Toy Grabbing – An Empathetic Approach to Sibling Quarrels

Sibling Quarrels



Read your post from this morning and have a question for you regarding how you handle the sibling rivalry that you were describing.  My kids, 4.5 years and 1.5 years, pretty much fight all day long.  It’s really frustrating.  Basically every single situation plays itself out like this: Ella grabs toy from baby, baby screams bloody murder, I yell at Ella and demand that she gives it back, she cries hysterically and insists that SHE was playing with that toy (or was about to).  I’ve tried explaining a million ways that she just can’t keep snatching anything she wants from him, tried getting her to imagine how this makes him feel (sad, etc), punished her (usually sending her away by herself).  Yet it just KEEPS happening like CONSTANTLY every day.  I know kids fight and there is always sibling rivalry but this is seriously detracting from my enjoyment of being with my kids and makes me want to drive south and keep going until I reach Mexico (by myself, that is). I know you focus on the empathy approach but have you utilized that in a similar scenario and does it work?  I am at my wits end.  Curious to know your thinking on this one.


Yes this kind of thing, days like these when the kids are at each other, seemingly without stopping, certainly make me want to run for the hills (or Mexico) too. Fighting is hard to be around no matter who is doing the fighting.


To answer the question, yes I do employ empathy in scenarios like this one. Empathy is my main parenting strategy and I try to use it every single time there is any kind of outburst, dispute, or feeling of any kind.


But these are my specific thoughts for this scenario.


1. Empathy is not the tool for getting Ella to give the toy back.


2. Empathy doesn’t work alongside punishment.


3. What are Ella’s underlying feelings and needs?




1. Empathy is not a coercion method.


Empathy is not a means to get a child to do something. Very often compliance does happen, after receiving empathy a child loses most of their resistance and happily goes along with a parent’s request. But this outcome is a bonus, not a given. Empathy given with the goal of eliciting a particular response is not true empathy.


When I say empathy is my main strategy I mean that using empathy is the tool that helps me. It helps me find little windows of possibility, it helps me shift my perspective, usually the perspective of: I’m right, this child is wrong, and if they don’t do what I want, I will lose my shit. Shifting my perspective allows me to find ways to help them through their tricky spots.


In the case of children fighting, or in this particular case of one child taking a toy from another, empathy is perfect. As soon as the “altercation” occurs mom can step in and offer empathy (not request that one child have empathy for the other) for both kids. That’s right, both kids. Although it seems there is an actor- the grabber, and a victim- the baby, it does not help matters to see things from this perspective. It is more helpful to see the children simply as two people experiencing strong emotions.


Giving empathy to both parties simultaneously is ideal.


For the baby: You are so sad huh? You weren’t done with that toy. You didn’t like it that she took that from you. Are you frustrated?


For Ella: Oh wow. You really wanted that toy huh? You wanted it so bad you were willing to just take it huh? Darn it. You’re really having a hard time.


With love and kisses all around.


Offering empathy in this environment does two things. It honors the feelings present. This may not seem like a big deal on paper, but let me assure you it is everything. This is what most people want during tough times, more than anything else in the world they want to just simply be heard and recognized. The moment shifts completely when empathy is in place, the “combatants” switch from being antagonists to comrades, two people in pain.


It also models empathy. By showing the baby empathy Ella sees how it works. And by receiving empathy Ella sees how it feels. If this is her model, if this is how her parents handle things, then she will do so as well.


2. Empathy and punishment.


Unfortunately a child that is wary of punishment coming down the pike will be more concerned with defending her actions, and excusing herself from culpability (and therefore punishment), than connecting with how her younger sibling feels. A child worried about what will happen to them won’t even hear empathy, either toward them or the other child, and has no hope of employing it herself in the future.


At this young age there is very little separation for a child between what they are feeling and how they express that feeling. For example, feeling angry and taking a toy are so closely linked in a child’s mind that being punished for taking the toy is the same as being punished for being angry. Because of this, instead of learning to express empathy for other people, what is more likely is that a child that feels she has been punished for her feelings will want to punish others for their feelings. In this light a crying baby brother becomes not something to empathize with but to disdain.


There is a time and a place to talk about sharing toys. Giving Ella empathy does not mean that you agree with her methods. In our household all of the toys are shared, meaning no one owns any particular toy, and if a toy is not being used it is available to anyone that might like to play with it. We find this extremely helpful in combating a child’s desire to protect what is “theirs” and to keep others from playing with it even if they themselves are playing with something else. This might be a policy worth exploring, but this exploration should take place away from the emotional situation, meaning after empathy and after  a child feels completely heard and understood.


3. Underlying need.


When a child repeatedly does something, especially something that has a negative outcome (ie; crying, punishment, etc.) this is a good sign that there are underlying feelings and needs that are going unaddressed. Ella most likely was not playing with that particular toy nor was she about  to play with that toy. So why then does she want to take it away from her sibling? What motive does she have and what does she get if she does this?


Parents are the best at figuring out what might be happening emotionally for their children. If we look into ourselves and into the hearts of our dear children we are able to use our insight to figure out these mysteries. Without knowing the particular children in question, I can only guess. Maybe Ella is angry that her brother even exists. Maybe Ella is worried that her mom loves him more, and doesn’t have as much time for her. Maybe Ella is concerned that babies aren’t careful enough with toys.


There are many possibilities for underlying feelings. Once these are recognized a parent can address the underlying needs that accompany those feelings. Does she need reassurance about how toys are made, and that they are strong enough to withstand drooling babies? Does she need empathy for being an older sibling, for her whole world changing so dramatically? Does she need reminders that moms have enough love for all of their children?


When Ella yanks a toy perhaps mom gives her attention, albeit negative attention, does this give us a clue as to what she might need? When Ella is given time by herself after she yanks a toy she still yanks toys. My guess is that time away from her loved ones is not what she needs, and may even contribute to her doing something else offensive as another attempt to get what she needs.


Until the underlying need is met a parent can talk until they are blue in the face about sharing toys, can give ever more extreme punishments, can even give mountains of empathy about toy sharing, and nothing will happen except more toy yanking.


Empathy for the underlying feelings looks like this:


a. Are you having a hard time having a baby brother? It’s different now that he is here isn’t it. Are you sad that our family changed? (Need for empathy?)


b. Did you take that toy because you are worried he won’t keep it safe? It’s special to you isn’t it. You want to be sure it stays in one piece. (Need for information?)


c. Are you upset that he is playing with the toys you like to play with? Are you worried that now that he is here and doing the things that you like to do, that I won’t have time for you? Are you afraid that I won’t have enough arms or love for both of you? (Need for reassurance?)


Addressing the needs behind these feelings looks like this:


a. More empathy: Our family is different now. Is that hard? Do you feel sad about that?


b. Information. I think this toy was built pretty tough. It’s made for his age group so I’m pretty sure it will be okay. I’ll keep an eye out as he plays with it to see if it looks like it’s changing shape or losing any pieces. Let’s have another toy ready just in case okay? That way if it looks like it isn’t working out with this toy we can offer to trade him for another.


c. Reassurance. Did you know that when a mom has another child that her love grows too? I will never run out of love. I have waaaaay more than enough for both of you. Even if I give him love I still have mountains of love for you. Are you needing some extra loving from me today? 




On the surface we are all looking for ways to just make our kids stop fighting. We’d all like a simple phrase, a magic button, anything to just make it stop. But the surface is not where we must start. There is a whole world underneath, and that’s where we need to start.


ps. If confounded as to what your child’s particular underlying needs might be there is a handy list on the Center for Non-violent Communication’s Website.



About Natalie Christensen

Natalie Christensen is a mother, artist, and writer living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator and illustrator of the innovative line of emotional-educational tools called Feeleez. She writes about her empathy-based parenting ideas, struggles, and triumphs at Natalie also helps other mamas and papas find new perspectives and ideas about their lives and parenting through phone consults.


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