Debbie’s thirteen-year-old, Darren, is a poor behavior example for her younger children. She is constantly telling Darren to keep his hands to himself and let the younger children do things on their own. She tells him, “You’re not their parent,” because he tells the younger children what to do and tries to punish them.  The younger children get frustrated with the bossiness of the older child.  They don’t like how he is short with them and they whine at him to leave them alone or tell him “you can’t make me, you’re not my mother!”

In Debbie’s situation, there are three challenges:

  1. Younger children following a poor example
  2. An older child who is the poor example and
  3. An older child who corrects other children unskillfully

What is happening?

When there is group misbehavior, children who follow another child’s poor example may not know better. Children who do know better and lead or follow, are knowingly breaking rules. Your response needs to account for each.

Older children who supervise younger children can get in a no-win bind. They want to be responsible by correcting the children, but get in trouble because they don’t do it well.  This can be detrimental to sibling relationships.  Effective parenting is learned behavior; it is not instinctual. Children learn by observing parents and others or from actively learning more effective skills. Children who supervise or interact with other children (that’s all children!) need to learn effective “parenting” skills, because they are healthy communication and problem solving strategies they can use for life!

Prevent the problem by being a good role model – of proper behavior and correcting children:

  • State your bottom line and offer children choices within those limits. Use general terms that apply to all children and describe what you want them to do. Instead of saying, “You are too little to climb the tree,” say, “Children who can reach the first branch can climb the tree.”
  • Give only a few directions or rules at once. Describe the behavior you want to see or show them, explaining as you go. When letting them try it on their own, supervise closely the first time, then at a distance thereafter if they are improving.
  • Give specific directions, avoiding vague terms like “nice” or “good.” Instead, describe what this means, “We use gentle touch.”
  • Don’t give choices if there are none. “Do you want to come inside?” sounds like the child has a choice. Instead, say “It’s time to come inside.”
  • Get Eye-to-Eye Agreements. Ask, “Do you understand?” or “Did you hear me?” Avoid asking “Okay,” which sounds like we are asking if they agree with our request.

Do this consistently over time and with a variety of situations and you have set the stage to prevent all three problems.  Children are less likely to set a poor example or misbehave because they didn’t know better. Plus, you’ve set a skillful example for how older children can correct younger children.

Respond to group misbehavior or poor sibling correction skillfully:

  • Never single out one child for a reprimand in front of other children. The humiliation usually leads to revenge – against the parent or other children. Instead, address the whole group. For example, say, “I see three children jumping on the couch. I know at least one of them knows this is dangerous and that we sit on couches.” The “guilty” child knows who he/she is and isn’t humiliated by being singled out. Then redirect, saying, “It is a lot of fun to jump! You can go ____ and jump on ___ or sit on the couch.”
  • Avoid blameful words and the word “you” when correcting children. Say “I see _____” instead of “I see you ___.”
  • If the problem continues, follow through. Say, “I see you’ve decided to jump on the ___” or, “I see you’ve decided to sit on the couch.” The first option is easier, since the children want to jump.

If you believe it’s appropriate to single out one child, talk to the child privately:

  • If children don’t know better, teach them proper behavior using the skills above. Tell them to do what they know is right, even when other children misbehave.
  • If children do know better and are either setting a poor example or correcting the children unskillfully, first acknowledge and show appreciation for their willingness to watch the younger children. Then teach them more effective skills or offer on-the-spot coaching. Tell the supervising child, “If they are playing rough, give them a choice. Tell them, ‘Play gentle or we’ll have to stop and play something else.’” Or say, “If you don’t want them to ____, tell them _____.” For example, “If you don’t want them to throw water, tell them to ‘Keep the water in the bucket.’” (This uses my famous, guaranteed-to-work “Don’t Say Don’t” technique that flips negative commands into positive descriptions of desired behavior.)

It’s appropriate to view older children as our parenting “partners,” just as teachers, babysitters, spouses, relatives and neighbors are all your “partners.” You want to work cooperatively with all your parenting partners so your children receive quality care that is consistent with your parenting goals. In the short-run, your children will build better sibling relationships and get along better with their peers and in their early adult relationships. In the long-run, they will be highly skillful and loving parents to their own children — your grandchildren.

If you want more information and practical tools and tips for developing close relationships with your children, with open two-way communication and tips for encouraging healthy sibling relationships get the “Solving Sibling Strife” Teleseminar audio recording.  You will become equipped with the tools and techniques you need for preventing and resolving sibling conflicts.  Best of all, you will no longer feel like the referee in the middle, so click here to get the “Solving Sibling Strife” Teleseminar now!

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Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. Currently, she hosts the Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.org.

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