by Zeynep Biringen, Ph.D.
From the start, treat each of your children in a special way. With new additions to the family, continue to make your other children feel special and give them extra time and attention. Not having a favorite (stated or unstated) among your children is an important beginning. Differential treatment of siblings or preferences can lead to negative consequences in terms of the self-esteem of your children.
Often, favoritism can be unconscious, and so it takes a lot of soul-searching and open-mindedness to be aware of and then to work through the favoritism. Enjoying each of your children in different ways is not favoritism, but treating them in terms of a hierarchy in emotional closeness is!
Require that your children take corrective actions for any aggressions and not merely apologize.
Look to your own relational skills, or that of your spouse or your ex, to understand where your child might have learned bullying or being a victim. Adults are less likely to tolerate behavior in children that they tolerate in themselves or in their adult-adult relationships. It is as if adults have a license for such behavior that children have not yet earned. Remember that bullying is not always about getting into a fight. Bullying can also be more subtle -- put-downs, the cold shoulder, silent treatment, and constant criticism. Examine your child's network of relationships, including those with siblings, to understand and remedy the source of such problems.
Teach your children problem-solving skills (preferably, win-win problem-solving skills so both are winners). They can then work out a lot of their own problems by using tools of reasoning, knowing that there are alternatives, and most important that a dialog can go a long way. Just as you talk to your children, encourage them to talk to one another.
Encourage children to verbally express feelings rather than act out aggression and to express such feelings in a non-hostile manner. Encourage such non-hostile behavior by behaving in harmonious and fair ways toward the children rather than aggressive and bullying ways.
Teach your child to express his or her feelings in an assertive, not aggressive, way. Encourage your child to express his or her worries as well.
Encourage your children to engage in positive, cooperative activities together to build a positive and pleasurable repertoire in their relationship.
Encourage your victimized child to feel as if he or she can come and get you. Let him or her know that you will not rescue them, but you will help with the problem-solving that is needed. You might facilitate "making amends." Children feel cared for when they know a supportive person can be relied upon to help them solve their problems -- not solving the problems for them, but helping them figure it out themselves. Empowerment is the result. Don't do the work for one, the other, or the relationship. Be an available, non-intrusive presence who can structure life for your children in a sensitive and non-hostile manner.
Read your children's emotional cues correctly and work at understanding the cues of each of your children so you can understand by the look in their eyes what they are feeling. Show your children that you are emotionally connected and available to each of them in special and unique ways. If you have trouble in this area, try building your skills in this area by talking and playing more with your child. As you spend more time with your child, you will be in a better position to understand where he or she is coming from and will more easily read emotional signals and communications. As you get to know your child better, it will become easier to understand his or her emotions.
Nurture in each of your children and through positive interactions between siblings a sense of standards with respect to relationships -- inner standards of fairness, justice, kindness, empathy, and other aspects of morality in human behavior Also, show and describe to them "social causality," that is, "He did this because she did that"-type of thinking. Give them the words to their actions so you help them internalize such views of relationships, even very early on when they do not seem to understand it all. They will, nonetheless, be impressed by the labels, and you will get their attention.
Have playtime with your children, either separately if it is possible for you, or together, designating the "leader" for a certain period of time. Again, such designations are in line with fairness in relationships.
Take the responsibility to know if each of your children has his or her emotional needs met by taking the Emotional Availability Self- Assessment for each of them to see if each child is secure in his or her relationship with you. It is easier to resolve issues with these healthy emotional connections with you than without them. If the emotional connection with any of your children needs work, do that work simultaneously -- don't sidestep it, Take that responsibility!
Through your own example and through discussions with your children, help each of them learn to emit appropriate emotional signals (mostly positive) and learn to read others' emotional signals. For example, when a child frequently feels rejected by his or her friends, withdraws from interactions, and cannot talk about it for a long time (and these friends behaviors do not objectively seem rejecting and/or they try very hard to be inclusive), you might work with your child to try reacting in more appropriate ways, ways that match the intensity of the situation. Instead of sulking endlessly, she can be coached to verbally express, "Hey, I don't like it when you exclude me, so please try not to, okay?" and then move on with interactions, rather than being stuck in silent treatment.
Zeynep Biringen, Ph.D., is the foremost researcher on emotional availability in parent-child relationships. An associate professor at Colorado State University and a licensed child psychologist, she also maintains a private practice and consults for the courts and mental health professionals. She is the creator of The Emotional Availability Scales, the system for scientifically understanding parent-child connections, which is used worldwide.
Copyright © Zeynep Biringen. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.