This month we’ve been talking about our strong-willed kids and how they affect other relationships in the family. This week we get to talk about something that I feel is really, really important. If you have a strong willed child and other kids that are easier going in your home, you might see that there can be a negative effect on the other kids. This isn’t because a strong-willed child is bad or they are the root cause of all the problems. But a strong-willed child can be challenging to live with and can take a lot of their parent’s attention.
Today we’re with clinical mental health counselor, Mike Fitch to talk about some of the big concerns that he is seeing. Then he’s going to guide us through some things we can do to resolve those concerns.
If you are looking for some ways to “Childproof Your Marriage” go here.
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Mike Fitch, CMHC
Unfortunately,this topic is not addressed enough. I think parents are so focused on dealing with their strong-willed child that they have a hard time focusing on their other kids. They’re so busy putting out the fire in front of them that they aren’t aware of who’s dying because of smoke inhalation. We know that it is A LOT, but it is so important to make sure your other kids have what they need to be healthy as well.
I not only deal with this professionally, but I also deal with it personally. I have a child with high-functioning autism and one with cerebral palsy. It is so hard to make sure ALL of my kids are having their needs met.
What issues do I see and what do I recommend?
Issue #1 Your other kids aren’t getting as much time and attention as your strong-willed child
I see this a lot with my clients. One child takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and attention so the parents don’t have any left for the other kids. I know that as a parent of a strong-willed child, your time is limited. So I want to share how to use what time you have in a really effective way.
Years ago, a man named Gary Chapman found that humans “speak” love and “hear” love in five different ways. He calls these the “Five Love Languages”. You can learn all about the Five Languages here.
But the main idea is that you need to find out what how your children speak love and hear love. Some kids really feel loved when they get a hug and other kids hate hugs! Some kids really feel love when they’re parent says nice things about them and other kids don’t care so much about compliments.
You need to discover what love language your child speaks, then use that “love language” often. If your child REALLY feels love through physical affection, you’re not going to buy them a gift to show them that you love them. Rather, you are going to find a time to snuggle.
If you learn your child’s love language and use it, it can help them feel deeply loved in a shorter amount of time. This can help you compensate for how much time your strong-willed child is taking.
When you have little snippets of time, use it wisely by speaking your child’s love language.
To take a quiz to find out your child’s love language, go here.
Another thing that I recommend to my clients is for each parent to find a little bit of time to be one-on-one with each child each week. Meaning, if you have two kids, both parents take time to be one-on-one once a week with each child. Parents eyes always get big when I say this. I know that you are all busy and that it is asking a lot. But the little bit of one-on-one time, when used well, can make a HUGE difference for your child. They can feel really important and loved.
Make the most out of your one-on-one time by doing something called “Play Therapy”. Play therapy is a well-researched type of therapy where the child gets to be in charge of the activity and the grown ups get to just play along with the child.
At home play therapy is a way for parents to connect deeply and quickly with their kids of ALL ages.
Here’s a quick overview of how to do at home play therapy:
- For twenty minutes a couple of times a week, go somewhere in the house with your child where you can be together one-on-one.
- Let them pick the activity you are going to do (for a younger child, this could be playing with a toy. With an older child this could be watching their favorite YouTube videos or listening to their favorite music).
- For the entire twenty minutes let your child lead the activity. You DO NOT take charge ever (unless they’re doing something dangerous)
- Your only jobs during this time are to be present in your child’s world AND to “narrate” what is happening like a sportscaster narrates a sporting event. For example: if your child is building something you would simply say “Oh look, you’re putting those blocks together” or “You really like this video”.
Why at-home play therapy works:
It helps your child feel special to you and SEEN by you. It also helps your child feel safe showing you what’s important to them. That creates a special bond between you and the child.
Play therapy also helps parents. During the play therapy session, you get to just enjoy your child. You don’t have to tell them what to do or what not to do. You aren’t focused on their negative behavior. Rather, you just get to see how beautiful they are. It’s also kind of relaxing. Grown ups don’t take a lot of time to just relax and be in the present. This allows you to do just that.
NOTE: To listen to a whole podcast episode on at home play therapy, go here.
Issue #2 Personality conflicts between the strong-willed child and their siblings
The next issue that we run into is that there are personality conflicts between the strong-willed child and their siblings. They’re having a hard time playing together or bonding with each other because one is easier going and the other one is strong-willed. This can lead to aggression, yelling, arguing, bullying, or tears.
It’s understandable that this is an issue for our other kids. Imagine that you’re forced to share an office with somebody you don’t like or is overstimulating. Now imagine that you never get a break from that person for hours on end. That’s often how children feel, even if they love each other, they annoy each other.
It’s incredibly normal for siblings to not get along. In fact, I would say that siblings get along maybe only 50% of the time. It can be even worse when you have the mix of strong-willed child and a easy-going child. Hopefully, they will grow out of this as they age, but I do have some suggestions to try in the meantime.
First, check out here for suggestions on how to handle sibling squabbles. Then come back next week for a post/podcast on how to foster positive sibling relationships.
Every child needs to have a sanctuary, a place where they can go where they can get away from their sibling. I prefer that to be a bedroom. I know sometimes kids share bedrooms and that’s kind of difficult. However, you can still arrange to have one child in the bedroom and one child not in the bedroom from time to time during the day. If you can’t use their bedroom, find another place in the house that can be their sanctuary.
But wherever you choose for their sanctuary to be, know that it is a place where your child can go when they need a break. A place that is safe and calm. It is so critical that each of your children feels that their HOME is a safe place. You don’t want your child to feel like they have to RUN AWAY to feel safe.
You may want to consider letting your child have headphones or earplugs in their sanctuary so they can totally block out the stimulus of their strong-willed sibling.
Issue #3 I want to help my “typical” child understand my strong-willed child. How do I help them know that their strong-willed sibling isn’t bad, their just strong-willed?
I think it’s good to help “typcial” children have a better understanding of their sibiling’s strengths and weaknesses. But it has to be done in the right way. You don’t want your typical child running around telling his friends that his older sister is oppositional defiant or has ADHD. Rather, you want your “typcial” child to understand how to interact best with their strong-willed sibling.
I would suggest using very simple language with your strong-willed child’s siblings and phrasing things in a positive way like this:
“You know how it’s really easy for you to make friends, but hard for you to do math? Each person has things they’re really good at and things that are harder for them. Your sister is really good at ______ but struggles with _______. Can you be patient with her while she works on getting better?”
Make it clear that EVERYONE struggles, but that everyone’s struggles are different. Also, share that you’re working with your child to help them become better at the things that are hard for them.
Please don’t share sensitive personal information with your child about their sibling. Only share the bare minimum amount of details. Your strong-willed child could be really hurt if their personal struggles became public knowledge.
Issue #4 My strong-willed child can treat my other children really poorly sometimes
It is normal for ALL siblings to treat each other poorly from time to time. In fact, I tell parents to expect their kids to get along half of the time and to not get along the other half of the time.
That being said, I think that families are a great place to practice good interpersonal skills. With siblings that bug each other, you can teach them about healthy boundaries, walking away from someone who won’t leave you alone, and conflict resolution skills.
Once again, go to our post/podcast about solving sibling squabbles. In it, Jeff Tesch, LMFT and dad of six, teaches conflict resolution skills for siblings. Wouldn’t it be great if your kids to could learn how to apply conflict resolution skills at home? Think how prepared they would be for the real world!
Teach all of your children about healthy boundaries. This is a great chance to teach them that they don’t have to let someone mistreat them!
Have a little family meeting and have each child write down things they are OK letting others do to them and things they aren’t OK letting others do to them.
I am OK letting others ask me for turns.
I am OK sharing.
I am OK with someone playing kindly.
I am not OK with someone yelling at me.
I am not OK with someone hitting me.
I am not OK with someone calling me names.
After they’ve written their list. Discuss what they can do if someone does something on the list of things they are not OK with.
If someone yells at me, I can ask them to stop, I can walk away, I can tell a trusted adult.
It’s important for our kids to understand that they don’t have to let others mistreat them and what action to take when someone does. This will help them at school, at work, and in other relationships.
Last, after you’ve let them write their list and discuss responses, let the family role play different scenarios. This is a great way for everyone in the family to learn how to treat each other without pointing at one child and saying they are the problem. It’s also important for kids to practice so that when a situation happens in real life, it will be easier for them to respond in a healthy way.
The other benefit to this solution idea, is that if the strong-willed child mistreats their sibling and the sibling walks away from them, the strong-willed child will eventually want to change their behavior so their siblings will play with them. We call this a natural consequence. Natural consequences are excellent teachers.
Issue #5 My strong-willed child’s behavior is creating a negative feeling in the home.
If you have a strong-willed child you are probably dealing with anger, defiance, disciplining, back talk, emotional outbursts, and more. This can be hard for the other kids in the home to be around, especially if you have a child who is really tender-hearted.
It’s good to be aware of the emotions of your other children. It can be hard for them to live in a home where there’s a lot of negative feelings. Here’s some ideas of what to do:
You can have one day a week where you take the strong-willed child out of the house on a date or on errands with you. This gives you some alone time with that child AND allow the other kids to be at home without any tension. It is so critical that your kids feel peace AT HOME. You don’t want them feeling like they have to run away to find peace.
You may want to rotate who you take out with you from time to time so that your other kids get to run errands with you as well.
Allow your kids to invite friends over to the house. This can be a way that they can be in their own home, doing their own thing, and feel joy in their own environment.
Warning from Mike Fitch, CMHC
This isn’t an issue that kids are sharing with me but one that I see as a therapist…
I see parents oversharing information about the strong-willed child with their other kids, almost parentifying their other kids.
It is important and healthy to keep information that parents should know away from the ears of the kids.
Here’s a couple reasons why:
#1 The information could put an unfair amount of stress on the shoulders of the other child. Your kids don’t need to know what negative choices their siblings are making. They are not old enough to handle that information. I have seen kids in my office that are experiencing stress beyond their years because their parent confides in them about things they shouldn’t’t. Adult information needs to stay with adults.
#2 Sharing private information with your other kids violates trust. You may have a strong-willed child, they may be really hard, you may need someone to talk to, but sharing information with a child’s siblings violates trust. You need to keep confidential information confidential.
If you need someone to talk to, find a trusted adult friend or a therapist. I have some clients who come in once a month just to vent to me because they know that I will keep the information private.
#3 The information you share with your other children could cause them to dislike their sibling. That can lead to the destruction of a sibling relationship. It is important for siblings to be able to love each other and support each other. That is harder to do if they know information about each other that they shouldn’t.
So if you are having a hard day or a hard time with any of your kids, PLEASE DO NOT SHARE THAT INFORMATION WITH YOUR OTHER KIDS! If one of your kids punched someone at school, don’t tell their siblings. Talk to another adult for ideas and to vent, but don’t share your children’s mistakes with their siblings.
If you are struggling with this issue, don’t be afraid to seek out professional help. I have a lot of people who see me a couple of times just to get a little bit of advice as a parent. All they need is a little bit of coaching.
Also, consider reading this book. It’s letters written by kids who lived in homes with siblings who were high-needs siblings. They share what it was like to be in their shoes. I think it’s an important book to read because it gives parents insight to what’s going on in their kid’s minds and hearts.