June 25, 2021

Fresh Take: Dawn Huebner on Sibling Rivalry (And What Parents Usually Do Wrong)

Dr. Dawn Huebner’s latest book is The Sibling Survival Guide: Surefire Ways to Solve Conflicts, Reduce Rivalry, and Have More Fun with Your Brothers and Sisters, which gives kids the power to "stop feeling so bothered and start having more fun."

Dr. Dawn Huebner is a psychologist, parent coach, and the author of 10 books for children, most of which we have on our bookshelves at home. Her new book is The Sibling Survival Guide: Surefire Ways to Solve Conflicts, Reduce Rivalry, and Have More Fun with Your Brothers and Sisters, which helps kids acquire the skills they need to get along with their siblings.

Dawn believes that sibling rivalry is best quashed by the kids themselves, not by parents coming in to settle scores. She tells kids that they truly have the power to "stop feeling so bothered and start having more fun."  In this episode, Dawn explains the difference between treating siblings fairly and treating them equally, the difference between tattling and telling, and how our stepping out of the role as referee can lead to a seismic shift in how our kids get along.

Follow Dawn on her Facebook page and website: dawnhuebnerphd.com

and get The Sibling Survival Guide here: https://www.dawnhuebnerphd.com/the-sibling-survival-guide-surefire-ways-to-solve-conflicts-reduce-rivalry-and-have-more-fun-with-brothers-and-sisters/


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FT 32 Dawn Huebner Transcript

Amy: Hey everybody. Welcome to Fresh Take from What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood. This is Amy, and today we're talking to Dr. Dawn Huebner. She is a psychologist, parent coach, and the author of 10 books for children. Including the bestsellers “What to Do When You Worry Too Much, What to Do When Your Temper Flares, Something Bad Happened, which provides support for children learning about problems around the world; and her newest book, The Sibling Survival Guide: SUREFIRE WAYS TO SOLVE CONFLICTS, REDUCE RIVALRY, AND HAVE MORE FUN WITH YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS, which speaks with warmth and humor to children struggling to get along. Welcome Dawn.

Dawn Huebner: It's nice to be here.

Amy: So this guide it's for kids. It's interesting to me that we're putting this in children's paths. You can be in charge of this too, kids getting along better. I have always thought of it as something I had to sort of force on them parentally.

Dawn Huebner: Yeah. You know, there are a number of really good books for parents about dealing with sibling rivalry, but surprisingly few for children. Especially in this age group, this is for nine to twelve year olds. So you know, there are resources for young kids who have a baby joining the family, a new sibling joining in that way, but really not many books for kids who are school age, elementary school age, about what you do with pesky brothers and irritating siblings, brothers and sisters that you have trouble getting along with.


Amy: It says right in the beginning of the book that this book will help kids stop feeling so bothered and start having more fun, which I love that phrasing because it, who doesn't want to have more fun, right? Why do kids fight with their siblings? Is it to drive us nuts? It feels that way.


Dawn Huebner: It does feel that way. And that's not really the goal. Although sometimes it is about trying to get parents' attention and favor, but, you know, I think there are a few reasons. One is just proximity. So kids are together a lot. And anyone that you're with a lot can start to wear on your nerves. We all I think experience that, and another is that kids are sort of vying for power within a family. And so they often try to put their siblings down or just kind of assert dominance over siblings. And I guess the third thing I would say is that it's entertaining, right? So it can be fun to get a rise out of your sibling. And some kids bother their brothers and sisters for sport. And, you know, clearly we want kids to learn other ways of entertaining themselves and having fun, but it's important to recognize that is one of the motivations for kids.


Amy: My sister has four little boys and she was just telling me about this. When I was last with them, watching them chase each other around their backyard, that one of them was like, stop, stop. And he was laughing and running. And she said, see, he is a full participant. He is welcoming being chased and watch what’s going to happen, you know, in 30 seconds. And then of course, who comes around the side of the house, mom he was chasing me and she said, well, I kinda saw you saying stop, stop, but laughing and running away. I saw that first 90% of that interaction. So don't tell me that, that wasn't something that in some ways you welcome. And right? They’re like sort of bear cubs, tussling is what they do.


Dawn Huebner: It is. And it's often the case that kids start out enjoying an interaction, like what you're describing, and then it goes south. And one of the things that we need to teach our kids is how do you handle that moment? You know, how do you communicate when you've had enough or you need things to change. And, you know, that leads to sort of a bigger point, which is that I think we often assume that our kids have the skillset that they need and they don't necessarily have that skill set. And so going back to your initial question about why write a book for kids? It’s to teach them skills. Because these are the techniques that kids can learn and kids can practice. And those techniques actually make a difference and help kids get along better with the people that they're living with.


Amy: And are those skills, things that some kids possess more naturally and other kids have to be taught? Or do you think every kid has to be taught these skills to some degree?


Dawn Huebner: That's a good question. I think all kids need to learn them. Some kids need to be explicitly taught, and some kids pick them up by seeing them modeled for them within the family or outside the family. So, yeah. And the book is largely geared towards kids who need to be explicitly taught the skillset. 


Amy: Okay let's walk through some of these skills that the book introduces to the kids. 


Dawn Huebner: Yeah. So there's kind of a scaffolding for the book or an analogy that weaves its way through the books. And that has to do with dogs.


Amy: I loved this. It's so accessible.


Dawn Huebner: The idea is that if you think about and understand things about dogs, which most kids love.


Amy: Who doesn’t want a dog?


Dawn Huebner: That's going to help you with your siblings. Right? And so the first two techniques have to do with rewarding, the behavior that you like and ignoring the behavior that you don't like. And those things might seem obvious, but kids often do the exact opposite of that. Right? So they respond to the behavior that they don't like, which actually reinforces that behavior.


Amy: I see, and you're saying the kids should do this, ignore the behavior they don't like Oh okay. 


Dawn Huebner: And reward the behavior they do like, which kids also tend not to do. Right?  So, you know, their sibling is leaving them alone or their sibling hands something over to them, you know, to share something, and kids tend to not respond explicitly to those things. They don't say “thank you for staying quiet or thank you for leaving me alone or thank you for giving me a turn.” They just kind of take those things for granted, right? So it's important for kids to be doing both sides there, to be rewarding the behavior they do like and to be ignoring the behavior that they don't



Amy: So this example of the big brother chasing you around the yard and it's fun until it's not fun anymore, could that kid apply these skills of ignoring and rewarding behavior in that situation?


Dawn Huebner: So they are rewarding by laughing and participating, right? So those are rewards. You don't have to say thank you as a reward, but you know, they're showing through their pleasure that they're having fun, which is rewarding. You can't really ignore the chasing. So when things changed for that child, they need to stop and communicate to the sibling. “I don't want to play anymore, or this isn't fun, or, you know, I don't like this anymore.” They need to communicate in some way, right? And we, as parents need to teach our children to do that because that's one of the things that kids don't necessarily understand how to do. The sibling is not necessarily going to be responsive to that. Right? So kids get caught up in playing and it's hard to just put the brakes on a rigorous game like that. but let's say that a game is happening. Everybody's laughing and having fun. At some point it becomes not fun. So the child that it becomes not fun for can say, I don't want to play anymore or stop. Right? And if the child doesn't stop, then the one who needs the action to stop has a decision to make. So one thing is they can just kind of bow out, you know, walk away or move away or just stand still. Right? So if you're standing still chase isn't happening anymore. So stop participating.

Right. Um, a child can go involve a parent, but I make a distinction between telling and tattling. And I think that's a really useful one for families to have. So tattling happens when you're trying to get your sibling in trouble. That's the motive for tattling telling happens when you're looking for help.


 So we want our kids to know. You can always come tell me when you're having trouble and I will help you. Different from tattling, which means I'm going to get your sibling in trouble, your brother or sister in trouble. So when a child comes over and says, he's doing this, or she's doing that, a parent who's taught their child that distinction can say “Are you telling or are you tattling?” And kids will pretty quickly learn to say I'm telling, because they know that you're going to say we don't do tattling in our family. Right? But are you though? And if they say I'm telling, then you help the child who has come to talk to you. You don't tell the other one to stop it. You don't go in and intervene on their behalf. You talk to that child about, let's think about what your choices are and you help them to problem solve and work.


Amy: Okay. So take my nephew, comes to my sister and is like “he's chasing me and he won't listen when I told him to stop.” Right?  And he comes to her, I suppose he is telling,I don't know how to handle this situation-

Right? So she can coach him on how to respond?


Dawn Huebner: And it depends on the ages of the children. Right? So for some children, the parent might go together with the child that has come and told and say, “Hey, it sounds like this game isn't fun for both of you anymore. Or, “Hey, it sounds like so-and-so is wanting to stop.” So they're sort of putting some weight behind what the child has said, which is different from saying to the child who is still caught up in the game. Cut it out, or you know, it's kinda different from solving the problem or telling the other child what to do. You're helping your child communicate more effectively.


Amy: This makes so much sense to me. It's coming approximately 16 years too late, but this is completely seismic. Okay let’s take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about how parents can remove themselves from the equation. Okay, we're back. We're talking to Dawn Huebner. She is the author of a new book, The Sibling Survival Guide: SUREFIRE WAYS TO SOLVE CONFLICTS, REDUCE RIVALRY, AND HAVE MORE FUN WITH YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS. Okay here's the first thing I highlighted in the book for me as a parent of three teenagers. To motivate your children, to actually work things out for themselves, you need to remove yourself from the equation. Here I've been doing the opposite this whole time.


Dawn Huebner: Right? Yeah. And I think most of us do because parents are kind of fixers, you know, we want to solve problems. We want to clear up bad feelings or, you know, get our children to leave each other alone. And so we're kind of quick to move in and try to change the dynamic or try to fix things.

And that's not really teaching our kids skills. And it keeps them very dependent on having a parent intervene. And that's not really what we want. So if you think about what you want your children to be able to do, you want them to be able to express themselves to one another. You want them to be able to hear one another. So to kind of, to recognize or understand what it is that their sibling is experiencing, and you want them to be able to problem solve. So when parents intervene, it should be in the service of one of those goals. Teaching their children how to talk more clearly to one another, how to listen more effectively to one another, and how to solve problems. So when a parent removes themselves from the equation, it doesn't mean just ignore what's going on between your children. It means when you do step in, you want to help them to communicate, hear one another, and solve the problem. Rather than you doing those things yourself.


Amy: Thinking of an example, I was recently in an elevator with my three kids. And I have two teenage boys. And it’s like, “why are you such an idiot? Why are you such an idiot? Why are you always like this ? Why are you always like this?” And it's like, you know, it's getting to, you know, level X pretty quickly. And I say to one of them, like, just let it go. Can we just stop? Like I say it too. First one, imagining, I guess in my head that I was going to next, then turn instead to the other, can you just, can you not? But it very much immediately turned into a you know, evening long exploration of how I always take “kid X's” side. Right? It became about me and my reaction. And I honestly was just sort of like, cut it out guys. And it turned into why do you take this other person's side over mine?


Dawn Huebner: That's right. Because it's kind of like kids are in the midst of a tug of war. And if you tell one child to stop it, you've essentially picked up the rope on the other child's side. You've kind of sided with that child. And kids are gonna react to that, right? So you want to try hard unless they're hurting each other. You want to try hard to not tell one or the other to cut it out, like to not kind of lay blame in any way. You can say something like, you know, “whoa, there is a lot of anger going on right now, or, whoa, I hear lots of meanness, you guys need to cut it out.” Like you can say something kind of collective. But you want to be careful about doing that I’m going to reprimand one and then I'm going to reprimand the other, because cause kids are going to sort of hear that in a very particular way.


Amy: And do you think that even kids at that age are sort of seeking to push that button? Like, is there any way that even when teenagers squabble, they're almost looking for that parental intervention, like, is that the goal that they're seeking?


 Dawn Huebner: Absolutely. Well, I think the goal probably was that, you know, they were feeling irritated with one another and they wanted to put each other down, you know? So the initial goal wasn't necessarily about you, but certainly when you step in, they're both going to be intent on having you recognize how right they are and how wrong their sibling is. And you need to be careful to not step into that.


Amy: Yeah. I see. They weren't necessarily seeking like parental favor, but I introduced it into the equation. So then that's very interesting. Yeah, it’s like, oh, we're going to chase this now. That's interesting. Can we talk about some of the other ways that well-intentioned parental sort of oversight involvement of sibling rivalry can sort of backfire- Are there other ways we can get this wrong?


Dawn Huebner: Yes. So I think another piece has to do with parents telling their kids what to do. So, you know, kids are maybe squabbling over who owns something or whose turn it is to play with something. And a parent might say something like, you know,” just let her have it.” Or “you used it all morning” or, you know, the parent is gonna sort of solve the problem. And instead we want our kids to learn how to solve the problem. And you know, it might seem cumbersome to do it in the moment, but you actually want to teach children something about how do you problem-solve? Right? And that’s identify the problem and talk about possible solutions like brainstorm solutions and come up with an agreement. And we're trying to go for like a win-win and to teach kids how to do that themselves. Rather than parents stepping in and doing it.

And if you've done that process a handful of times with kids, kind of teaching how to problem solve and then guiding them through the problem solving, then kids begin to internalize it and are much better able to do it themselves and without a parent, you know, kind of walking them through.


Amy: Okay. So let's say you do have those two kids, rainy day, one kid’s been playing on the switch probably more than the other one, but they're squabbling like “when am I getting a turn?” And it does feel easier in the moment to just say like, oh, come on, just let her have a turn, like, come on, you can get it back in 10 minutes. Or I guess even to step in and be completely magnanimous and like, “let's set up a system, I'm going to set a timer.” But does that sort of create more problems than it solves?


Dawn Huebner: Yeah, I actually wouldn't do either of those things. So the problem with the first one is that you're not teaching your kids anything about how to solve problems. When you say come on can't you just let her have a turn. The problem with the second one is that you've solved the problem, which is also not teaching them anything about solving problems. Okay. So instead, and we're talking primarily about elementary school aged kids here, middle school aged kids here, but instead you might do something like, say, “it sounds like you guys are arguing about the switch, let’s figure this out.” And you're kind of inviting them to problem solve. You’re first going to get, you know, “I had it, or she was using it all day yesterday, It's my turn today.” You know, you're first going to kind of hear each of their sense of injustice and, you know, their argument for what's right. And you want whenever possible to take the time to listen to that, because you're sort of modeling how you problem solve, right? 


So you let one child speak and if the other is interrupting or disputing, you say, it's, so-and-so's turn, it'll be your turn next. And then you let the other child speak. And then you don't say, here's what we're going to do. You say, okay. It sounds like you feel X, you child, number one, it sounds like you child, number one, feel why that's kind of thorny. What ideas do you guys have that's a win-win for everybody? And you're trying to sort of aim for the win-win. You can propose some possibilities. So, you know, you can suggest some things if you think your children need you to, but you don't want to give a solution as if that's just the way we're going to do it and deal with it. Because again that doesn't really teach your kids anything. And it also is more likely to have both of them feel unhappy with you. So, you know, yeah. We're trying to teach kids to think about a win-win all the way around and it does take time, but you're ultimately teaching a useful skill. 


Amy: Yeah, you make a really good point in the book that treating kids fairly doesn't have to be equally. I definitely internalized, I mean cause my kid was really upset like, “you always pick so-and-so over me.” And you know, it was very like come on I don't. But of course there's part of me I was like, do I, is this something I need to do? Do I need to be more fair and equitable in my treatment of my children?  Are we looking at it the wrong way? When we focus on Fair/equal. Like are we overthinking it?


Dawn Huebner: Yeah, I think the main point there is that fair and equal are two different things. It’s important for parents to kind of own up to the fact that we're not treating our kids equally and that's okay. They're two different people and there's not a need to treat them exactly the same. Their needs are different. Their wants are different. Their circumstances are different. Often their ages are different. We don't have to treat them the same. Fair is when you're making your best attempt to give each child most of what they need and some of what they want. That's what fair is. Right? And so when kids say that's not fair! Parents can say, I think what you're talking about is equal here and you're right, it’s not equal. But trying to argue with a child who's accusing you of not being fair, trying to argue that it is fair is never, ever, ever going to work. And so, you know, that's just not something to do.


Amy: I think there's one more factor that comes into this. And I want to talk about it right after this. You talk in the book about that it's actually quite common and feels scary, but maybe doesn't have to be, for kids to express very strong negative feelings about their siblings. And I have definitely, I think any parent has, been the recipient of, I hate X, you know, this, I don't want to live in the same house with this, whatever. Like there's strong feelings. That can feel very scary as a parent that can definitely feel like something you have to lock down. Right? Change. You don't mean that, you go right now and tell him that you don't mean that. I'm imagining you might tell me that's not necessarily the right response.


Dawn Huebner: Yes. I mean, big feelings are hard for everybody, for the person feeling them and the person witnessing them. Right? And I think we as parents often, our intent on making big, uncomfortable feelings go away.

Whether our children are directing those feelings towards one another, or feeling them, you know, in other ways. When our kids are anxious, we want them to not be anxious anymore. When they're frustrated or angry, we want them not to be frustrated or angry anymore. And so we sort of scramble around trying to make the big feeling go away. and that's giving kids the wrong message because what we want to do instead is teach our children how to tolerate the fact that they're feeling something intensely and to kind of ride it out, cope with the feeling, come out on the other side of it. Right? So when our children are expressing big negative feelings, angry feelings, often about their siblings, we want to start out with empathy. So if a child is saying something like, you know, “I hate him” about their brother, It's tempting to say “you don't hate your brother”, or “we don't talk to each other that way.” But you're missing an important opportunity when you do that. And what's useful to say instead is, “It sounds like you're really angry or you don't like it when X happens.” So you're understanding the spirit of what's going on, you know, kind of what's underneath what your child is saying. You're translating it. You're sort of helping your child put more accurate words. You know, you're angry. Or you wanted X, right? But you're doing that empathically. So you're not immediately clamping a lid on what your child is saying. You're helping them to kind of specify more, uh, to translate it. You're showing empathy. One of the best ways and fastest ways to get kids to calm down is to hear them. You know? And so it's important to say, I hear you, you hate it when your brother does that. Or, I hear you, you've told him a ton of times to keep out of your room or whatever it is. Right? And so we're trying to help our kids to express feelings more appropriately. Rather than just hoping that they don't have the feelings or trying to kind of brush the feelings away.


Amy: That makes a ton of sense. So let's talk about the book, the guide itself, the guide is called The Sibling Survival Guide: SUREFIRE WAYS TO SOLVE CONFLICTS, REDUCE RIVALRY, AND HAVE MORE FUN WITH YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS. Do you imagine parents and kids sit down with this guide together?


Dawn Huebner: That's what's going to be most useful. So kids in the target age range, which is nine to twelve, will be capable in terms of reading ability to read it on their own, but they'll benefit the most if they read it with a parent or if they're reading a few chapters and parent has also read those chapters and then they talk about them. There are interactive pieces. So there are places within the book for kids to draw or write. And the idea there is to help kids kind of personalize and internalize you know, kind of think about how to apply for their own situation, what it is that they're learning. And that's best done with the parent too.


Amy: As you were saying before, it starts with an extended metaphor about a dog coming into the family. And the first couple of pages are like, draw your imaginary dog, name the dog, oh my kid is so bought in at this point, right? With their new imaginary dog they just drew. And that the dog, there’s a lot of positives to having a dog. It's a lot more fun to have a dog than not to have a dog, but sometimes you have to deal with the dog doing things you don't want to do. Right? Barking when you're trying to do homework or whatever.


Dawn Huebner: Exactly. And one of the things I tried to do in all of my books is normalize kid’s feelings. I don't want kids to feel like there's something wrong with them. And so I never suggest you shouldn't feel X or you shouldn't do Y. It’s kind of acknowledging and normalizing the messiness of what it's like to have brothers and sisters, and to not always get along with them.

And, you know, it's perfectly valid that kids are feeling what they're feeling. And here are things that you can do about it. And so the kind of combination of normalizing and then empowering to make changes is what I'm aiming for.


Amy: Have you seen in your practice that pandemic has increased sibling rivalry in certain ways, all this sort of forced togetherness?


Dawn Huebner: Yeah, it's funny because I think there is a way that it's increased rivalry and irritability, and there's another way in which kids have been forced to figure things out, because they don't have easy access to anyone other than their sibling. And so, you know, in some families, at least kids are actually doing okay. They're figuring things out.


Amy: My cohost Margaret always likes to say there's something on the other side of boredom. And if you can just ignore the squabbling long enough, maybe they’ll be building a fort in the backyard and maybe they'll keep fighting for half an hour, but you have to allow. And it occurs to me, It's kind of a lot of the same points that are in this book. You have to allow, obviously keep things safe, but let them figure it out. And if they need you to be the sort of ambassador, the counselor, you can do that. But you don't, you're not Mr. Fix it. It makes a ton of sense. Dawn, tell us about where we can find you and your work on the internet.


Dawn Huebner: So if somebody puts my name into a search engine, my website is the first thing that will pop up. It's dawnhuebnerphd.com. I also post weekly parenting tips on Facebook, so that's another place. And my books are available wherever books are sold.


Amy: I love so many of these books. Before we started, I was telling Dawn how much I loved What to Do When Your Temper Flares. That was particularly useful for my relationship with one of my children. And this book 

I think your kids will really, really love it. And it'll make things, you know, happier. We're going to stop feeling so bothered and start having more fun. I'll put the links in the show notes to everything we've talked about today. Dawn, thanks for being with us.


Dawn Huebner: Thanks for having me.