of “What the hell am I doing wrong? All you said is close my eyes. Seriously!”
Step 4 – Allow Loving Interactions to Happen
It can be easy to fall into a trap of keeping young babies separated from each other in fear of them hurting each other. I decided to allow my newborn twins and my 20 month old toddler to have free access to each other from the twins’ birth, except in sleeping arrangements. My toddler was naturally so gentle and kind towards them, wanting to come and hug them all the time. From a young age with her we’d been teaching her gentle by saying “ahhhh” anytime she was interacting with us or an animal for example. So she was used to automatically responding gently when hearing us say “ahhhh”. I did a lot of ahhh sounds in the twins newborn phase, and it worked on the most part. Until someone sent to help me raised their voice at my toddler and insisted to me that she was going to hit one of the babies (I knew that she was actually going for a hug). My daughter had never had a voice raised at her before. She later that day started smacking the tiny baby twins.
I did not react well, from my own unconscious gut reactions. I knew I needed to seriously consider how to discipline and stop it happening, and the first part was acknowledging her emotions that the woman had not trusted her gentle instincts and shouted. That her Mum didn’t correct that woman out loud. That she felt the twins were to blame as if they hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have got in trouble for the first time in her life. If you need help in how to help your children in a situation like this, have a read of my post which includes very gentle ways to discipline.
At this stage I had the choice of separating them to keep the twins safe. For me, having 3 so young was overwhelming enough without having to try and consider how to make one not feel like I’m isolating them by sitting on another side of the room with a barrier in the middle etc. It did not feel gentle to me. Nor did allowing her to hit the twins though, obviously. I learnt to calmly protect my children by towering over them on the floor and blocking my toddler’s access. You could start to sense when she was going to hurt a baby so you’d step in with distraction before then.
Around all of these stressful interactions between my toddler and babies, I knew my toddler really adored her siblings and didn’t intend to hurt them. I began giving her trust by saying really quietly and calmly “would you like to hug your brother?”. YES! She would say with a big smile and I’d let her put her arms around him. I did this often. It encouraged the natural instinct to love and care come out in her, which had been blocked by that woman who had raised her voice at my daughter.
Gradually the smacking interactions lessened and I had several weeks without any. Now she is older, it is easier to see what emotion triggers any attempted hurt like that, but usually I see it coming so far in advance that I have already stepped in to make sure neither of her siblings get hurt. I feel much more relaxed at them sharing their time together even without me watching, as I know she shouts for help by following my techniques in the discipline post mentioned above.
Step 5 – Acknowledging Big Emotions and Openly Discussing Them
The main theme around all of this is to acknowledge what your children are feeling and showing empathy. Letting them consistently know that for everyone’s safety you won’t allow them to hurt their sibling. But what they can do next time. By allowing the two way communication to unfold with your children, they will not feel so angry / jealous / frustrated with their brothers and sisters. Their bitter signs of jealousy and hate will start to fade and soon you will see how loving they can be towards each other.
Step 6 – Not Forcing The Interactions You Want
There’s nothing worse than being told “say sorry to your sister!” or “why can’t you give her a hug rather than hit her?” or “come on you two, I’ve told you to snap out of it”. These sorts of reactions to your children’s strong emotional feelings will only make them feel shame and frustrated. They will still have their strong emotions there, but they will feel pressure to hide them from you. Like in my Christmas story, I felt so much that I had to either act happy or hide my emotions, that I had no choice but to leave altogether.
Instead I like to start most sentences involving things I’d rather them do with “do you want…” or “you can… if you’d like to”. Another way to encourage the behaviour for future interactions is to set the example. While I’m hugging a crying baby, I will just say “I’m sorry you got hurt, I’m giving you hugs to help you feel better” so that the child who hurt their sibling can see what to do to make up for it. So far my daughter hasn’t followed doing this yet, but she will say sorry and I have never told her she’s had to say sorry. She will sometimes say “awww do you want a hug, to make you feel better.”
Dreams Do Come True
I also feel an important aspect of parenting is what you say to other people. Many people ask the question “Are you a good big sister then? Do you take care of them / help Mummy?”. The last thing you want your child hearing is “Oh man, she’s a nightmare, only yesterday she grabbed his toy and screamed and hit him! I don’t know why she does this”. The messages your child is hearing through that small conversation with a stranger or family member will have huge impacts on your child’s own belief of how they should behave. If instead you say “Yes, she adores them, when they were born she couldn’t wait but climb into the cot to hug them” and the response of the other person of “oh isn’t that adorable”, all turns your dream of good sibling bonds into reality. After all, there is always some positive going on between people. Surely there is something you can draw out and praise rather than just mention all the negative behaviour.