Q: Sometimes my son gets ornery, and just won't leave his sister alone. He'll poke or hit or verbally harass her, and it drives both me and his sister crazy! I tell him over and over again to stop, but he just keeps going until I get really angry and blow up at him. There's got to be a better way!
A: My hunch is that when your son is hitting, his cortex is probably not online. The cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for compliance, self-restraint, logic, and reasoning, and it is not well developed enough in children to act as a consistently reliable behavior inhibitor.
Since the cortex is the part that would be able to implement your verbal instructions, and it's not running the show right then, your words aren't likely to stop him. If they do, it won't be for long. When he hits or invades her space again, he's telling you he needs your help stopping himself. So rather than using additional verbal reminders, take action.
Step in and provide gentle physical restraint. Catch his hand in yours and bring his arm close to you to prevent him from hitting her, while saying, I will keep us safe or I will help you stop hitting, or I will help you respect her space. Then let him demonstrate the intensity of his feelings by pushing against your raised hand or some other kind of resistance you provide. Offer him an outlet of your choosing to release any static that has accumulated in his nervous system, or just stay with him while he cries to discharge those emotions.
His frustration may or may not be about his sister at all. She may simply be a convenient target to release it on. When he offloads the other stress in his system, by pushing against resistance you provide, or perhaps by crying tears of frustration at being restrained, he may feel fine about her again. So don't be too quick to assume that their relationship is the source of the problem. It may just be the most convenient venue to release some pent up emotions.
If you think there might be some sibling rivalry going on, 'competitive' cuddling or wrestling can also be a great way to release feelings of frustration and territorial impulses between siblings. Try jokingly and dramatically encouraging them to compete over you in some way that won't hurt anyone, like seeing who can smack their lips the loudest and longest when they kiss your cheek or something equally benign.
Work it so they both win and you all end up in some kind of wrestling/tickling match (but not the kind of tickling that lasts past the point that someone wants it to stop.) Belly laughter is an awesome way to release static in the nervous system, and the more you can facilitate it, the better everyone will feel about each other.
It's also good to talk with him about better ways to express his frustration after he's settled down and feeling connected with you. Be sure you are also allowing him to speak, even if it's just asking for his feedback about the suggestions you've offered. He might say he hates them, or understands them, or whatever. The important thing is that it's not just you talking and him listening. Get him talking too.
Sometimes the only problem is the pent-up feelings needing release. Once that happens, the other issues often clear up on their own. So there may be no remaining problem to troubleshoot. But if there is a concern or conflict that remains, or a pattern that repeats with some predictability, go ahead and invite him to share his ideas about how to avoid it in the future.
I think alone time with each child is always a good investment. It doesn't have to be long - even just 20 minutes is helpful. The idea is that the child gets your full and complete attention for that time, with no agenda but theirs. Whether they want you to go bike riding or play trucks or dolls or whatever, they get to direct the play for that 20 minutes, and you follow their lead. Some parents like to call it Special Time, to distinguish it from the times you spend together that you won't be following their lead. It's a great way to top off their tanks regularly with positive attention.
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