More Kids, More Conflict – How Can We Keep the Peace?

The parent of three young boys is struggling to deal with their demands and the conflicts between them. If she accommodates one boy’s wishes, the other two react with an opposing desire, jealousy, and fighting. She’s wondering how to cope with her situation when everything feels like a compromise. “Most of the time I feel like they’re either fighting with each other or fighting over me,” she says. “It’s exhausting.”

Transcript of “More Kids, More Conflict — How Can We Keep the Peace?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’ll be responding to a parent who can’t figure out how to stay calm amid the conflicting demands of her three children. She says, I find it hard to respect the wishes of an individual child when those wishes conflict with their brothers. Probably 90% of the time it was so much easier with just one.

Okay, here’s the whole question that I received on my Facebook page:

I need help managing multiple children. I love respectful parenting, but struggle to implement it consistently. I have three boys, two are twins age two, and one who is four. And most of the time I feel like they’re fighting with each other or fighting over me. I find it hard to respect the wishes of an individual child when those wishes conflict with their brothers probably 90% of the time. It was so much easier with just one.

Do you have any advice? Do you interfere with fighting or just let it be? How do you deal with jealousy? How do you deal with opposing desires? For example, one wants to play outside, one in the basement and one downstairs. Nothing is easy. Everything feels like a compromise. It’s exhausting.

Okay, so what I think I might be able to help this parent with is getting more perspective on her role and what life is like with multiple children. One key is to understand that ages two and four are both very intense emotional times of development. These are ages where children are sort of pushing forward, becoming more independent, and feeling that push-pull of still obviously needing their parents so much and being very dependent in some ways, but also wanting to be more autonomous, wanting to express themselves and their individuality. So it’s an internal struggle that goes on with children these ages, and it tends to be an intense time, even when there aren’t outside stressors happening.

And really, this can be true for children of all ages. I mean, obviously children will develop more emotional self-control as they mature. That happens in the brain, but children do tend to get easily overwhelmed by their emotions.

So what that means for parents is we’re not going to have three happy, quiet children that often, and it’s not our job to create that. Our job is to take care of our children’s needs as best we can and give them healthy options for play and food and sleep, and help them to take care of these actual needs.

But the rest of the time, it will help us to understand that it’s not our job to control conflict in the house. Instead, our job is to monitor it so that it’s safe, accept it, and intervene as minimally as possible so that children can learn the most from these situations.

And that also we can give that message, as consistently as possible, that we are a confident leader, that we can handle these three children. And if we feel like we can’t, it may well be that we are taking on this job that doesn’t belong to us and is really almost impossible to do. And that is: helping keep the peace all the time, helping everybody get along and get their way. It’s not going to happen.

And, in fact, conflict presents some very powerful learning experiences for children. That’s the benefit to having siblings. They get to explore conflicts. Conflict is a part of life and definitely a part of relationships.

I would try to look at this as a lot more positive than it might seem. Because these children have the opportunity to explore how to resolve conflict and all the different feelings that go along with social learning. Some are more pleasant in the moment than others, right? So there’s going to be fighting. There’s going to be arguing. There are going to be many, many moments throughout the day when one child isn’t getting their way. What they need from parents in those times is what even just one child needs in the home: a leader, somebody that will ultimately make the decisions that the children can’t make themselves. And a leader who can be okay with and accept and even encourage the children to express when they’re not happy with those decisions.

So we’re not expecting that everybody’s going to say, “oh, okay! That will happen sometimes. But more often than not, children will use these situations to express their feelings. And these feelings are what I was just speaking about a moment ago, that autonomy, “Well, wait, no, I don’t like that. I want it this way. This is who I am.”

And they want to be able to say, “I don’t want to do what he wants to do or what my parent wants me to do.” So, often these conflicts are representative of those important feelings and dynamics that children want to share about their burgeoning autonomy — becoming more their own separate person.

To survive this as parents, it will help so much if we can trust that the feelings are often not just about those specific situations, but what’s being brought up through those situations. And it’s healthy. The days are going to be rocky, and it will help us if we can try to keep our distance from it and trust, and not ride those waves along with our children, all the ups and downs of somebody’s unhappy, now he’s unhappy, now he’s happy, now he’s not. And now they’re yelling at each other.

We don’t want to use our precious energy to ride along with that and feel all those things they’re feeling and maybe feel like, Ugh, now things are bad. Now things are good in my day, I’m doing well. We can’t base our emotional life on what’s going on with our children, or we’ll be exhausted, and we’ll also be projecting that we aren’t comfortable as leaders. That actually makes these kinds of conflicts a lot worse.

We want to try to find that place in ourselves where we can perceive this all as healthy and we trust it. That’s the most important thing.

And then from there, we’ll talk about some of these details that she brought up…

So she says she has three boys, they’re all boys. My husband is one of six children, and four of his siblings are also boys. There was a lot of physical fighting between them. He always says, “You know, that’s brothers.”

Obviously we don’t want our children to hurt each other, but the way that we respond to that physicality with children is going to set a tone. So if we’re rushing into everything and saying, “Don’t do that!” and “Don’t do that,” if we’re micromanaging that way, that’s going to set a tone that ends up feeling even more chaotic for the children and feels less safe.

But if we can come in knowing that, yeah, stuff is going to happen between them, they’re probably going to get hurt in minor ways… We’re not going to ignore that, but it will set a much more peaceful tone if we can see the bigger picture, coming in like it’s not an emergency.  “You know what? I think that’s a little too strong.” “Oh, looks like you could hurt him there. I’m not going to let you do that.” “Hmm, you know what? I have to stop you here. Yeah. Looks like he doesn’t really want that.” Or,” Hmm, this is going a little too far, you guys, I’m going to stop you.”

That kind of response will be far more effective than, “Hey, what are you doing? Stop! Don’t! Hey, you can’t do that. No, don’t hit him!”

This calmer, more minimally interventionist tone gives children a sense that we do trust them overall, and we don’t think that they’re going to cross lines all the time. And what happens when we trust people, it encourages them to be at their best more often than not.

If we’re constantly doubting them and thinking they’re doing things wrong all the time, whether that’s somebody we’ve hired for a job or it’s our child, then that tends to be more what we get.

So putting that trust out there, just stopping when it gets too rough. Not blaming either child, because it might be this guy one time and another guy that other time. And even if it seems like it’s always this guy, both children are learning something. And as long as that less domineering one isn’t getting hurt, we want to encourage them too, by not victimizing them. So that neutral approach to the children’s conflicts goes a very long way. And even that child who does seem to be the “victim” in that situation very well may have done some things that led up to that conflict, because that’s what children do. They’re driven to learn from each other this way.

Not taking sides, not trying to be the referee, just being there to take care of the big stuff, and maybe helping to interpret what’s going on if children seem to request that we do that. “Oh, I wonder what made that happen?” “Oh, you wanted that?” Be that mediator, be that coach to all the children. I know it is challenging sometimes, but that’s the direction I would try to head in.

This parent says, “I find it hard to respect the wishes of an individual child when those wishes conflict with their brothers probably 90% of the time.” Yes, as I said earlier, there’s a reason for that, a developmental reason that children need to say, “this is me.” Even if maybe they want to be doing that activity that that the other brothers want to do, there’s this part of them that still has to say, “no, no, I don’t like that. I don’t like ice cream cones. I like cake.” Because I need to be me right now. Try to trust that.

I would totally expect that their wishes are going to conflict with each other. And that’s not a problem, per se.

This parent says “it was so much easier with just one.” Well, that’s true in many ways, but in some ways it can actually be easier when there’s more than one, because it’s easier for us to get to the place where we let go. Hey, wait a second, I can’t keep everybody happy. We get that realization sooner, and maybe we can give that dream up because we clearly see that it’s just not going to be possible with three children.

With one, we can fall into trying to keep our child happy all the time, even if that means that I don’t really want to play with you, but okay, I’ll play with you because there’s not a lot to ask of me and it’ll keep you happy. Or, ah, I set a boundary and now my child’s crying. So as as a parent, I can’t say no to what I was saying no to because now I’ve upset my child, I need to fix this. And if I just give in, I could make it better.

We can get caught up in all that when it’s actually healthier with one child to still have ourself in the relationship as the leader and be comfortable with our child disagreeing with us being in conflict with us and being unhappy with our decisions, and sometimes very vocally or tearfully unhappy with our decisions.

But with three, we can get to that point much sooner where we realize” we’re not going to make it unless we let go of this. So in a way, it is maybe clearer and easier when you have multiple children, plus the fact that they have this really positive learning experience at their fingertips. It’s just there all the time: exploring those relationships and conflicts with other children. It’s a gift if we can see it that way.

So then this parent says, “Do you interfere with fighting or just let it be?” As I was saying before, I would mostly let it be, unless it looks too rough, or there’s hitting going on or hair pulling or something like that. Then I would come in, but still striding in as calmly as possible with that neutral tone. Not getting mad at anybody, but noticing, “oh, hey, that’s a little too rough. I don’t want you to do that to your brother.” That kind of attitude. So we’re blocking them with our hands while we say these things when we do need to intervene.

This is effective because it’s preventative of everything escalating even more when we don’t charge the situation with our own discomfort. And it’s just as effective in the moment ending those conflicts, if not more so than charging in and yelling at everybody and micromanaging.

So mostly we’re going to want to trust that this is normal stuff. And I would let the children know, “Hey you guys, if you ever need my help, if you’re stuck in something you want to get out of, call me. I’ll come in.” And then you come in and you’ll stop what needs to be stopped very effectively and as calmly as possible and as comfortably as possible. And you’ll notice and help them interpret, “You didn’t like it when he did that. So that made you want to hit, right? Maybe you could tell him instead, next time just say ‘no,’ because as you know, I can’t let you do that. It’s not safe, so I am going to stop you.”

It’s not so much teaching them the rules, because generally, even at this point with two-year-olds, they do know the rules. They know they’ve gotten caught up in doing something that’s against the rules and they don’t know why. That’s the impulsive part. So I wouldn’t keep reiterating, “you’re not allowed to hit, no hitting.” Not that it would be really wrong to do that, but it’s not really seeing what’s going on. What’s going on is, “Ooh, you are getting a little carried away here. You guys are getting a little carried away. You seem angry and I need to stop you.” That’s really seeing our children. We want to try to have some intimacy, even in these situations, where our child feels, oh, my parent gets where I’m at. They don’t need to take me aside and tell me again what I already know, which is that I’m not supposed to hit my brother. They know I know that already. They see me.

So instead we’re saying, “whoa, whoa, whoa, ooh, I’ve got to stop you.” And maybe if things are getting really out of hand, “do you need a break? Do you need a breather? Need to come with me in the kitchen for a bit?” That kind of helpful attitude.

Children’s impulses will get the better of them. And then in this case, they’ve got each other to kind of bounce off of. And yeah, they’re going to charge each other up. It’s bound to happen. So normalizing this for ourselves, letting go of a lot of it, not riding those waves and those ups and downs with the children or taking it personally or taking sides, but being that leader that has that little bit of distance in these situations so that we can preserve our energy and our own emotional state and know that we’re being a good parent. We’re being the best parent when we’re seeing our work as setting a tone.

So then this parent says, “How do you deal with jealousy?” Well, I would acknowledge it. So if one of them says, “I want to sit on mommy’s lap right now,” and maybe one of the other children is already sitting there, I would say…  I would acknowledge that. “Whoa, you really want to sit on my lap too, when your brother’s doing it, I hear that. I’m not going to let you right now though.”

Just letting that feeling be, not trying to fix it, not trying to say something to make it better or make it all work for them.

If this other child was there first, let that child sit with you until they’re done. That’s a great message to give them. And we don’t even need to go over that part. “Well, he got here first,” because that’s even a little bit trying to talk our child out of the feeling to see our side of it. We’re trying to explain: “Well, he was here first. Don’t you get that?”

It can feel so much better to a child when we welcome them to share: He’s there, but I want to be there too right now. Jealousy. It’s just this feeling that washes over us. And the feeling doesn’t always make sense. It’s not reasonable. And it can be invalidating if we say, You shouldn’t feel jealous because this person was here first.

Instead, letting that feeling be seen and heard and accepted and acknowledged, and we see it. We even put words to it. “You want to be here, and I’m with him right now. It’s hard to wait.”

That’s how we help children not to act out their feelings through behavior. And when we really show our children that we’re comfortable seeing all those dark feelings that they have and that it’s okay for them to have those feelings and that it’s so normal, and they will pass through the feeling, that helps children to go on and actually even care about each other a little more. Because we’re not pitting them against each other. Everybody’s got a valid point of view, valid for them in that moment. It may not make sense, may not seem kind, but it’s valid.

And when we can say all those things that we don’t like that are going on, and that feeling can be safe to be shared and then cleared, that’s how we get to: well, you know what? There are other things about this sibling that I do like. They come to that when they’re able to say, “I don’t like this.” They get there on their own.

So it’ll help the three of them to have a better relationship when they’re all allowed to not like each other and not be happy with each other and not love everything that’s going on.

I know how easy it is for us to get caught up with the jealousy and the opposing desires that this parent mentions, all of that. And how we can feel like, ah, it’s my job to please everybody and somebody’s not pleased. But that’s going to be a very frustrating job.

So instead, be the leader. Know that you’re going to need to make a lot of these decisions, and try to do so from a place of confidence. Yeah, we’re going to get blasted because children do need to blast out those feelings sometimes. Not because we made the wrong decision, but because they needed to express themselves anyway. And that’s probably why they pushed for that agenda. That happens often with children this age. So this is a big part of it, and it’s just another reason that we can trust the feelings and even the behaviors as they come while helping children stop them as needed.

Another question this parent asked: “How do you deal with opposing desires? For example, one wants to play outside, one in the basement and one downstairs.”

In moments like that, we’re probably going to have to be the one to decide where we want them to play, what works for us. And you might want to share a little bit about what made your decision for you, but I wouldn’t feel like you have to explain it too much or try to make it make sense to children that just want to express their point of view and their dissatisfaction with the idea.

This parent says, “Nothing is easy.” Yes, but I believe it’s a lot easier when we don’t expect that “easy” and “good” means everybody’s got their way and everybody’s happy because that’s just not going to happen.

This parent says: “Everything feels like a compromise. It’s exhausting.” Yes, it’s exhausting because this parent is riding those waves with them, with all their feelings and their unhappiness throughout the day. So we’ve got to get some distance from it.

Or if you like this imagery, anchor yourself. Find what imagery works for you, but hold on to yourself as the leader that is doing the right thing. That is heroic, especially when there’s somebody unhappy about it and you’re able to be okay with that.

So everything feels like a compromise because this parent’s trying to make everybody happy. So we want to give that up and then we’re not going to be so exhausted. We’re not going to expect anything to be all happy and smooth.

And one of the many ironies of parenting is when we don’t expect it to be smooth, that’s when things seem to flow a little better. And then you know what? There will be times when everybody’s happy. So let that be a happy surprise. Everything will run more smoothly when we let all those feelings flow while we stay the leader.

I hope that helps. And I want to let everybody know again, that for just a couple more weeks, you can pre-order my No Bad Kids Master Course, all the tools you need to make respectful discipline and empathic guidance your own. And there’s a big discount if you buy the course as a pre-order. So please go to my website, janetlansbury.com or you can go directly to nobadkidscourse.com to check out all the details.

Thank you so much again. We can do this.