This is a quick follow up to my parenting post from the other day, Positive Discipline from Day One. I have another technique about helping older siblings and babies get along that I didn't think to include in that post, called Putting Words in Baby's Mouth.
Many times when the older kids have a screaming match conflict with each other, it's partly because they can't understand each other's body language and other context clues about what the other might be feeling.
They have a pretty decent grasp of the English language (understatement of the year), so when they're having a problem with each other, we help them remember to express their feelings with words instead of actions. So when Ryan and Morgan are fighting over a toy, we help them identify and state the problem first, and then assist with the negotiation process, if necessary. I wrote another post about the fine art of negotiations a couple months ago.
Now of course, Sean is not able to articulate his thoughts and feelings just yet. And the older kids are used to verbal exchanges. So what I do is become Sean's mouthpiece and interpreter, because a lot of times, the older kids just don't understand what Sean is doing.
So I'll say things like:
Sean is mad! He wanted to hold that toy!
Sean is mad! He wanted to play with the cat food!
Sean is crying because you took that toy and he's saying "I want a turn!"
When you hear him yell like that, he's saying "Stop! I don't want you to sit on me!" (Seriously, I have said this. A lot.)
He's mad because you scooped him up and he wants to move his body independently.
It looks to me like Sean would like to play with you, that's why he's standing by your table. Is there something he can hold so he feels like he's helping you?
I know it hurt when Sean pulled your hair. I'm so sorry. He wasn't trying to hurt you--we'll teach him that pulling hair hurts a lot! He's a baby; he doesn't know.
I can tell that Sean might be feeling sorry because he sees you crying and now he's crying, too. He knows something is wrong.
See how Sean is smiling and rocking back and forth? He loves to watch you dance and sing! He's saying, "Do that again, Big Sister!"
I can tell Sean really likes it when you sing that song--he's clapping his hands and laughing.
When you bring him his drink, he is feeling that you're taking good care of him. He really likes that.
I say things like this so often that it's become automatic for me--and of course I've really been doing it since Morgan showed up. To a certain degree, I still do a little bit of interpreting with the older kids--Morgan is still not consistent with saying, "Stop! I don't want you to do that!" to Ryan. So, after reminding Morgan to say words, I'll tell Ryan, "When she's squirming and making that screaming noise, that's your clue to climb off of her and ask her 'Is something wrong?' " (Seriously.)
Another idea we've been showing Morgan is to use non-verbal cues, such as holding up her hand in a "HALT!" position, which is easier for her to do, since it seems like she has trouble coming up with words in stressful situations. I think this will help her quite a bit (thanks, Kelly, for the suggestion). And Ryan has been told to respect the Halt Hand as he would a verbal "Stop!"
The main advantages to being the interpreter for the baby (or even an older child who is having a hard time verbally communicating) are that it helps the older siblings understand why the baby is acting the way he is, and also that he is a person who has valid feelings. If they understand the reasons behind the baby's actions or reactions, they can learn to Assume Positive Intent with him, and they can figure out how to help him or get my help. If they understand that he is an actual person, then they will begin to respect his boundaries and rights.