By Catherine Fischer
Our children are good! They are inherently generous, sharing, and cooperative. You’ve probably enjoyed seeing your children share and take turns easily when they are feeling relaxed and connected. You have seen how very sweet and tender they can be.
So What’s Going on When They Have a Hard Time Sharing?
When children have trouble sharing, it’s often not really about the item at hand — the doll, the truck, or whatever it is they feel they need to have “right now.” It’s also not a flaw in their personality; in fact, it’s not their personality at all. There’s an emotional tension that underlies problems with sharing. These problems can arise when children haven’t been feeling connected or because something has happened to remind them of a time when they felt afraid or alone.
I invite you to consider your children’s difficult moments with sharing as a signal to you that they need to reconnect with you and possibly offload some stored feelings with a cry or a tantrum.
We deeply love our children, but their sense of connection is fragile and often breaks. Sometimes this is because we are busy with the daily demands of feeding and physically caring for our children, not to mention the pressures and worries of work and other aspects of day-to-day living. We know we are there for our children, but sometimes they don’t feel it. Sometimes it takes slowing down and being physically close and attentive — with eye contact, a warm tone of voice, and other non-verbal signals — for our children to regain their sense of connection.
Children who are feeling alone or scared can’t be flexible or respond to our verbal communication until they feel reassured and reconnected by our nonverbal cues. Once the connection is re-established, they may then feel safe enough to release their feelings with a cry or tantrum.
All parents have to handle difficult moments around sharing. So how do we help our children in these moments of difficulty? Here are two policies that you may want to introduce with your children and in your playgroups. These policies involve setting limits first and then following up with listening.
Steps for Handling a “Sharing Emergency”
● First, don’t enforce turns right away unless there are safety concerns with the number of children. If a child is playing with a toy, then he can have it until he is done playing with it.
● Second, offer to stay with the other child while she waits, then stay close and listen to what comes up for her.
If you think of a child’s difficulty with sharing as a signal that she is feeling alone or scared, then you can see how enforcing turns with time limits or making one child “be nice” and share unwillingly doesn’t address the underlying need. If other children will be safe while you pay attention to the child having the difficulty, one strategy that works very well is to say to the child, with kindness and warmth, “So-and-so is playing with that toy now, but I will stay with you while you wait. When so-and-so is finished, then you can have a turn.”
Often this is enough for the child to begin to cry or tantrum. If you can stay close and be warm and encouraging while the child cries or tantrums, she will offload whatever the feelings are that are making her tense. This can be challenging for us as parents, but when we are able to do this, we can see the difference it makes for our children.
When Both Children Are Having a Hard Time Sharing
Sometimes, when more than one child is feeling disconnected and tense, there will be a longer, mutually tense battle over a toy. In this case, the child who has the toy and is allowed to play with it for as long as he likes plays with it rigidly (and usually without enjoyment) and protects it so that he doesn’t have to share with the child who is waiting. In this case, you can plan for a more long-term fairness. Say that tomorrow, or after lunch, or whenever the next time is, the child who is waiting will have the first turn (sometimes it continues to center around the same toy but may shift to something else, like who goes first on the swings) and you will be with the other child while he waits. This is a lot of listening, but it may be what your children need.
When You Arrive on the Scene of Full Blown Conflict
When the conflict over a toy is already full blown by the time you can get there, try putting your hand on the toy so that neither child can pull it away. Offer to listen to them and encourage them to figure out what to do. They may both have some big feelings! But as those feelings dissipate, so will the tension, and, if you can stay calm and listen, you may be surprised by the solution they come up with on their own.
Who Will Listen to You?
Having a chance for someone to listen to you is important because of all the listening you do with your children. The approach that I teach includes setting up listening partnerships with other parents. During a listening exchange, you get to speak about your challenges and successes as a parent without interruption or advice. You can examine what it’s like for you to listen to your child when she is upset. Did anyone ever do that for you? What was it like for you when you had to share as a child? What is it like now? Having a chance to talk about all of this to a warm and caring listener and then in turn listening to him or her can make it possible to go back and listen more and better to our children.
Catherine Fischer, M.A., C.P.D., is the owner of Support for Growing Families, L.L.C., offering birth and postpartum doula care and parenting classes. For information on upcoming events and seminars, visit her website www.supportforgrowingfamilies.com or email her at Catherine@supportforgrowingfamilies.com.