One of my sisters has a little boy my son's age (both 4.) We were so happy to find out we were pregnant at the same time, but ever since they were toddlers, her son has bullied mine. I have an older child and also a baby, but my nephew is an only child and his mother lets him get away with things I wouldn't stand for. She wants to get the boys together to play, but I often make excuses because of her son's aggression. My sister feels criticized if I say anything.
Family dynamics can be challenged when adult siblings have children who have trouble playing nicely. Ideally, their parenting styles are similar enough to make it easy to establish rules and limits they both feel good about. But if one parent is especially sensitive, or one child particularly aggressive, it can be tricky to navigate without stirring up uncomfortable feelings. Here are my thoughts:
• Fortify the connection you have with your sister. Most of us feel criticized when people "crash our party," meaning they deliver advice we haven't asked for. However, when we feel liked, appreciated and enjoyed by someone, we naturally let down our guard and become more receptive to their input. Since a conversation with your sister about the boys' playtime is going to be essential if they are to continue playing together regularly, I suggest you start by strengthening the relationship you and your sister share so she is less likely to feel criticized when you bring up her son's aggressive tendencies.
• Spend time together apart from your children. Invite your sister to take a walk or have lunch. Open up to her in ways that let her feel your vulnerability so she is more likely to be comfortable being open with you. The more safe you make it feel for your sister to let down her guard, the greater the chance the two of you will be able to work together to make playtime for your sons a positive experience for them both.
• Acknowledge the positive. Harville Hendrix and John Gottman are both wonderful relationship experts who talk about creating a ratio of five appreciations for every complaint we deliver to our loved ones so that the overall feeling of the relationship is close and loving. What do you love about your nephew? What are some of the ways your sister parents him that you admire? If you sprinkle your conversations with your sister with positive remarks, she will be less likely to take your concerns about her little boy's behavior personally.
• Understand the roots of aggression. When two children are playing together and one becomes frustrated because he wants the other's toy, there are two possibilities: Aggression or Acceptance. One of the greatest gifts we give our children is to help them develop ability to accept or adapt when they can't have what they want. If we consistently cave in, or bend the universe to suit our child's preferences, we actually deprive him of developing resilience. But helping a child adapt or accept life on life's terms requires that child to feel sad. This may be difficult for your sister, but certainly worth talking about.
• Enlist your sister's support. After you have invested in strengthening the relationship with your sister, talk about your concerns in a non-judgmental way. "I really want our boys to be close, and I love that they can grow up together. But my son also complains that he doesn't want to play with his cousin because he is a little afraid that if he gets mad, he'll hit or push. What do you think we can do to make it fun for both the boys?" By enlisting her ideas, rather than telling her what she should do, she may feel more open to collaborating on a solution.
• Make it safe for tears. If your boys are playing together and your nephew gets frustrated with your son, help him feel sad. When frustrated children cry, they move more quickly to accept or adapt. Acknowledge what he wants, take him in your arms if he'll let you, and encourage him to feel the big feelings of disappointment. This proactive approach will help prevent aggressive outbursts.
Hopefully these ideas will help you and your sister become even closer as a result of working through your boys' challenges... and they, too will become better buddies as a result of your effort. Best of luck!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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