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Mama Drama: Calming Sibling Competition

Dear Mama Drama,

I recently took my 6 and 8 year old daughters to a pumpkin carving contest. It is a wonderful family event that focuses more on community than competition, but the pumpkins are judged at the end and there are winners. My 6 year old won and my 8 year old did not.  At first, the 8 year old was very supportive of her sister, but then as things wound down she started crying.  When we finally got to the root of the problem, it ended up that she was upset that she had given her sister ideas and that her sister had won and she didn’t.  

(photo credit)

This sibling competition expresses itself frequently in negative ways in our family and I am unsure how to react or what to do about it.  Growing up most of my life as an only child (I acquired step-brothers as a pre-teen), I really don’t understand and am not very sympathetic to sibling rivalry.  

How can I encourage my children to be loving supportive sisters, and how can I discourage them from being self-centered and competitive?

Seeking Harmony

Dear Seeking Harmony:

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up with brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have that harmony you are seeking. Please know this can be just as frustrating to figure out for parents who did have siblings growing up as it is for those of you who were only children.

Spending time getting to the root of the problem, as you did, is a great start for helping your girls understand their thinking and emotions. Children need time to process what has happened and an understanding adult to walk them through it. We can often see the bigger picture, whereas they are in the middle of it and can only see what is right in front of them. Strong emotions also make it more difficult to think rationally about the situation. Giving them time to cool down will lead to more productive conversations.

The next step is to try anticipate when these situations may arise and pre-plan with your girls. For example, prior to any type of contest or competition, you could talk about the possibilities that might occur. One of them may win, both of them may win, neither of them may win. Have a conversation about how they might feel in each of those scenarios and discuss strategies for how to handle those feelings when they occur. Role playing can be very helpful as it provides the opportunity to practice the language they can use.

You may need to come up with some phrases for them such as, “I’m happy for you, sister, but I am sad that I didn’t win. I wish we could both have won.”  And for the winner, “Thanks for helping me and being so supportive. You worked really hard, I wish you could have one, too.” You can tailor the statements for the specific event and circumstances, but having some generic statements that can be used in any situation can also be helpful.

The lessons of good sportsmanship can be applied in many arenas of life. It is important for children to learn both how to be compassionate and appreciative winners as well as gracious losers. The world offers many examples of both appropriate and inappropriate responses to winning and losing. When attending or watching sporting events or other competitions, make an effort to point out to your girls how different people handle themselves and how you think it is positive or negative. From the player who beats his chest after a touchdown as though he alone was responsible, the swimmer who makes sure the race doesn’t start without her competitor who is struggling with her suit, the temper tantrum a famous tennis player throws when she disagrees with a call, to the handshakes and hugs between opposing teams at the end of a hard fought game. These examples are very powerful and add a concrete and visual image to their understanding of how to be a good competitor.

Talking through your thinking about how you handle and perceive competition can be a great model for your girls as well. As you continue to increase their awareness and skills, you are cultivating their compassion for themselves and each other. Sometimes they’ll do really well and sometimes they will struggle. Acknowledge them when they handle the situations well, re-teach and problem solve with them when they don’t. This is a challenge they will face their entire lives. Teaching them these skills now is a tremendous gift you can give them.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.

How can I support my toddler during sibling sports?

~With summer sports seasons moving into full swing, this post is a good reminder for families with tag along toddlers.

Dear Mama Drama:

My husband and I have two older elementary and middle school age children who are very active in sports throughout the year. I also have a toddler who gets to tag along to all of their activities. Sometimes my little one does well and other times he really struggles and has big meltdowns. He gets tired and cranky, wants to be picked up or taken home, whines and throws fits, and the games and practices often interrupt his dinner and bedtime. I try to be flexible, but am often exhausted trying to entertain him and still support the older two. I need help juggling all of this, but don’t know where to turn. Any ideas?

~ Stumped Mama

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Dear Stumped:

Many families with children whose ages vary widely struggle to balance the needs of all the kids when it comes to extra-curricular activities. Each one uses a combination of solutions that fit for them. Here are some ideas:

While I’m sure you want to be at all of your older children’s activities, there may be times when you need to stay home with you little one to give him some down time. You and your husband may trade off staying home and going to games/practices or enlist  family or friends to transport your older kids or stay home with the younger one.

Ask family members to attend games and share in engaging and supporting your younger son.

Coordinate with other team parents who have younger children and take turns taking the young ones to a nearby park or out in the hallway to run or play games.

Enlist non-participating older siblings. Often there are siblings of team members at games and practices who are somewhat bored themselves. Younger siblings often love attention from these upper elementary and teenage children who will play with and entertain them just for the fun of it.

Bring activities for your younger son. You can bring some of his favorite toys and books along or have a special set that are only available during these activities. Be sure to rotate what you bring so he doesn’t get bored.

Pack snacks and drinks for your little one. Hungry kids are cranky kids, so be sure to have a variety of healthy snack options and plenty to drink.

Observe your younger son to catch the early signs that a melt down is coming. Rather than waiting for him to completely fall apart, look for the subtle signs of fatigue and irritability. (One clue can be when you are beginning to feel irritated by his behavior, he probably needs a change.) Then take action to feed him, give him a break, engage him in a new activity, or take him home.

I’m sure all you Mamas out there have lots of other great ideas that have worked for your families. Please share!!

Mama Drama: Staying Sane Parenting the Spitfire and the Saint

Dear Mama Drama:

I have two great kids. One is the model son who is sweet, obedient and tries to do what is right. His older sister is a fun spitfire who frequently gets in trouble for antagonizing her little brother or not listening.

The other day when I was reprimanding her, she accused me of not loving her as much because I always side with him. Though I try to be a loving mom, I can see how she’d feel that way because he rarely gets in trouble. How do I teach her certain behaviors aren’t acceptable but also show my love? I also don’t want her to resent her “perfect” little brother.

~Misunderstood  Mama

 (photo credit)

Dear Misunderstood:

It can be challenging to find balance in our interactions with our kids. Siblings often think we should treat them the same, but each child has different needs and personalities so we need to tailor our parenting to each child.

It sounds like you and your daughter may be in a bit of a rut with your reactions to each others’ behavior. Start by taking a step back to look at what is behind your daughter’s behavior (its intent or function).

  • What is she getting from the interaction when she antagonizes her brother?
  • Attention (from who?), avoidance of something undesirable, or a sensory need met?
  • Is she tired, hungry, or over-stimulated?
  • Are there particular activities or times of day when the behavior is more common?
  • Is she trying to rile him up so he will get in trouble, too?

Once you figure out what might be behind her behavior and other factors that might be impacting it, you can teach her an appropriate replacement behavior to meet her needs and adjust your schedule or expectations if needed. Talk about options and let her choose something she feels comfortable trying. Remember, she’ll need time and opportunity to practice the new behavior with lots of support from you.

Make a point to catch your daughter making good choices and notice and recognize all the little things she is doing well throughout the day. An easy way to do this is to say, “Thank you for…” We often focus on what isn’t happening and forget to recognize what is. Research shows that it takes five positive comments to outweigh one negative one. Challenge yourself to a ratio of five to one with your daughter (and anyone else in the family who may need it).

When your daughter misbehaves, act rather than react. Re-teach the expected behavior and set limits using reminders instead of reprimands as much as possible. Take a breath or two before you respond, check your tone of voice and body language, and think about the situation from her perspective. Also, make sure you have her attention before giving directions to minimize incidents of “not listening.”

You may also want to take a look at your little obedient one to see if he is doing anything that may be exacerbating situations with his sister. Even if he isn’t, he may need to work on more effective strategies to respond to his sister. Discussing actions both children can take to improve their behavior can help to balance out the perspective that she’s the only one who gets in trouble.

Rivalry and competition is a common issue between siblings. Encouraging cooperative activities where they work together toward a common goal can support them in developing a balanced and positive relationship.

Finally, you note that your daughter is a “fun spitfire.” Does she know you think those qualities are fun? Be sure to let her know how her personality contributes to the family fun and acknowledge the positive qualities of both of your children. A great book to read with them on this topic is I Love You the Purplest by Barbara M. Joose.

How do you manage the different needs and personalities of your children?

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be our next column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.

Mama Drama: Stop Refereeing and Turn Your Kids into Solution Finders

Dear Mama Drama:

I have two boys ages 4 and 7. They struggle to solve problems between themselves when they are playing and my husband and I often feel like referees. I’d like them to be able to handle play situations better, but am not sure where to start. Help!

~Stumped Mama

A musical holiday card for all Mile High Mamas

To continue our annual tradition we offer again this vlog (video blog).

To: All Mile High Mamas everywhere
From: Three Mile High Mama sisters with very expressive eyebrows
RE: Holiday wishes

Happy and peaceful holiday wishes from me and mine to you and yours.

Mama Drama: Rampant Rudeness

Dear Mama Drama~

I am struggling with my daughter who is almost 4 saying mean things to her parents and her younger brother. When she is tired, hungry, irritated or just not in control, she says many mean things.

For example:

I don’t like you.

You are not a good brother.

You are not the boss; I am the boss.

I never like you.

I know this is not truly how she feels, but I don’t know what to say back to her to take the power out of her words. Her little brother gets sad when she is mean to him, so he’s crying and I’m in a fit hearing her use these words.

What do you say back to these mean words? Telling her that is not something we say is ineffective.

Trying to be nice,

Mommy in Erie

(photo credit)

Dear Mommy in Erie:

I can hear your heart breaking as you struggle with this situation. It can be so difficult when your children are acting mean.

It sounds like you’ve identified some of the triggers that are leading to your daughter’s rude and hurtful behavior such as tiredness, hunger, and irritability. Figuring out those triggers is a huge step.

Next I recommend looking at her schedule. Pinpoint the times when her behavior escalates and when she might become tired or hungry. Then see how you can adjust the schedule to head off the triggers with a snack, eating meals earlier, reading a book together, having quiet rest time, or other calming activities.

Become a great observer of your daughter. Begin to learn the early signs that she is becoming frustrated, tired, hungry, or out of sorts. We often feel like outbursts come out of nowhere, but with focused observation we can find the little signals that precede them. Look for subtle (or sometimes obvious) changes in behavior that indicate in increase in anxiety such as an increase in fidgeting, rapid breathing, heavy sighs, whining, or struggling to handle minor issues. Help her notice those signs and do something to alleviate them. As you both learn her body signals, you can intervene and help her stay more even.

The next step is teaching her how to handle herself when she’s tired or frustrated and how her mean words hurt you and her brother. It is important to do this when she is relaxed and rested so you can all talk about it calmly and make a plan for the next time she is feeling upset. Books are a great way to address these issues as they can feel less confrontational and you can reread them and refer to the ones she connects with when issues arise.

Some books that are appropriate for her age are Words Are Not for Hurting by Elizabeth Verdick, Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ann Miranda, When I’m Angry by Jane Aaron, When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Maude Spelman. Books that can help her understand how mean words hurt others are Andrew Angry Words by Dorothea Lachner and Snail Started It by Katja Reider.

When issues like these are happening, we can have a hard time stepping back and looking at them without being overwhelmed by emotions. Increasing our toolbox of strategies is helpful in managing it all. A great resource for parenting strategies and humor is Love and Logic Magic for the Early Childhood Years by Jim Fay and Dr. Charles Fay.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

Mama Drama: Anniversary Advice Round Up

Mama Drama is celebrating two years with Mile High Mamas!!

We’ve rounded up all of the drama Lisa has covered during that time into a variety of categories to make it easier for you to find that special nugget of information or advice you need.

Keep the questions coming ([email protected]) and remember that we all have our share of Mama Drama, so contribute your advice, ideas, and tried and true strategies as we support each other through the journey of motherhood in this fabulous community of moms.

Be sure to bookmark this page for easy access and share it with all your mommy friends!

Developmental issues:

Articulation Angst – When to worry about speech concerns.

All’s fair in love and siblings

One of Grandma Marshmallow‘s favorite places on the planet was her family cottage on the cape near Boston. She brought her children there as a young mom, and this is where my husband learned to swim from his grandfather, Grandma Lisa’s brilliant and reportedly eccentric father.

The cottage is teeny — barely 750 square feet split between two levels. And it’s, uh, “quaint,” if that word implies run down and without amenities. If one of us remembered to call the town early in the season to turn on the power, we had power. Usually we had plumbing. The second floor has been stuck at the tear-out stages of a remodel since I joined the family, and the whole place has an unlived-in, musty smell, it’s heyday, when a houseful of cousins would gather here for the entire summer, long gone.

Still, Lisa’s eyes lit up when she uttered the town’s name, which became shorthand for the house.

Practically, we used it as a place to change our suits and to shower after swimming in the ocean.

To get to the ocean, we’d have to walk through an old and small cemetery. The etchings on the thin slate or granite headstones had eroded to almost nothing, but I’m told some go as far back as the 1600s. It was eery-spooky to walk through. I amused myself by imagining the ghosts and the stories they would tell.

A year ago, the last time Grandma Lisa visited her cottage on the cape, Tessa and Reed were done swimming, done changing, and were waiting for Daddy and Grandpa to load the lawn mower onto the truck for the ride home. They busied themselves by playing with two Scottish Terriers across the lane.

There was a path to that house that was framed by railroad ties. Reed began bouncing on the railroad ties, as boys will do, not realizing that there was a wasp nest underneath.

The wasps were not happy about being jostled by this boy, and their fury was unleashed. Before any of us knew what was happening, two children were shrieking at the top of their lungs, racing for the front door of Grandma Lisa’s cottage. We adults, at the time, knew nothing of the wasp nest — we simply thought the children were playing a very intense game of some sort.

But the gravity of the situation emerged as we saw the swarm of raging wasps swirling around Reed. Tessa screamed, “BEES! DADDY SAVE ME FROM THE BEES!” She made it, insect-free, into the cottage and slammed the door behind her, locking it as protection from the “bees,” which in her mind had opposable thumbs that could turn a doorknob.

Meanwhile, Reed was at the doorstep and we were plucking angry hornets from his scalp (newly shorn in a Kojak-cut), his hands, his shoulder, his chest, his legs. The majority of the swarm returned to its railroad tie, and we worked at stamping out the offending hornets and calming down an understandably shaken Reed.

As he realized his time on earth was not over, he remembered his sister. His first words, after “GET THEM OFF ME! I’M GETTING KILLED!” were, “Is Tessa all right? Make sure my sister is OK.”

Yeah, Buddy, she’s fine. She’s safe in the cottage. Which she locked you out of.


Soon the cottage will be for sale. It’s the end of a summer ritual that has played out each summer of my husband’s entire life. The wasp story is a fitting end to the sting of the loss of Lisa.

Cross-posted on

Image: Don’t Mess With Us by Pahavit

Three part peace

To:  You
From:  Three sisters
RE:  Holiday wishes

Happy and peaceful holiday wishes from me and mine to you and yours.

Tami, Lori, Sheri

Mama Drama: Sibling Sarcasm

Dear Mama Drama:

My sons have recently been very rude and sarcastic with each other. They are frequently putting each other down or making what I consider unnecessary negative comments about something the other one is sharing. They even do this thing where they say, “I don’t mean to offend you, but…” and they finish with something really offensive!

Do you have any ideas to help them speak more respectfully to each other?

~  Offended Mama

(Photo credit)

Dear Offended:

Bickering, sarcasm, and put downs are easy habits to get into between siblings, but with support, modeling, and reinforcement they can be replaced with more positive speech.

The first step is to take a look at how you as parents are talking to your children. I’m not blaming you for their behavior, but since we are the only ones we have real control over it helps to start with ourselves. It is easy as parents to slip into the habit of noticing on the things our kids are doing wrong and commenting or correcting only on the problems. When we do this without a balance of noticing all their positive choices, we model the critical, negative behavior in which you describe your sons engaging. A good rule of thumb, taken from the PBIS teachings of George Sugai, is to give four positive comments for every one correction or negative comment. Challenge yourself to this and see how things change.

The next step is to have a conversation with your sons about your observations of how they are speaking to each other. Give them a chance, without blaming, to express how they feel when these rude or sarcastic comments are made. Let them know how you feel when you see and hear these comments, too. And if you noticed in step one that you are being overly critical, own up to that and let them know you are going to work on making changes as well.

Then set some family expectation about how you will talk with each other. First, if you start as statement with, “I don’t mean to be rude or offend…” it will be rude or offense so don’t finish it. Second, before you say something take a moment to answer these three questions:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Is it necessary?

All three questions should be answered with a yes or the comment should not be made. This doesn’t mean you can’t correct each other, it just means you can choose your words more carefully.

Use sticky notes to post these questions around your house as reminders to everyone to practice using them to guide their speech. Bathroom mirrors, kitchen cabinets, the dining room table, near the television, and inside the car are great places to start.

When you notice your sons stopping themselves from saying a negative comment or making kinder, supportive comments to each other make a big deal about it and recognize their efforts. You can even set up an easy positive recognition system that helps you remember to notice and gives them a concrete representation of the positive choices they are making.

An example is to put a marble in an empty jar every time you notice them making positive comments to each other. When the jar is full, do something fun together as a family. Putting a note on the jar stating what that activity will can help motivate them more. Make sure to follow through when the jar is full and choose something that you can all participate in together, continuing to encourage those positive interactions.

Remember that there will be days when they are cranky or are having a hard time. Be gentle with them, and yourself when you have those days, and encourage them to keep at it. The positive relationships you will build as a family are definitely worth it!

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.