A Policy for Reducing Tension When Children Won’t Share

A policy that helps children share

Photo courtesy of Jason Pergament
Photo courtesy of Jason Pergament

The policy I like best about helping children share disputed items is that the child who has the item gets to keep it until he's done. Meanwhile, the parent “helps the other child wait” by making sure he is gently held if he tries to grab.

The parent listens to the child's upset while he feels like he's never going to get his turn. The crying or tantrum drains the “I'm a victim” feelings, the “I never get what I want” feelings, and the “It isn't fair” feelings that often infect a sibling relationship, and turn it into a real power contest every day. All the parent needs to do is to listen to the feelings, and to keep giving the reassurance that, “You'll get a turn. He won't keep the red bike forever.”

This works in a few ways

1. As you'll see, the “unfairness” of Jasmine getting to the puzzle first today will let Jacquie work on her upsets, and Jacquie getting to the swing first tomorrow will let Jasmine work on her upsets. Cry by cry, both children have a chance to have your company and closeness while they work out their upsets about the other.

2. Gradually, over time, this helps siblings develop patience and trust that, even if they can't have what they want right now, they are loved and will get a turn later. You have children who love each other, and by listening, you're helping them move big chunks of negative feelings out of the way of that love. The fun will follow.

3. When both children are pulling hard on the same item, an unusual but very effective strategy is to put your hand on the desired item, too, and say, “I'm sure you can figure out how to share this. I'm not going to let either of you grab it right now. You can figure this out.”

Lots of crying and heated feelings will follow, and when one or the other child has cried enough to think clearly, a solution will appear. One child will decide to wait, or they'll begin negotiating with each other. It's so difficult to resist clamping a solution onto the problem right away!

4. Allowing them to cry hard about their heated wants will make cooperation far more likely. And you won't be required to keep the peace between them, once they've cried enough to come to their own solution.

We adults have been trained to try to solve the dispute quickly so the feelings will subside. It's an emotional challenge for us to take the unusual tack that the feelings are the real issue, not the disputed item.

When we listen instead of legislating turns, we bring our children some moments to feel loved while they feel sad or angry. This love and reassurance while they are upset sticks with them far longer than the five minutes of (usually defensive) fun with the toy, after which they are tense again over when they will get their next five minutes.

Here's how this can work:

My sons both love music, and have their favorite songs they like to play. One day, I came running when I heard screaming in their playroom. The music was on at a very high volume. I asked what the matter was, and each of them was frantic about the way he wanted the volume. One wanted it high, and the other wanted it low. They were both crying and screaming.

I wasn't sure how to help them, but I decided to see what would happen if they each had their way for a little while. I thought that if they could work out their feelings, then they would be able to come to some kind of agreement. So I said, “I think you can work this out between you. But first, I'm going to let you each see how the other one wants it. Jared, I'm going to turn the volume down, so Derrick has it his way for a little while.” I turned the volume down, and Derrick stopped crying, but Jared cried hard. He wanted me to turn it up immediately! I said, “No, I'll turn it up in a couple of minutes.” But I kept looking at him as lovingly as I could while he cried, so he wouldn't think I was punishing him.

After a few minutes of Jared feeling totally undone, I said to Derrick, OK, now, we're going to try it Jared's way for a few minutes. Here goes!” I turned the volume up. I stayed close and held Derrick while he cried and covered his ears. In my mind, I sided with Derrick, but the volume wasn't so bad that it hurt, so I let it be. Jared stopped crying, of course, and stood there listening intently. After a couple of minutes of Derrick crying and feeling like he couldn't stand the noise, I changed the volume again. I gave my attention to the one who felt awful. I think it took about three turns of two or three minutes each for them to scream and cry. Finally, when I turned the volume down, Jared didn't cry any longer. I asked him, “Is this OK now?” and he said, “Yes.” So I turned it up, and after a bit more of a cry, Derrick stopped and could stand to hear it loud at last. The emotions were taken care of, and I said, “OK, you guys. You can figure out where you want the volume now. You did a good job!” And I didn't have to control the volume any longer. They just fixed it and listened to their tape!



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