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Sibling dynamics can be complicated! And the way we parent the interactions between brothers and sisters often looks different than how we would handle the same situations in a playdate, daycare or school setting. In today’s episode, I am joined by Dr. Emily Upshur and we’ll help one mom who asks for advice on how to understand and respond to her kids when they’re fighting.

We’ll offer mindset and behavioral shifts you yourself can make, break down the psychology of sharing, and help you set appropriate developmental expectations of your children. Plus, we’ll help you reframe the situation to turn these tough moments into opportunities to help your children hone their empathy skills.

Dr. Emily (00:00):

If you have nothing in your tank and you really are just so exhausted, say a process statement of what’s happening with both kids. You’re really upset cause you want the toy. Your brother is really upset and he used his body and hit you. Even if you just do that, you’re much better off.

Dr. Sarah (00:23):

Are you feeling more like a referee than a parent these days? If you have more than one child, chances are you’re dealing with some issues around sibling fighting from time to time. Siblings experience a relationship that is unlike any other. And the ways that we parent that really needs to be equally unique. This struggle is just what one mom was feeling who wrote in looking for guidance. She asked how to respond to her kids who are always going at it and provoking each other. And she was worried about being fair to each of her kids and wondering the best way she can address this. Joining me again today is Dr. Emily Upshur. She’s my partner in our joint practice, Upshur/Bren Psychology Group in Westchester, New York, and she knows everything there is to know about sibling fighting because she is a mom of three herself.

Dr. Sarah (01:05):

So today we’re going to talk about why fairness might not actually need to be your ultimate goal. We’ll also talk about the psychology of sharing and appropriate developmental expectations to have of our children and actually how sharing and developmentally appropriate sharing happens a lot later than you might think. We’re also going to get into how we can see the silver lining of the situation and use these tough moments to teach our children empathy and attunement. We’re also going to cover some behavioral shifts that you can make yourself as the parent and some parenting traps to be aware of things like not letting birth order dictate your expectations, offering an alternative solution, instead of simply saying no. And recognizing the importance of allowing your child to feel ownership over items that belong to them. So while this may not be the last time you yell, please be nice to your sister – hopefully we’re going to give you some tools to get through your kid’s next blowout.

Dr. Sarah (02:06):

Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained from my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune in to your own authentic parenting, voice confidence, and calm. This is Securely Attached.

Dr. Sarah (02:40):

Hi, I’m so excited that Emily Upshur is back with us today to answer some more of your burning parenting questions. Today we’re going to answer a question on sibling fighting, specifically how to deal with sibling fighting without making one child feel like you’re siding with them. This person who wrote in says that they find it to be a really big struggle because their son loves provoking and teasing their older sister who gets really annoyed. And then once her patience is done, she can start pushing or slapping him. And this mom wants them to have the space to solve their own issues, but obviously can’t let them slap each other. So she’s wondering if we have any strategies for supporting these two kiddos and siblings in general. So Emily, what are your thoughts on this?

Dr. Emily (03:32):

Great. I mean, this question as you know, comes up so much. And I think my first response always goes back to, you know, figuring out how to equitably deal with your children in these moments is really tough because I actually don’t think that’s the goal, right? Each child is really different. And not everything has to be totally equitable. That doesn’t mean it’s not fair, right? We have to work out situations that are fair and solutions that are mutually agreed upon, but we really have to dispel for parents that, you know, everything has to be, you know, square right down the middle, you know, so-and-so did, so-and-so so so-and-so gets a punishment or, you know, those types of very black and white thinking around punishment. Does that make sense?

Dr. Sarah (04:20):

Yeah. Punishment or even maybe permission, like not just this kid did this, so this kid needs to get this happen to them. But also they have this, I want this much too, or we all need to have the same turns or the same amount of time or the same thing.

Dr. Emily (04:40):

Right, exactly. Cause I mean, I think in these moments, we’re, we’re thinking, how can we dispel what’s going on? But I think again, and I know it’s hard for parents to think of these moments like this, but I think it’s, how can we teach our children to have better emotional intelligence, read their environment, have a sense of the other person in the interaction. Like this is an opportunity for us to say, Hey, you know, your brother’s really fussy today. So usually he would share the crayons with you, but today not so much, right. He’s been a little off since he woke up really early this morning. And beginning at a very early age to sort of help children, attune to other people is a really valuable lesson.

Dr. Sarah (05:25):

Yeah. And I think in order to attune to another child as a child, I think that the child who we are asking to have sort of attend to the needs of the other child or empathy for the other child, has to first feel really validated and seen. So to say, you’re really frustrated that your brother did this, or you really didn’t like that. He pushed that down when you were working on and it kind of felt like he did it to make you upset. That didn’t feel good. And then offering that perspective taking, I wonder if he’s having a rough time right now. I wonder if he’s really tired today or he’s been kind of cranky since he woke up. Huh? What, like, especially if we’re dealing with like, you know, a toddler and a sort of like, almost toddler younger sibling. Like that one, one and a half year old, that really is a bit of a wrecking ball, but isn’t doing it to be, is not doing it to be provocative. But the older toddler sibling is going to perceive a lot of their kind of chaotic behaviors as provocative or on purpose.

Dr. Emily (06:31):

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a great point. I think labeling the unfairness, like it is unfair. Right. You know, it is tough. And even saying, you know, it’s so tough to have a little sibling sometimes. Like, oh, I get it. They just wrecked some things and they, you know, they don’t even mean it, but you know, they like to put things in their mouth. They like to knock things over and you like to build things. Ugh, that feels really hard. You know, I don’t think we have to tiptoe around that it really isn’t fair sometimes.

Dr. Sarah (07:02):

Yeah. And I think that sets the stage, especially when we’re talking about, I mean, this is certainly something you can apply to older kids as well. But I think when you’re doing this with really little kids, it sets that stage for distress tolerance, empathy perspective, taking emotional intelligence, all these really wonderful things that, you know, if we plant these seeds early by kind of using these conflict moments as an opportunity to like coach our kids not solve the problem for them, but really coach them in being in the feelings and navigating that with another person who also might not be figuring out like who’s, you know, their skills are just coming online and you know, or not there at all. And I think with like older kids, you know, you can take this same approach of validating, that really upset youthat your, you know, your sibling, you know, dumped out your backpack and took out your pencil that you were looking for. And now you’re frustrated.

Dr. Emily (08:04):

Yeah. Yeah. And I think that leads a little bit into, which is sort of a natural transition for this is like, is birth order really? And I think there’s a huge burden, you know, I’ve obviously, you know, I have three kids and there’s a huge burden on that older oldest one to really be an example setter. And that can be tough. So I think validating, like I know you’re always the oldest. I’m always asking you to wait. I am always asking you to be more patient, validating in those ways. Birth order is really important as well.

Dr. Sarah (08:36):

Yeah. Cause it’s hard cause they, not, every kid is going to be able to want to hold that responsibility. Sometimes they’re just like, I don’t want to have to be the one that has to be the big kid right now. And again, like we can’t change that for them. That’s that like equity thing, like we can’t always make it feel unquote fair or equal. And that is a frustration that we all have to learn to tolerate at some point or another in our lives. And for us kind of validating and also modeling how it’s done can be really empowering for a kid.

Dr. Emily (09:12):

Yeah. And I think that that leads into a little bit about, we like to emphasize what they can do in these situations. Right. We really want to frame out, not just don’t do this and don’t hit your brother and no, no, no. It’s sort of like in the baby little baby, you’re saying no all the time doesn’t really help prevent the naughty behaviors, right. Or the unwanted behaviors. If we say, you know what you can do, you can stomp your feet. You can squeeze your fists. Whatever is socially appropriate in your family. Right. You can yell into a pillow, you can go find a grownup. Those are all things you can do. You can use your words. You can, you know, tell a friend, ask a friend for help. There’s different ways that I think, you know, with grownups and children, as well as siblings and, and then also in other environments where we can say, here are the, here’s a toolbox of things that you can do. We’re not just going to reprimand in these situations. We want to empower children to know, okay, here’s what I have in my toolbox of coping strategies for difficult interpersonal exchanges. Those are big words for little kids, but it’s really, how do I deal with different situations? And we want to show them things they actually can do and are at their disposal. And we have to repeat that over and over and over and over again, until it really gets, you know, patterned into their back of mind reactions, you know?

Dr. Sarah (10:42):

Yeah. And I think to piggyback on that is that yes, you want to repeat it over and over and over again. And not just in the moment when it’s happening, like to do these kinds of debriefs afterwards and say, oh, you got really frustrated. You got really frustrated with your sister earlier. And I saw that and didn’t feel good. What can you do next time? How, how can you ask her to not do the thing that you didn’t like or ask her to do the thing you wanted her to do to get the result you want without hitting or without, you know, pushing and, and helping them think about the things that they can do in cooler moments. Talking about things that kids can do to resolve conflicts and to regulate their emotions and to get their needs met when they’re playing, like with toys, like, you know, almost like acting it out with toys when they’re having fun and it’s just a light time. There’s a lot of ways that we can introduce these skills. Yes. Sometimes in the moment, but also outside of the moment,

Dr. Emily (11:40):

I will say, I love the idea of practice in cooler moments. So I’m, you know, notorious for saying strike when the iron is cold. So I do think of course we don’t want to ruffle feathers when everybody’s playing nicely, but with an older child in this scenario that has chronic, you know, sibling little or sibling coming in and doing stuff, it is okay for you as the parent to role play that out with the older child. You know, what if I came in and knocked over all the blocks, what are some of the things we talked about that you could do and let’s practice? I know you can do it, let me see, let’s see, let’s practice. And so I think that that definitely, if this is a pattern in your house and you’re feeling really at wit’s end and it’s happening quite frequently, practice practice when it’s not in the moment practice, when your child’s in a nice, good mood, they’re not tired or hungry, you know, do a little bit of role play as the grownup being the toddler and the, your child being themselves.

Dr. Sarah (12:38):

Yeah. And even in addition to the role play, practicing, practicing through preparation. So, you know, I think, you know, we’ve talked about this before, when Emily, you and I have talked about this before in the context of like play dates with other peers. But also I think with siblings is okay, your, you know, your little brother or your, you know, maybe your siblings coming home from a play date soon, they’re going to be back and they’re going to want to, you know, come into this space. Is there anything you want to put away before they get here? You know, is there anything you would like to put somewhere safe that you don’t feel like sharing right now, or that you don’t want them to take? Because understanding that our children, you know, the skills that they use with peers is important and it’s great. And, but it’s also slightly different too, than the skills they need with their siblings, because they don’t get a break from their siblings. That kid’s not going home at the end of the play date. Like they have to learn how to tolerate each other in and around each other’s space in a much more intensive way. And sometimes that’s hard, really, really hard for kids.

Dr. Emily (13:42):

Yeah. I mean, I think, I think that touches upon a really good point, which is sort of dovetails off of our, my original thing, which is not everything has to be fair and equal, right. There can be toys that are precious to one of the siblings that let’s put those in a basket and put in, in the closet, you know, before your sister gets home from camp, right. Or, you know what, let’s make a family rule that stuffies precious stuffies are off limits for the other person. That’s okay, too. Right. Everybody has their own rules around those types of things. We want to give them that reassurance. And ultimately it does breed flexibility, although it doesn’t might seem like that from the, from the go. But giving them respecting and validating their need for that territorialism, as you say, you know, is really, it is very important. And we wouldn’t expect as an adult to share our most precious things with other people. So it really is an important thing to say. It doesn’t have to be totally, totally equal. You know, we want you to be able to love and respect and have possession over some things.

Dr. Sarah (14:53):

Yeah. And I think it’s a little controversial to say this, but I really do believe that the best way to help kids learn how to share is to not make them share and to give them permission to own things that are theirs. That doesn’t have to be given up. And that to honor the fact that it’s developmentally appropriate for kids to feel territorial about things. It’s developmentally appropriate for kids to not feel like sharing something that they’re working on or using, or have an attachment to. And also, I think this is an important part because I think it’s, you know, we’re talking about, oh, a prize lovey or something, very brand new and very special, right. That I think as parents, we can wrap our mind around a child, not wanting to share that and being okay with that. But sometimes our kids get really territorial about things that we’re like, why do you care about this?

Dr. Sarah (15:46):

This is like a chewed pencil. Like this is not important. Just give it to your sister. And I think we have to remember that, you know, children attached to things in ways that are very unique to them and that we may not be able to understand. And they, it’s almost as though they really unconsciously projected a part of themselves onto these objects at times. And they can be things that we don’t think are, have any value, but have value to them. They can be things that are really transient. So they might have a moment where, you know, this Kleenex, I need this, it’s mine. I don’t want to give this to you. And then two minutes later, they couldn’t care less about it. But in that moment, they’re not making it up. It’s important to them in that moment. There’s a part of themselves that they have attached to this object and it can be transient or it can be permanent, but it can be something that we don’t, we don’t get why they care about this thing.

Dr. Sarah (16:42):

So just, I guess, to be mindful as parents, not to be the one who decides what qualifies as something precious to our kids, but to allow them to define what’s precious to them. And so if they don’t want to share something they’re using it, or if they feel attached to it to sort of say, that’s yours right now, and you can use it. And this is a phrase I use in my own kids is you can use it until you’re all the way done. And then when you’re done, your sister can have a turn. And then I actually kind of attend to my daughter, or the child who’s not getting the thing in that moment and have an opportunity to say, you really want this and they’re using it right now. And that’s hard. It’s hard to wait and then sort of validate that experience, help them cope with that distress and then offer ways to help them problem solve. Like what else could you play with while you’re waiting? Versus forcing the child who has the thing to give it up, because I do think that can breed more territorialism and even sometimes resentment, that can be dysregulating for kids.

Dr. Emily (17:45):

Yeah, no, I think that’s, I think that’s a really great point and I love that. We say we don’t get to name the value of the object, right? Because then we get into a rational war with an irrational subject. And I think that’s really, really, unhelpful, you know. We want to avoid that as parents all the time. And then I do think that that works also well for all kids of all ages. But I think one thing I, I also say quite often, particularly as your kids just get a touch older, is that sharing isn’t developmentally appropriate until way later than you might think. You know, that’s early elementary is when they really have the cognitive capacity to stretch, to share really taking turns is where I go with this. And I think it’s not your turn. And, and sometimes, just for a little bit of concrete tips that I think we can offer parents is – I’ll say, you know what?

Dr. Emily (18:41):

Everybody has an iPhone these days, or a smartphone put the little timer on your smartphone. It has a visual countdown, which is very important for kids who can’t tell time. Right? So it has a circle that counts it down and it closes itself. And it’s really important to say like, okay, let’s, let’s negotiate. What do you think is a good number for a turn? You know? And I’ll collaborate with each of the kids to say, like, what’s a good number for that. Okay. Three minutes. Okay. Deal. Deal? Deal. Right. And we all are on the same page we put on the timer and that really helps a lot.

Dr. Sarah (19:16):

Yeah. What age would you say that would be a tool that you could start using that with?

Dr. Emily (19:21):

I would say even so, as you know, parallel play is really common in the preschool age children. I would say, even instilling, so I do want to touch upon, I think it’s, I think it’s something you can instill in that preschool age very easily. I do think it’s important to touch upon something that you’re touching upon, which is sibling relationships and peer relationships are different. And so I think you got to play with some of these techniques at different times for different intentions. The timer intention can work for home, but it certainly is going to work at school where, or preschool or camp or a play date where it’s harder to say, you can have this until you’re done with it. You know? So you want to have those moments where you practice tolerating the other person, having it until they’re done with it. But you also want both parties to practice giving it up when they’re not entirely ready because that’s a social goal that all kids are going to have to learn to do.

Dr. Sarah (20:20):

Right? No. And I think that goes into this idea of being flexible as the parent and not necessarily following some prescriptive quote unquote rule versus having I myself (we’re talking about kids having tools in their toolbox) but I, myself as a parent have a lot of tools in my toolbox. And I know when to use the screwdriver. And when do you use the hammer and when to whatever, like if there isn’t just like, oh, these two kids want the same thing at the same time. This is the thing I do. But to be able to be a bit more flexible, a bit more attuned and try different things, depending on the energy in the moment and how much bandwidth you have as a parent to sit with their discomfort. Like if you’ve had a really long day bust out that timer, you know, like you don’t want to just don’t have the energy to kind of sit with the distress of having a child really waiting and wanting. And although that is okay. And at times, if you do have the bandwidth to do that, it’s helpful. I think for both kids to practice that experience as well. So it’s really about being a flexible and attuned parent too. And knowing what you can do in the moment and what you could try another time as well.

Dr. Emily (21:32):

I think that’s extremely important. I always say, let’s not enter into these more teaching moments when we’re not ready. If you don’t have time, you know, sometimes you don’t have the time or your tank is a little empty. I think if we give parents one take home, it’s if you have nothing in your tank and you really are just so exhausted, say a process statement of what’s happening with both kids. You’re really upset cause you want the toy, your brother’s really upset and he used his body and hit you. Even if you just do that, you’re much better off than if you are separating and yelling and screaming. And you know, all the things that as parents we know we do all the time. If we’re to practice just a bit, just saying what’s going on, you know, is a really valuable intervention because it labels the effect, it contains the situation and it lets everybody know that we know what’s going on right now. It’s okay. We might not be able to solve it immediately. We might not be able to co-regulate to the best of our ability at that moment, but we’re all know what’s actually happening in this moment. And that’s really important for kids to understand themselves, understand the other and really ultimately to self-regulate.

Dr. Sarah (22:46):

And I think that’s so important, important for parents to know you have permission not to fix everything. You have permission for your kids to be upset with each other. You have permission for there to be a little chaos without necessarily jumping in and adding to the chaos because you think you are required by some social rule to parent everything. And I say parent in quotes there because I really think we’re always parenting, but there’s this sort of the verb like to parent is something that like, I don’t know where that came from or why it’s become such a thing, but there’s so much pressure on parents to parent. And it’s like, sometimes our presence is actually enough naming what we’re observing and letting our kids know we’re here. We see. And that’s it, is fine.

Dr. Emily (23:35):

Definitely. And I definitely, I think to that point, even just self-regulating for yourself as the parent, you know, that’s also a valuable intervention, even if you’re not even doing a ton for the child or the children in those moments, you know, if you don’t lose your cool, I give you extra points. Right. And so these are, these are, yeah, these are really important. Sort of changing of the expectations so that we can be more kind to ourselves and then be a more, available, you know, person for our families.

Dr. Sarah (24:11):

Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes it’s like, I mean, sometimes I’ll just say, wow, it’s getting hot in here and that’s it. I don’t, I don’t do anything else. I’m just like, yep, you guys are frustrated with this. I think you’ll figure it out. I’m here. You know, I don’t, I don’t necessarily, and it can get loud and they can get frustrated. And as long as, you know, no one’s like smacking each other. I sometimes just let it ride. I think sometimes if I’m like, I don’t have the bandwidth and I’m going to get angry and I’m going to yell, this is going to be a longer issue. This is going to get even more escalated. What can we do to deescalate? Sometimes it’s just take a step back.

Dr. Emily (24:54):


Dr. Sarah (24:55):

Oh my God, this is all such really helpful and useful ways of thinking about supporting siblings with their inevitable conflict. And then also supporting parents because sibling conflict is like overstimulating and exhausting and frustrating. And so it can be dysregulating for us too. And it brings up all these issues of like parental pressure to have children who are loving and getting along with each other at all times. And that’s, I think such an unrealistic expectation for, for families. Like that’s just not, that’s not realistic and it’s it doesn’t that, that sort of, that icon of like that perfect little family that never gets into fights is I think really damaging to the reality of families.

Dr. Sarah (25:41):

So, all right. Let’s, let’s recap a little bit on the things that, that we talked about today to kind of give you guys some takeaways, one, this idea that everything has to be equal for siblings, either that we, as parents think that on some level and feel like it’s our job to make sure that they all feel that that’s happening or that our kids feel that way and we might have to do a little bit of work around educating them around what fairness is. And that it’s not always everybody getting exactly the same thing. And that sometimes things don’t feel fair and that that’s okay too. And we can all tolerate the feelings that come with that experience. Cause that’s hard. We talked about, you know, having developmentally appropriate expectations of our kids when it comes to their ability to, and desire to and tolerance for sharing and you know, whether that’s that they can’t comprehend that concept, whether it’s that they’ve attached sort of emotionally to an object and are feeling really territorial, whether it’s about a relationship between them and a sibling and maybe they need some permission to have ownership over something and not necessarily have their sibling, you know, interrupt that ownership and that moment. And, and really giving parents permission to sort of decide how they want to respond and having a flexible set of tools so that they can, they can respond in the moment in the way that fits the situation best without feeling like they’re stuck having to do a certain thing that they’re quote unquote supposed to do in this moment.

Dr. Sarah (27:21):

How do you think, did we recap it well?

Dr. Emily (27:23):

Sounds great.

Dr. Sarah (27:24):

Thank you so much for coming, Emily. And we’ll see you again soon.

Dr. Emily (27:27):

Thanks so much for having me, Sarah

Dr. Sarah (27:37):

Thanks for listening. This episode was all about the interpersonal relationship dynamics between siblings and the way that we can address that as parents. But what if your child actually starts hitting, biting or spitting? There’s so much more to cover and Emily will be back for a whole new episode about how to handle the situation when your child gets physical with their big emotions. So stay tuned for that.

Dr. Sarah (27:57):

And if you’re a second time parent with a new little one or one on the way, having an understanding of the foundational framework of the psychological and neurobiological development of your child can help you to feel more equipped to handle both of your kids and navigate their new sibling dynamic. If you want to arm yourself with this knowledge to help you feel more confident and connected to your children, understanding what really makes them tick – check out my new virtual course, The Authentic Parent. In this six week guided course, I’ll break down the psychological principles of brain development, behavior, relationships, personality, mental health, resilience, and more.

Dr. Sarah (28:35):It’s comprised of video modules, interactive exercises to apply what you’re learning right away and access to a non-Facebook community network. Plus live weekly coaching sessions with me! By the end of this course, you’re going to be able to calmly and confidently respond to any problem that arises, connect authentically with your child and truly enjoy parenting. The weekly coaching sessions are intimate small groups of no more than 12 families to ensure you get personalized attention. But because of that, enrollment is limited. So sign up now for the waitlist and you’ll get exclusive early access to register for the course before the cart opens to the public. To learn more about The Authentic Parent and sign up for the waitlist, go to drsarahbren.com/tap that’s drsarahbren.com/tap. Thanks for listening. And don’t be a stranger.



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19. Navigating sibling fights: Q&A with Dr. Emily Upshur