The Opposite of Combat – A Synopsis

Okay, so I’ve been teasing it for a while now, and here it is: my synopsis and review of The Opposite of Combat: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching Siblings How to Collaborate and Solve Their Own Conflicts.

My curiosity about the book was piqued when I learned about a webinar with the author of the book, Susan North. Susan’s name rang a distant and rusty bell in my brain (and I later learned that is because she studied RIE at one point) and because of the topic: sibling conflict. If parents are talking to me about siblings, odds are they’re talking to me about conflict and I wanted to find a good resource I could point parents to (I like a lot of the info in Siblings without Rivalry, but the tone of the book has never sat well with me).

Speaking of Sw/oR, I just want to mention that The Opposite of Conflict has a really spectacular, annotated bibliography of several parenting books and a plethora of books about siblings. I’ll include the list in an extra document I’m generating for this email (See the end of this post), but her annotated notes might be well worth the cost of the kindle download (or a real life book purchase) to peruse if you have multiple children.

The main theme of this book is that conflict is normal, it’s natural, and it’s to be expected…so let’s teach children to do it well instead of something to get through or past…let’s teach children (and maybe ourselves) “conflict competence.” She cites Lee Salk, saying that ‘siblings create stresses for one another and those stresses, if overcome successfully, provide perspective and adaptability’ (Chapter 2).  It’s something we work on in RIE classes, but if you have more than one child at home, you get to practice more than once a week…

She argues that the way to do this is through mediation. What so often happens when siblings fight is actually arbitration (which is what happens when parents preside over a conflict, perhaps hearing both sides, and then hand down a judgement/ruling). Arbitration works, but only in the short term because the next time a conflict comes up, children are going to need that judge again, which means parents are called on to referee again. What people in ongoing relationships (like siblings!) need are the skills and tools to talk with each other and work things out together. The sneaky thing that happens with arbitration is that each party is pitted against the other, they become consumed with winning, may exaggerate their feelings or mis-remember things in favor of their own side (come on, we’ve all been there…). It may also set up winners (gloaters) and losers (vengeance-seekers), which leads to (say it with me) more conflicts. With mediation, the goal is for each party to really hear the other side (and sometimes become aware of deeper feelings that are driving the conflict), and then find a way to work toward a mutually satisfactory end.

The title of the book comes from the steps North outlines for mediation…literally, the opposite of combat…TABMOC (Talking, Acknowledgement, Brainstorming, Mulling it over, Organizing and Contracting). For most of the people on this list, I think the book is one to grow into. I think the steps make a lot of sense for helping parents structure conversations for mediation, and there are also elements that work for children under 3, but overall, I think that the steps are geared toward families with older children. (And I will also say I don’t agree with a couple of her points surrounding discipline…requiring a child who hurt their sibling to get an ice pack, for example…or taking away a toy that children are fighting over.)

That said, the main reason I felt compelled to get the book was because as I was listening to North talk during that webinar, I just kept thinking…this is RIE! The idea of letting children work out their conflicts between themselves, developing awareness for how the other person feels, giving space for children to express their emotions authentically and be heard while keeping both children safe…this is RIE’s approach to conflict!

Many of the examples in the book felt a little stilted to me, but I think if you take her steps, along with what you have already begun practicing with RIE, it will end up feeling more authentic to you and your family.

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the idea of mediation, distinguish it from arbitration, and outline her basic steps. Chapter 3 is a series of 10 different examples of mediation. It’s an interesting idea to place the examples before the explanations, but it works because no one example is going to encompass all of the various components of mediation…the smorgasbord that she provides hits all of the elements, so she can refer back, as well as provide parents of siblings of just about any age/configuration, an example they can relate to. Again, they feel pretty stilted, but think of them as an outline that you can use to flesh out.

Chapters 4 and 5 talk about helpful and not so helpful questions to ask when engaging as a mediator. Hint: helpful questions are open-ended questions, the goal of which is to lead us to open space in which participants can communicate, share feelings, and collaborate. And not so helpful questions…well, aren’t helpful, but sure are familiar to any of us who’ve ever been in conflict…gotcha questions, closed questions (yes/no), the good old “who started it?/who had it first?”…and even questions that actually might be really useful…if you save them for when you (and they) are less heated (e.g., “what were you thinking?”).

Chapter 6 is the meatiest chapter of the book because this is where North lays out every component of mediation…from separating mediation from discipline, to assessing your mind-frame and learning to focus on the primary conflict while still keeping track of other issues that come up, to learning to pay attention to deeper feelings and issues. She also talks extensively about something that is important to sibling relationships (and can be important in helping any two people navigating a conflict): the idea of ‘power balancing.’ In any dynamic, you are apt to have one person who is more verbal…or more emotional, or more logical, or more mature…and a good mediator helps bring balance to the conversation. Similarly, she outlines how to keep conversations respectful through the use of I-messages, Active Listening, and helping children ‘reframe’ (she calls it removing the poison while preserving the message). Then she goes on to discuss how to subtly help shift the conversation from ‘you vs me’ to ‘us vs the problem’ while acknowledging that this is not something that will always work…but offering several suggestions for how to pick it up again another time.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 were where I felt most at home. She brought in a little Dan Siegel in talking about the very important piece of asking children to talk about emotions to help with emotional self-regulation… “neurologically speaking, you cannot be furious and reflect upon your fury at the same time.” And she emphasized that when parents practice mediation…listening without judging or denying feelings…they are modeling empathy (as well as developing their ability to ‘read’ their children better and better). She outlined the LONGEST list of feelings words I’ve ever come across (check the list below) and emphasized how a rich vocabulary of emotional language helps children both process and communicate feelings. She outlined how to craft I-messages and Active Listening, and how to respond when children yell and say hurtful things to you (hint: it’s hurtful communication, but it’s communication. Try to respond to the communication first…this is how you may ‘connect.’ Later, when cooler heads prevail, you can ‘redirect’ and talk to them about how it feels to be yelled at).

I absolutely ADORED what she said about shame, forced sharing, and forced apologies. Shame is a lousy teacher because it changes the subject. We know we did something wrong, but if we’re humiliated, all the mental energy we should devote to thinking about that gets allocated to defending our ego. When you leave shame out of it, your child is left with an interior sense of discomfort…which we think about and want to alleviate, as well as resolve not to do in the future.

Forced sharing simply teaches a version of ‘might makes right’ and instills resentment and powerlessness (and will only be effective if a parent is present to enforce). Forced apologies are often fused with humiliation (you should be ashamed of yourself! Go apologize!)…this leads to self-pity and embarrassment, resentment…which children now associate with apologies…no wonder so many adults have trouble with apologies!!

The thing is, these lovely and socially-appropriate feelings and skills we want our children to have…generosity and remorse…they don’t start developing and occurring spontaneously until children are 3-5 and yet we are monitoring their social behavior and trying to influence them when they are not ready… in fact when they are developmentally appropriately still self-centered and still developing empathy (and before their frontal lobes have started to develop!). This is not to say there is no need to intervene before that…no, indeed…you can model, you can demonstrate, you can use your own observations and emotion-rich words. Eventually, your child will begin to share and to apologize, and when they do, it will feel pleasurable and meaningful to them…and to you…don’t rob them, or yourself, of that gift.

The central theme of this book is helping readers understand that conflict, in and of itself, is not misbehavior…siblings having a dispute are not being naughty, but are working on a problem…it’s a normal human engagement…so let’s learn to do it well!

I absolutely love the last metaphor she leaves you with…we want peace in our families, right? Well, think of peace as a garden…but remember that gardening is serious, grubby, challenging work, but it provides satisfaction and long-reaching rewards. RIE Parenting is serious, grubby, challenging work, but it absolutely provides satisfaction and long-reaching rewards.

The Opposite of COMBAT, selected Extras:

Suggestions of Open Ended Questions; Chapter 4

Sample questions:

  • What’s going on?
  • What do you think happened?
  • How did you feel about that?
  • How did that affect your feelings?
  • How did you feel when s/he said that?
  • Do you remember how you felt when it first happened?
  • What would it take for you to feel differently about this?
  • What happened right before that?
  • How were you feeling right before that?
  • Is there something you’d like to bring up that you’re maybe a little worried about discussing?
  • Could you talk a little more about that?
  • What did you want/expect him/her to do?
  • What will it looks like if this happens again?
  • What would it feel like to do it in this new way instead?
  • Does this remind you of something else?
  • What did you mean when you said___________?
  • What’s really, really important to you about this?
  • What will it feel like for you if we don’t solve this?
  • What would it take for you to feel like we’ve solved this?
  • Can you say that in another way so s/he might understand you better?
  • How did you…?
  • Why did you…?

When to Mediate and When to Arbitrate, Chapter 7

When to Mediate

  • Do I care about the outcome? (If no, this is a great time to practice)
  • Is this issue chronic?
  • Is it repetitious?  (Recurring over a single idea or want)
  • Does it resonate with other conflicts they’ve been having?
  • Am I having trouble understanding why this is happening (is there more beneath the surface)?

When to Arbitrate

  • Time is short
  • Circumstances are unfavorable (you’re driving)
  • You’re in a bad mood/impatient
  • You are too angry
  • You can’t be neutral

Sometimes you aren’t neutral because you’ve observed that one child has been picking on the other more often…you might lean in the other child’s favor. However, if you’re just arbitrating because of time, circumstances or mood, plan to mediate later.

Arbitrate when a decision calls for adult experience, judgement/wisdom. (E.g. Kids want to drive someplace in a storm. Normally, you’d let them work it out, but you know one is a better driver. You might arbitrate that the better driver takes the wheel)

Arbitrate when safety is an issue.

Emotional Language, Chapter 9

Do your kids know 10 farm animals? Do they also know 10 emotion words?

If you’re at a park and you see a goose…you won’t say “bird”…you’d say “goose”…and when your child is upset, instead of saying ‘bad’…say angry, frustrated, scared, worried, annoyed, indignant, ashamed…

Teaching emotion words can also lead to empathy…when their feeling state is described as X and then they see someone else who may be crying and it is also labeled X, they will begin to understand how the other person is feeling.

Beyond Mad-Sad-Glad

  • Accepting, Resigned
  • Affectionate, Caring, Loving
  • Afraid, Alarmed, Fearful, Frightened, Scared, Terrified
  • Aggravated, Bothered, Concerned, Disturbed
  • Aggressive, Combative, Violent
  • Agitated, Distraught, Distressed, Impatient, Nervous, On edge, Panicky, Restless, Uncomfortable, Uneasy, Upset
  • Amazed, Astonished, Flabbergasted, Shocked, Startled, Stunned, Stupefied, Surprised
  • Ambivalent, Conflicted
  • Amenable, Easygoing, Flexible
  • Amused, Funny, Giggly, Playful, Silly, Zany
  • Angry, Annoyed, Enraged, Furious, Indignant, Inflamed, Infuriated, Mad, Provoked, Seething
  • Anticipative, Expectant
  • Anxious, Apprehensive, Concerned, Dreading, Troubled, Worried
  • Apathetic, Avoidant, Detached, Indifferent, Uncaring, Unfeeling, Uninterested
  • Appreciated, Cherished, Liked, Loved, Valued
  • Aroused, Eager, Energetic, Enthusiastic, Excited, Exuberant, Overexcited, Passionate
  • Ashamed, Shamed
  • Attacked
  • Baffled, Confused, Perplexed, Puzzled
  • Belittled, Berated, Criticized, Degraded, Denied, Devalued, Discounted, Disrespected, Rejected, Unworthy
  • Belligerent, Stubborn
  • Betrayed, Cheated, Duped
  • Bitter, Resentful,
  • Bold, Brave, Confident, Courageous, Sure
  • Bored
  • Burdened, Overwhelmed, Put-upon, Stressed
  • Calm, Comfortable, Gentle, Patient, Peaceful, Quiet, Relaxed, Serene
  • Cautious, Guarded, Hesitant, Insecure, Reluctant, Unsure, Wary
  • Clingy
  • Compassionate, Generous, Helpful, Kind
  • Contemptuous
  • Content, Contented, Delighted, Ecstatic, Elated, Glad, Happy, Joyful, Pleased, Thrilled
  • Contrary, Oppositional, Rebellious
  • Cranky, Fussy, Irascible, Irritable, Irritated, Hungry, Physically uncomfortable, Sleepy
  • Curious
  • Defeated, Intimidated, Overpowered, Pressured, Subjugated
  • Dejected, Depressed, Despondent, Grief-stricken, Heartbroken, Inconsolable, Miserable, Mournful, Sad, Tearful, Unhappy
  • Derided, Made fun of, Mocked,
  • Despairing, Helpless, Inadequate, Useless
  • Desperate, Hopeless, Trapped
  • Despised, Detested, Hated, Loathed
  • Determined
  • Devastated, Discouraged, Dismayed, Fed up
  • Disappointed
  • Disgusted, Repelled
  • Disliked, Excluded, Ignored, Isolated, Lonely, Lonesome, Neglected, Unappreciated, Unliked, Unloved, Unrecognized
  • Dissociative, Emotionless, Flat, Unemotional
  • Distracted
  • Doubtful, Doubting, Pessimistic, Skeptical
  • Embarrassed, Mortified
  • Engaged, Focused, Friendly, Interested, Involved
  • Enticed, Tempted
  • Envious, Jealous
  • Exasperated, Frustrated
  • Exhausted, Fatigued, Tired, Worn out
  • Grateful, Gratified, Thankful
  • Guilty
  • Hopeful, Optimistic
  • Humiliated, Hurt, Insulted, Offended
  • Hysterical
  • Independent
  • Inspired, Motivated
  • Longing, Wishful, Yearning
  • Mischievous
  • Nostalgic
  • Possessive
  • Powerful, Strong
  • Protected, Safe, Secure
  • Proud, Worthy
  • Regretful, Remorseful, Sorry
  • Relieved, Satisfied
  • Selfish, Ungenerous
  • Self-satisfied, Smug
  • Sensitive, Touchy
  • Shy, Timid
  • Suspicious
  • Touched
  • Triggered
  • Unsafe, Vulnerable
  • Vengeful
  • Withdrawn

Fifteen ways to say “I’m Listening”, Chapter 9

  1. In other words, you…
  2. So to be clear/to clarify…
  3. So, long story short…
  4. I want to be sure I’ve hear/understood what you said…
  5. Let me see if I’ve got this right…
  6. Then I think what you’re saying is…
  7. Are you saying that…
  8. Tell me if this sounds right…
  9. Help me understand…
  10. It sounds like you…
  11. What I’m hearing is…
  12. If I heard/understood you correctly…
  13. So, my understanding is…
  14. It sounds/seems like you are saying…
  15. To summarize…

Parenting Bibliography

T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints: The Essential Reference – Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development

Laura Davis and Janis Keyser’s Becoming the Parent You Want to Be

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk

Daniel Siegel and Mary Harzell’s Parenting from the Inside Out

Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore’s Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges

Siblings Bibliography

Louise Bates Ames and Carol Chase Haber’s He Hit Me First: When Brothers and Sisters Fight

T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow’s Understanding Sibling Rivalry the Brazelton Way

Carole and Andrew Calladine’s Raising Brothers and Sisters without Raising the Roof

Judy Dunn’s Sisters and Brothers: The Developing Child

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s Siblings without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together so You can Live Too

Joan A Friedman’s Emotionally Healthy Twins: A New Philosophy for Parenting Two Unique Children

Peter Goldenthal’s Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate

Sybil Hart’s Preventing Sibling Rivalry: Six Strategies to Build a Jealousy-Free Home

Jo Ann, Marjory and Joel Levitt’s Sibling Rivalry: 8 Steps to Successful Adult Sibling Relationships

Dr. Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life

Susan Scarf Merell’s The Accidental Bond: The Power of Sibling Relationships

Nancy Samalin’s Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings