On a recent holiday we had seven children ranging from four years of age to 14 and it was fascinating to watch them when they were in a group with no adult in sight. They all just got along, the little ones trusting the big ones, the big ones caring for the little ones, no-one whinging, whining or complaining, everyone playing happily together – until an adult came along!!! Now how does that work?
I have a theory about this strange occurrence and what happens to the group chemistry when an adult is added to the mix. Suddenly there is a power play taking place and the children start vying for attention – your attention. Each wants to find a way to stand out so that you will notice them and fill their emotional cup. Things like this start to happen almost immediately:
- one child will hurt another
- someone will say something to upset another
- someone will have an accident
- someone will tell tales
- someone starts to whinge
- someone is suddenly desperately hungry or thirsty and can’t begin to help themselves
Sound familiar? When you figure out this pattern and understand the reasons behind it, it becomes more amusing than irritating. Another perfect example of this is the tantrum-ing two year old who stops yelling the minute you leave the room only to start up again as soon as you come back into view. Often children behave badly for our benefit, either to manipulate us or to get our attention. You need to be wise enough to know the difference.
Many parents complain that it’s no fun playing with two siblings of different ages because the kids just squabble or interfere with each other, making play difficult. For the most part playing with both children at the same time shouldn’t be a problem, but it becomes one if they are competing for your attention. If this is the case, you have to work out why the interfering child is needy. Are you giving them the right kind of attention emotionally? Have you been extremely busy and not overly present recently? Are they tired, thirsty, hungry or bored?
You will be amazed at how attending to these basic needs can bring harmony into your family life. And do give children the opportunity to play with each other without your constant supervision.
You can watch from afar, but as soon as you get too close you observe how you can upset the balance. Don’t take this personally, it is normal. Children need to be empowered by being able to create their own mini-societies from time-to-time. They set rules – lots of them, and there is a natural ability and desire to get along, to help and care for each other, to make things workable and to have fun. So, from time-to-time, get out of their way and let them learn – from each other!
See the activity list below for some pointers and ideas of how to manage a testing child – they all go through stages and phases of being more difficult – so if the going is getting a bit tough, read on……….
1 – 5 years
- Keep them busy. There is nothing better than the art of distraction for a child who keeps getting themselves into trouble. Create a bit more excitement here and they won’t go over there. This is an under-utilised parenting strategy.
- Don’t talk, play instead. Sometimes physical rough and tumble that is fun, non-competitive and non-threatening, enables children to let off steam in a safe way. We underestimate the healing power of play – the natural language of children. Playing a simple dice or card game can create a ‘conversation’ without words and can build a bridge during a difficult time.
4 – 18 years
- Take a second look. Instead of nagging the testing child all the time, try taking a second look and make an effort to find something to praise. Catch your child doing something right or find a reason to recognise their positive qualities instead of routinely crushing them which is so easy to do when you are in a negative, downward spiral.
- Don’t compare siblings to each other. When a child is going through a difficult patch, it’s easy to compare them to their siblings, but this can drive a wedge between them and sometimes it’s a wedge that will never heal. If siblings are clearing the table well and stacking the dishwasher competently, then give the testing child a completely different job so that you are less tempted to compare them.
- Choose your battles. Parenting expert Rob Parsons, founder of Care for the Family says that Colonel Custer’s last battle was courageous, but it was his last! “You can fight the goldfish battle, the untidy bedroom battle and the towel on the floor battle, but if you are on their back all the time you will never know when something really bad happens in their lives, because they won’t tell you!” What an amazing piece of parenting wisdom! You can’t fight all battles all of the time, but you must fight some – pick them wisely.
- Create togetherness adventures. Even if it is just camping out in your own garden for the night together, it is out of the ordinary, fun and creates a memory that you can chat and laugh about over and over again. Togetherness adventures are bonding experiences that money can’t buy and they can break down walls and barriers between warring parties too.
Creative parenting expert, inspirational speaker and co-author of Tech-Savvy Parenting (Bookstorm, 2014), Future-proof Your Child (Penguin, 2008), and Easy Answers to Awkward Questions (Metz Press, 2009)