As the mother of two little boys aged four and six, nothing takes the wind out of my maternal sails quicker than the sight of my sons at each other's throats. I love the thought of my sons growing up with all the benefits and blessings of being brothers, and it never occurred to me that their relationship might be marred by constant fury and fighting. They have always been one another's biggest fan and advocate, so when sibling rivalry first reared its ugly head in my sons' relationship I felt stinging disappointment. My heart sinks when they declare, with heartfelt fervour, that they wish each another "wasn't made" and I suspected things were getting out of hand when the whole family ended up in A&E watching my six-year-old have his head glued back together following a dispute over a watering can. It sounds funny, but it's not. When a bathtime battle culminated with both boys bearing teeth marks in their flesh, I knew it was time to ask for help.
I turned to Kitty Hagenbach, a pre- and perinatal child and family therapist, who runs Babiesknow (www.babies know.com) – a series of pioneering workshops and groups to support parents – along with Helen Biscoe-Taylor, a psychotherapist, and Yehudi Gordon, a world-renowned obstetrician. Perplexed, I asked Hagenbach what was behind the sudden biting and bloodshed. "Sibling rivalry happens because each child feels that the other gets more love," Hagenbach said.
Once I got my breath back I could have sworn I felt a proverbial penny drop. It's a devastatingly candid answer – no parent wants to face the possibility that their child feels a deficit of love – but an immensely helpful one. The explosive, seemingly irrational spats that punctuate our family life began to make much more sense. And rather than provoking my ire, seeing my sons' squabbles in that context made me determined to help heal the rift.
So when Hagenbach mentioned Babiesknow's newest parenting workshop (Babiesknow 4 infants) for parents of three to seven-year-olds, which tackles sibling rivalry alongside how children's needs change as they grow beyond toddlerhood, I signed up faster than you can say, "He started it".
Babiesknow exists to help parents cultivate great relationships with their children. The team, each infectiously passionate about supporting family life, draw on ideas from realms as disparate as neuroscience, epigenetics and psychology, weaving them together in a distinctly nurturing environment (it's amazing what a plentiful platter of healthy snacks and endless hot drinks can do for frazzled parents) through informal presentations and experiential role-play exercises.
The first thing I learned is that my own childhood experience of being a sibling influences the way I react to my children's rivalry. By virtue of the fact that my older brother and I had different friends and interests, we rarely felt the need to compete with one another or vie for the attention of our parents.
So with no personal experience of the rivalry that my sons grapple with, I lacked the empathy that might help them better understand and deal with the emotions that overwhelm them. My tendency to swoop in on my children's fallouts with anger and disapproval is, unsurprisingly, not much help.
"The key to dealing with sibling rivalry is to listen more attentively to the emotions and psychology that underlie a child's actions, instead of pouncing on their behaviour," Hagenbach said. "So much of sibling rivalry can be handled through understanding what is beneath it – knowing what the child is really feeling, and naming and attending to that." How? By acknowledging what Hagenbach calls the "big emotions", like anger and frustration that overpower my sons, and by showing them that I am comfortable with who they are and what they feel, no matter how forceful their emotions might appear.
At home I put this to practice straight away. Instead of banishing them to their bedrooms every time they lashed out with hurtful words or actions, I began trying to describe the emotions that might be fuelling their actions. Instead of shouting about unacceptable behaviour, I found myself gently narrating their underlying emotions. At first this felt artificial, but it seemed to dispel their aggression and served as a helpful guide rail for safely exploring their feelings together.
I knew we had turned a corner when my four-year-old began mimicking my effort to describe his behaviour. "I'm so tired," he said one evening, when too many late nights had taken their toll and erupted in fisticuffs on the trampoline. "And when I'm tired I feel like I want to hurt my brother more than he hurts me." His fury seemed to ebb away.
Knowing when to intervene in sibling warfare – and when not to – is an art parents of squabblers must quickly learn. I wince at role-play but the opportunity to "play" my sons while Biscoe-Taylor played my role provided an insight into what my sons need when their feelings are running high. "Being more aware of your child's emotional well-being and nipping it in the bud by attending to the child's need before it erupts into violence is key," Hagenbach said.
Now I find hovering nearby with an encouraging word or a positive presence helps prevent play from simmering over into fighting. The daily stress-fest that is the school run is another big obstacle in my quest for a great relationship with my children. As if surviving Cheerio fights, locating errant shoes and getting to school on time isn't enough pressure, my adventurous six-year-old likes to hide or climb a tree in the garden when he should be getting in the car. In doing so, he irritates me to the point of fury, but I suspect it's just a case of testing boundaries.
Biscoe-Taylor helped me see that this is one area of life where it might pay to relax the boundaries a little. "Open the door five minutes earlier than usual and say it's time to climb the tree, or have a quick game of hide and seek before you leave," she suggested playfully. "But on days when you don't have the time or patience for it just be honest about that," Hagenbach adds, setting me free from a suffocating idea I've long held that my parenting must be utterly consistent 24/7. I am liberated by the idea that what's OK one day might not be the next. "Children can feel the truth so if you're putting in a boundary but not being truthful about it you're not going to get anywhere. The flipside of that is that children feel very good when we tell them the truth, and are predisposed to want to please us."
I can't say it works seamlessly. When I announced it was time to climb the tree my son was so stunned by my about-turn that he slunk off sheepishly towards the car, but I suppose that's progress.
Biscoe-Taylor firmly believes that children are highly receptive to energy, and cautions that bizarre behaviour sometimes happens when a child "reads" your energy instead of listening to your words. I suspect my energy might have been communicating, in exasperation, "I know you're going to climb that tree", inadvertently cueing him up to do just that and drowning out my request that he get in the car.
One of my favourite Babiesknow learnings is the importance of keeping your child's confidences. Hagenbach's view that we're too quick to share our children's secrets got me thinking. A few days later over lunch with friends my husband started telling a funny story about the children, at which point my six-year-old went puce and started throwing crayons across the table. Remembering Hagenbach's words, we discreetly curtailed the story and my son visibly relaxed. It's a seemingly small adjustment in our parenting practice but it's astonishing how quickly those all add up.
Prevailing parenting "wisdom" seems so prescriptive these days, and Babiesknow is an empowering breath of fresh air amid that. "There are no rules in parenting and we can't give you a sheet of paper and say follow this and it'll all be fine," Biscoe-Taylor said.
You don't come away from Babiesknow armed with a new set of tricks, but instead leave with a deep awareness of why you parent the way you do, along with real insights into why your children behave the way they do. Put those two revelations together and you have the recipe for a wonderful experience of family life.
Since Babiesknow, I have more empathy for my children and a much greater belief in my capacity to be a good parent. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted I feel confident and well resourced for family life. That's something that should be within reach of every parent.
Visit www.babiesknow.com for more information. The next Babiesknow Foundation Weekend takes place in London on the 17th and 18th of September. £195 per person, £340 for a couple. The one -day follow up courses cost £95. Concessions and bursaries are available.
Top tips for a great relationship with your children
* A child's behaviour is their best effort at communication, so instead of labelling actions "bad" or "naughty", try to focus on what might underlie their behaviour; what is the child is trying to "say"?
* Ask, don't tell. It's reasonable to expect a child to do what you ask, but being told to do something is a very different experience for a child.
* Children know when you're telling the truth, so be honest, especially when you're implementing boundaries. It's OK to say, "Right now I don't have the energy to play with you, but let's do that after lunch."
* Being there for a child can be very tiring and exhausting, but remember that your needs are just as important as your child's, and your relationship with your partner is the container for family life. Nurture your relationship, and look after yourself.
* What a child most wants is your time and attention. Giving cuddles, making their favourite foods and spending quality time together all help to fill your child's "cup" (their reserve of positive emotions – see Playful Parenting by Lawrence J Cohen for more information). Sibling rivalry can stem from children "stealing" from one another's cups – so make time to fill each child's cup.
* All children are different – even siblings – and you cannot parent two children the same way. Allow them to be different and accept that they have completely different needs.