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Not Getting Along

by Alissa
(Cedar Park, TX USA)

I watch three elementary school children everyday after school. They are all different ages--I have a 2nd, 3rd and 5th grader.

Recently I have been having problems with the 2nd and 5th grader. They are both girls and I thought that they would have no problem getting along. But lately they have been fighting and playing the blame game a lot. They both have very strong personalities and really big attitudes.

The second grader is my niece and I am starting to feel that there might be some jealousy because of that fact. I have tried working with them and sitting them down and trying to figure out the problem without them yelling and blaming each other.

It always seems that the fifth grader has a bigger attitude and wants to put everyone down and not admit that she may be in the wrong and if you even hint that she is wrong she breaks down and starts the water works. Now she is getting a feel of what it's like to be treated like that because the 3rd grader and my niece are starting to act that way to her. I don't want to start that cycle of them all being mean to each other.

I can't seem to find a happy medium and it seems like anything I do doesn't make the problem go away. They just hide their anger or put it aside and agree with me. I can tell when the problem hasn't been solved and they just want me to go away. I really need help because not only is this stressing me out but its stressing their parents out and causing a strain in friendships.

Please help--I need advice ASAP.

Response from Dr. DeFoore

Hello Alissa, and thanks for telling your story on this site. It is great that you want to improve your situation with the three girls you care for. I will do my best to help you.

The first thing I suggest is that you spend some time with your own thoughts, perceptions and feelings about the girls.

1) Write in a journal about what you like and dislike about each child. This is for no one's eyes but yours, so don't worry about how it might look to someone else. Just be honest with yourself.

2) Be aware of any biases you have--which child you like the best and the least.

3) when you've decided who you have the most trouble liking (sounds like it might be the 5th grader...), begin looking for and writing about her positive aspects. Get into a strong mode of appreciation for all of her good qualities and traits. Do the same for the other girls, but emphasize the one you have the most issues with.

4) Do the above journaling processes each day, ideally in the morning, to "set the tone" for your afternoon time with them.

5) Once you feel that you have a more balanced, positive attitude about each of the girls, try some of these activities the next time you are with them, and I suggest you do them daily and on an ongoing basis:

  • I suggest you hug them each when you first see them in the afternoon, and give appropriate touch throughout your time together.

  • When they first arrive from school, healthy snacks or fruit would be good to start the time together in a feel-good way.

  • Sit with them in a circle, ideally on the floor. Play the "hi-lo" game, where each of you talks about the best thing and the worst thing that happened that day. This helps them to express their emotions in a safe and structured way. Make it fun, no pressure--and be sure you participate with them. No right or wrong answers in this exercise.

  • While still in the circle, tell them each what you like about them, being sure to smile while you're talking. Try your best to give equal enthusiasm and emotion to each one. Finish by saying what you like about yourself.
  • Ask them to do the same, going around and saying what they like about each person, then what they like about themselves.

  • Make this fun, and if someone doesn't want to participate, do not pressure them.

  • Start smiling and laughing with them as much as possible. Come up with jokes and funny things that are age-appropriate, so that you're creating a lot of humor and positive emotion when they're with you.

  • Give extra, positive time and attention to the child who seems to be the least happy. They each need to feel that you like them, personally and individually.

6) When they get into conflicts, I suggest you avoid the problem-solving sessions. Try separating them temporarily into focusing on other activities--such as, "Mary, will you please come and help me with this?" or something like that.

7) Try putting the 5th grader in charge of some activity, stating clearly that she is older and therefore ready to take more responsibility. She really needs to feel that you like and admire her.

8) Last, but not least, try to teach them empathy. When one of them is upset, have the others say (and you participate), "I'm sorry you're upset. When I put myself in your shoes, I can see why you would be upset." Also teach them reflective listening. You will find more information on empathy and conflict resolution here.

You have what it takes to succeed in this, Alissa.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. DeFoore

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