When my husband is traveling for work I have to devise ways to keep my boys in line.  This means being proactive in how I approach their behavior.  I have learned that they need extra time, care and attention when dad is not around if I have any hopes of them being compliant.  The challenge of this is, since I am the lone adult in the house, I have less energy to give them this proactive time, care and attention.  I do my best, but some days I can’t physically handle it.  If this goes on for too many consecutive days, my boys let me know through their deteriorating behavior.  This is usually demonstrated in how they interact with one another.  It isn’t pretty.

When these ‘hard sibling days’ happen, I make sure I have a plan in place well before any altercations happen.  The key is to devise these plans when you are calm and your kids are actually getting along.  You can even write them down if you find this helpful.  For me, as long as I have a loose outline in my head of how I’m going to handle a spat between the boys, I am able to respond to them in a fairly calm manner.

Our week without dad had gone smoothly until about the fourth morning.  As I climbed the stairs I saw my boys were getting extremely frustrated with one another.  In the midst of the kicking and hitting, I noticed that they both were shooting glances up at me to see what I was going to do about it.  I know that what they really craved was my attention, but I didn’t have time.  I needed to finish some things up before we all got on with our day.

The first thing I did was remind myself that their fighting was a normal part of their sibling relationship  (see also The 20% Rule).  As soon as I acknowledged that this fighting is normal, it made it seem so much less life shattering.  I then explained that they had a choice, EITHER they continue to fight, be crazy and disrespect each other meaning they have to ride their bikes to school, OR if they wanted to get it together, calm down and be kind to each other, I would drive them to school.  I put the choice completely on them.  Notice I did not say they had to stop fighting.  I also made sure I stated these options in a calm tone and was fine with whatever choice they landed on.  By letting go of the outcome of their choice, I had freed myself up to continue on with my morning tasks.  This doesn’t mean I was excited about the thought of their continued fighting, but by letting go of it, I could move on.

They both stared at me and paused a moment.  I didn’t even wait around for what they did next, I continued my ascent of the stairs.  It’s important to note that over the years I have taught my boys that I mean what I say.  This is helpful to already have established before you implement an either/or choice.  I have accomplished this by choosing my battles carefully over the years, and making sure that when I stepped into the arena with them, I was the last woman standing.

By the time I reached the top step they had magically transformed into ‘best friend siblings’.  Make sure in an either/or choice to offer something that they find valuable as one of their choices.  I knew that a ride to school is a powerful incentive in this house.  However, if I am feeling generous and offer to drive them, by no means do I need to allow into my car screaming and kicking boys.  That is setting a boundary of respect for myself.  I value my sanity and therefore, if you want a ride in my car, you will also value my sanity by being quiet and respectful.

Here’s a rundown of the Either/Or Method:

  • Kids fare best when they are given adequate time, care and attention from us.  When this isn’t possible, they are going to try to get our attention through negative behavior.  This is normal.  You are doing a great job even when this happens.  I repeat, you are doing a great job.
  • Think of possible challenging behaviors and situations before they happen.  Devise an outline and action plan to deal with them when you are calm and clear-headed.
  • Whatever either/or you present to your kids, let go of the outcome.  It’s their decision so leave it up to them.  You are off the hook.
  • Work towards establishing you mean what you say.  It’s more effective to be calm in an either/or situation when your kids know you will follow-through.
  • Value yourself.  Set boundaries and show your kids that your thoughts and feelings matter.  They will learn to respect you if you show respect for yourself.

Keep up the hard work!  You already have my respect.

Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent