Tuesday 25 October 2016

The Parent Zone: 'I've tried everything but I can't get my son and daughter to play nice'

Fighting children, little boy and girl pulling each other hair
Fighting children, little boy and girl pulling each other hair

Two squabbling siblings and a child with Asperger's Syndrome are amongst these week's problems

Q: I can’t get my two children to play together nicely. They are a boy and a girl. The boy is ten and the girl is eight. Everything seems to turn into an argument or a fight and someone, not always the girl, ends up in tears.

I’ve tried everything including talking to them about the importance of playing nicely and not hurting and punishment by removing toys and technology. Please help!

A: This calls for the use of the ‘magic sentence’. I will tell you what the magic sentence is later but first we have to analyse these fights which we usually term sibling rivalry.

All sibling rivalry is a dance between two partners. It takes, as they say, two to tango. The dance requires that each party takes a role. One has to be the victim and one has to be the perpetrator.

Once the victim gets hurt, he or she seeks revenge by getting the perpetrator in trouble and, if possible, punished. The victim is then vindicated, the ‘perp’ is punished and the dance goes on and on.

It’s important to know that the roles can switch. Sometimes the perp is really the victim, having been set up by the so-called victim in order to get punished. This is a common variation of the dance.

Parents typically end up exasperated and saying things such as, “How many times do I have to tell you two to play nice?” or, “I can’t take it any more, go to your rooms and play by yourselves.”

Or, more commonly, “I told you not to hit your sister. You’re grounded!” Most parents know these sorts of remarks are of little impact.

Now it’s time to use the magic sentence. The magic sentence goes like this: “I can’t believe two children your age can’t play together without hurting one another. Most children your age have already learned how to do that.”

You say the magic sentence without raising your voice or having a cross expression on your face.

You say it calmly and quickly and then walk away. You don’t look back. You leave the room.

The magic sentence appeals to what is highest in a child. It gets them to think, “Well if other children our age can do that then so can we.”

It is not a threat or a punishment. It is an invitation to better behaviour. Try it and see how it works.

It’s magic!

As a little note about discipline, remember that it is better to reward, verbally, good behaviour when it occurs than to only remark about bad behaviour.

All behaviour increases in frequency when it is rewarded. Unfortunately very little bad behaviour decreases in frequency when it is punished unless there is also a focus on rewarding good behaviour.


Q: My son is ten and has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I am devastated, confused and hurt. Will my child ever be normal?

A: It sounds as though you got a diagnosis without adequate explanation of the implications. That’s a shame because it has left you hurt and confused and fearful for your child’s future.

Let’s take a bit of time to talk about Asperger’s Syndrome and review some of the symptoms and look at the long-term prognosis.

Asperger’s Syndrome is one of the autistic spectrum disorders. It has a long history and it is only recently that professionals began not to use it as a label, preferring instead the more accurate nomenclature Autistic Spectrum Disorder. The key word in this label is “spectrum”.

All autistic conditions exists on a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe.

No two children with a spectrum condition are alike but there are some common difficulties that occur with all spectrum conditions, this is called ‘the triad of impairment’ because there are three key areas of difficulty. They are:


1. Impairments of social interaction

2. Impairment of


3. Impairment of thinking and behaving


All people on the spectrum have difficulties in all three areas. People on the high end

of the spectrum, those we typically refer to as having Asperger’s, may have subtle impairments that are hard to notice.

For example, they may want to talk about only certain things they know a lot about and it may be difficult to get them to talk about other


They may misunderstand other people’s body language and facial expressions. They may be awkward in the use of body language or in the way they walk or stand.

They may be literal in their thinking and take everything as it is said, without noticing humour, irony or sarcasm.

These impairments result in social difficulties. Many people with Asperger’s do not make friends easily and some of them have no interest in friendships at all.

A diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, often referred to as ‘high functioning autism’, does not mean your son can’t lead a normal life.

It is quite likely he will do well in school and proceed on to a university education. Although he may never be

the best ‘team player’ he is likely to be creative, honest, studious, helpful and an

extremely hard worker and excellent employee.

Space does not permit me to go on in great depth so I encourage you to contact the support group Aspire Ireland at their website, www.aspire.ie.


David is a psychologist; send your questions to davidcarey@herald.ie

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