My kids have been erupting into physical fights a lot this past week and I just can’t stand it. This is a picture of the cause of most of their fights this week. That’s right, it’s a pinwheel, bought at a big box store for $1.99. Pinwheels are awesome and I have two kids who love pinwheels. So why did I only buy one of them?!? I’m not sure but I asked that question aloud so often this week that my kids would sometimes stop fighting and say, “ya mumma, why did you buy us only one?!” For my own sanity, I should have bought none at all or two of them. I blame this “mistake” on my attempts at minimalism mixed with my sometimes idealistic approach to parenting; “By buying one, my kids will have the opportunity to play together and perhaps work on their negotiation skills”. Ha. Not this week.
A Facebook friend, Sarah Rosensweet, is a Toronto-based parenting coach and she regularly does workshops on this sort of thing. The other day she asked her FB friends “What is your biggest parenting challenge?” I responded flatly with “sibling fighting”. Sarah (with an emphasis on “sweet” in her last name Rosensweet) said “That’s so hard!” and provided a link to her blog post on sibling rivalry.
Sarah’s tips were things I do and promote; empathize with your children’s feelings, stay neutral and help them if they need it, connect with your children as a preventative measure, and help your children connect with each other. Recognizing that I already “know” this, I needed to reframe. My Nonviolent Communication (NVC) reading prompted me to view the fighting as an expression of unmet needs… Sometimes they just don’t know how to navigate a situation and need my help finding the words to negotiate with each other. And my kids have been amazing with the arrival of the baby but I cannot fill their buckets the same way that I could when there were only two kids. OK. I could see that I am not able to meet their needs as easily as I used to and their fighting is an expression of their unmet needs…but why was it bothering *ME* so much?
I reread Sarah’s response. It was such a simple expression of empathy – “That’s so hard!” I lingered there, realizing I needed more of that. I started to realize that even if I recognize their need for love or support, I am not always able to meet it and that is hard for me! Their fighting reminds me of my challenges as a mom to three young children and of my own unmet needs. In fact, when they are fighting, I actually add to the problem by yelling my need into the mix; “Stop fighting! I can’t stand all this fighting!” And then I try to use my parental power to dominate the situation to stop the fighting. Oh goodness. That’s not what I want. I need some empathy and I want to stop the cycle of fighting, power, and domination.
If I were a little more NVC in that moment I would say “When I hear you fighting I feel frustrated that I cannot meet your needs!” or “When I hear you fighting I feel overwhelmed because I need a break and there is no one here to give me a break right now.” Or “When I hear you arguing, I feel irritated because I need quiet to put the baby to sleep. I can help you better if she is asleep.” I kept going; identifying my needs and sometimes making the requests I wish I had thought of in the moment. I started to soften. The shift in my mind was unexpected. With enough self empathy, I wasn’t triggered to throw my needs into the ring when both kids were loudly, violently expressing theirs. I could see my children’s fighting as simply an expression of their needs. I wasn’t pulled into it on that level anymore. Once again, I found myself saying things like “I hear your need for ____. I will help you ____ (now, as soon as the baby is asleep, after I finish peeing, tonight when Daddy gets home, etc.) Just identifying their needs aloud made them feel heard, and even if they were not resolved in the moment, that verbalizing on my part drastically cut down on their fighting, which triggered me less and we began to move out of the fighting/yelling/domination cycle.
But how did our loving, peaceful parenting, bed sharing family get there? Well, although our new baby is wonderful and we love her completely, it has been a huge adjustment for everyone, especially me. She’s a new little being with her own set of needs, thrown into the mix of a regular random expression of needs from my two other little beings who count on me to help them navigate, understand, and sometimes meet their needs. Another part of the challenge for me is that the fighting simply exists. I reread Sarah’s first line of her blog post; “Sibling rivalry is so hard for us as parents- even though it’s perfectly common and normal.” Hmmm…sibling rivalry is common and normal. I want peace in my home and peace in my world, but when I am struggling with my own needs, I become reactionary and revert to old habits (of yelling, commanding, domination). My “Stop fighting!” reaction was only reinforcing the very thing I was trying to move past. I bet this yelling under stress is a common reaction to people like me who are new to positive parenting and I can see why my kids are doing it.
Dr. Riane Eisler’s work has been on my mind lately. All of us are saturated in a culture that teaches us to use power and domination to meet our needs. Without love and empathy, we fall into that old domination script when our needs are unmet.
But we don’t have to. I thought about Sarah’s words to me “It is so hard!” Just a little bit of empathy from Sarah was all I needed to bring me out of that cycle. Marshall Rosenburg would say that’s what every parent needs, every child needs, every one of us needs to move towards more peace. More soft places where we don’t have to fight to get our needs met. It is so hard and yet it’s also so simple. And freeing. Parenting is our children’s first environment, their first exposure to culture. If I want a more peaceful world, it’s important for me to start with myself.
So, lesson to self: Identify my own needs and empathize with myself so I am able to help others. This is how I spread peace in the world. Got it. Again. At least until next time my needs are high and I forget. Oh and always buy enough pinwheels. 😉