Q I find my sister’s children very hard to be around. They are four and five years old and they are so badly behaved.
They fight all the time – hitting and kicking each other, and sometimes my children too. When we go to restaurants, it is chaos – they won’t sit down and behave.
I have a three-year-old and a six-year-old myself so I am aware of how hard kids can be, but I have taught my kids how to behave and they do. She never disciplines her two. We are all spending Christmas together – Christmas Eve, Day and Stephen’s Day, and I know it will be ruined. Can you help?
A There are a lot of dynamics and feelings at play here. As I don’t know what type of relationship you have with your sister, this may or may not work as you know how she will receive it. What I’m suggesting is to open a non-judgemental conversation with the right tone and intent to see how she feels about it and to ask her how she is doing? To kindly ask if she is finding it hard going and to take it from there.
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Asking in a supportive way, what has she tried or how is she finding it? I strongly suggest not giving any unsolicited advice as it will only bring defensiveness to the conversation. Parenting is tough enough, without thinking that other people feel like you are doing a bad job.
Tiredness and exasperation make parents short-fused and overwhelmed to the point where they may feel somewhat helpless. This may come across to you as indifference. I could be completely wrong here, as you know how the kids are, but it is useful to explore the feelings coming up for you at spending three days with them over Christmas.
You may have very different parenting styles, and it is very normal to feel deeply vested in your own chosen approach. I’m not going to say you are lucky with how your children behave, as this is most likely from all the work you are putting into your parenting. However, it is so important to remember that not all children are the same, as with adults. You may recognise this if you have to parent your own two differently. Many parents’ efforts come to nothing if the child is having none of it.
It’s dangerous to tread on other people’s parenting, particularly that of your sister, so tread carefully and kindly. I’d imagine she is very uncomfortable about them fighting and feels embarrassed with her kids’ behaviour in comparison to yours.
I wonder how similar or dissimilar you and your sister’s personalities are? As Jeffrey Kluger said the job of the second-born is to be the complete opposite to the first-born. How did you get on with your sister when you were growing up? Sibling relationships are immensely intense as kids, how is the relationship now?
It can be more than hard to be on equal footing as sisters as it’s so common to jump straight back into those childhood roles, especially at Christmas. What roles did you play as kids within the family? Have those roles changed now?
It can feel at odds when your adult sister and you, have changed, but it’s still so hard not to see them as the kid they were. This can bring up a lot of unresolved childhood issues that can play out in the next generation and play out through the kids.
I’m going to gently tackle a feeling that seems to be present here, and that is of judgment. If I’m sensing it, I’d imagine your sister possibly is as well. Children have their own mind, personality and temperament. There are many parents who are literally pulling their hair out trying different things to get their kids to behave but fundamentally the relationship is a complex one built up of many different factors and influences.
One of the key challenges parents face is accepting the child they have, over the one they would like. This is always heightened in public if they act out and old family norms quickly flood back in with how they ‘should’ act.
There can be a lot of parental shaming that occurs openly and subtly. I’m not saying this to you, but fundamentally being a parent hits straight to the core as so many ask ‘am I a good mum?’, or ‘am I messing it all up?’.
I love the concept of ‘connection before correction’; children don’t have the ability to regulate their emotions they need to be taught it. An amazing gift would be to connect back with your sister and to check in with how she is doing.
Set boundaries and clear limits for yourself and your family and take breaks when you need to. A quick 20-minute walk can re-set some much-needed head space and peace when the heat of watching other children fight with the frustration of not being able to intervene is more than taxing.
What would it be like to connect in with your sisters’ kids? You could take one of them away for a nice chat as often the fighting is a bid for attention. ‘Time-in’ works wonders on calming small brains and helping them calm back down.
There’s always a possibility for change, we change more collaboratively when it feels like support. I really hope it helps as it would be lovely to enjoy more moments of this Christmas.
Savour the good ones, and get out for as many breaks as you need when it gets too much. I’m not so sure a calm Christmas exists in any house with small kids, but a wonderful Christmas is a connected one. Wishing you and yours a very Happy Christmas.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at [email protected]
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