Help! My son, who is adopted, finds it difficult to regulate his emotions. Often, when playing with his sister, the play becomes loud, manic and unmanageable before ending in fighting and tears.
Sound familiar? Regardless of your family make up, sibling relationships can be tricky to manage.
Sibling relationships can be as influential to our development as our relationship with our parents. They can provide us with a reserve of support that can last throughout life’s inevitable ups and downs. For those parents who’ve extended their family they hope having a brother or sister will help their children learn social skills and communication. But underneath there can be a worry that the sibling relationship won’t be a positive one.
I mean, how could we not worry when conflict between siblings steadily increases all the way through to adolescence? The good news – or bad news, depending on how you look at it – is that often sibling relationships improve when children move towards more developmental equality as older teenagers.
Helping children manage sibling relationships and conflict is one of the toughest parts of parenting. The feelings can be H-U-G-E! The kids are angry and frustrated and parents feel caught in the middle, having to sort out the conflict again for the umpteenth time.
When we feel angry and frustrated, the speed and intensity of our heartbeat increases. This has a direct impact on our nervous system and our state. When we feel safe, our heart tends to beat steadily and rhythmically. When we feel like we are struggling our heart rate increases and when we feel like we are drowning our heart rate slows down. This change in our heart rates can have a profound effect on how we are feeling.
To play in a happy and safe way is sometimes exciting and children need to be able to manage some increased energy (like fight and flight) without letting it overwhelm them. We’ve all watched nervously as our children play peacefully trying to calculate the exact minute it will descend into chaos. Excitement can be too much and scary which can feel like it’s no longer safe and, therefore, no longer fun.
For any parent who is going through this cycle of meltdowns it can be exhausting and can make everyone’s heart beat increase, making everyone feel as though they are struggling. So, what can you do?
Start on flat terrain
Parents tend to know that their children have a limit. Neuroscientists refer to this as the vagal brake. Managing excitement is a little like teaching a child to ride a bike downhill – nerve-racking, frustrating, exciting and joyous in equal measure.
When teaching children to ride a bike, we don’t just push them off the top of the hill and hope for the best. We start on flat terrain and let them see what happens when they squeeze the brakes a little. Too much and they’ll flip over the handle bars, too little and they can’t stop.
Children eventually learn (with your help) that the brakes need to be squeezed just the right amount. Learning what ‘the right amount’ is means trial and error with jerkily putting the brakes on and off repeatedly. It is this on and off, trial and error which helps children get it right. The same is true for managing children’s excitement.
Play-based games and activities, like ‘Freeze’ or ‘Beanie Pass’, that introduce a little excitement and then apply the brakes, help children feel safe and allows them to experience and tolerate excitement without feeling like they are struggling. If all goes well, you can let the brakes off again. The more practice and support they get in managing their excitement without feeling overwhelmed, the easier it will get.
We know this a big area for many families and the conflict can make being a family hard. In response to requests, Beacon Family Services have produced a new set of play resources with games intended for families groups which are available from our shop. They allow for opportunities for mutual cooperation to lead to the success and enjoyment of the activity and build strong and positive family connections.
As a not for profit organisation we are committed to supporting our wider community and the work of the organisations we partner with. Therefore, we’ve allocated portion of the profits of each sale to support families who may not be able to afford therapy and a portion of the profits to support the work of AdoptionUK.
Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.