Secrets to Sorting Sibling Squabbles

Is sibling conflict and rivalry one of the constant stressors of your life as a parent? Do you tear your hair out with frustration as you hear your children yell at each other, yet again?  Are you overwhelmed by the thought of holidays, and the seemingly inevitable squabbling siblings?  Or perhaps you simply wish to enhance the relationship your children already have, to enable them to love and support each other throughout their lives?

Read on to see how you can assist your children to resolve their own conflicts, and help them develop a sibling relationship of respect and empathy, using effective communication skills. The article includes an example to help illustrate the steps being put into practice.

Resolving Conflict

Why help our children resolve their own conflict?

When we see children fighting, it is tempting to interfere and act as judge and jury, in order to solve the argument.  However, when we do this we become part of the conflict, and the focus becomes the parent and their verdict on the issue, rather than the siblings and their relationship.  When we involve ourselves in the conflict, our children can be tempted to draw you onto ‘their’ side – perhaps even making up stories, so that they look innocent and therefore won’t get into ‘trouble’ from their parent.

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that our children ‘own’ their relationship.  The disagreement is between the children – the ‘parties’.  They need to learn to resolve their own arguments so that no one loses, in order to preserve a healthy relationship.

Our role is to mediate, model and mentor.  (Of course, it is also to keep people physically and psychologically safe during sibling disagreements!)

If we can teach our children how to respectfully resolve their own relationship conflicts, then we are gifting them with a skill for life.  They can transfer this skill to the playground; to playing with cousins and friends; to the workplace; to future relationships with their partners; and, importantly, to their relationship with their own children.

Here is a step-by-step method of resolving sibling disputes, based on the no-lose conflict resolution model of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T).  My model includes practical ideas to help people in conflict hear each other and, hopefully, resolve the issue.  The method is flexible – you’ll find you won’t put every step into practice every time there is an issue.  And sometimes it just won’t seem to work – your children may be overwhelmed, tired, or have needs that can’t be met at this point in time.  Persevere, and try again next time. 

Initially, acting as mediator may take longer than acting as a Judge.  Over time, however, you should find that your input wouldn’t be required as often.  As you mediate, you model and teach your children conflict resolution skills.  This will help your children to work through their disagreements by themselves.

When there is a successfully negotiated agreement, your children (and you) will feel closer.  This is in contrast to the feelings generated by a parent-generated verdict, which could include: resentment towards the other child (and probably the parent); both children ganging up against the parent; one child feeling like a loser; or the parent feeling exhausted and possibly guilty.

Who will benefit (age range and groups of children)

In my experience, the principles outlined below are suitable for very young children through to adults.  With pre or newly verbal children, you may need to speak on the younger child’s behalf, as part of the resolution.

These skills can be used with any conflict, not just siblings.  For example, when single children have friends over to play, you can try putting some of these ideas into practice if there are any arguments.  Teachers may find these steps useful when they have warring students.

The Secret

The secret to this method’s success is, I believe, helping children to hear each other (see step 7).  Learning to listen helps children consider each other, and work towards a win-win resolution.

The Model

1.            Explain to your children that you will be doing things differently when they fight.

Let your children know in advance that when they fight, you will be guiding them on how to sort things out between them.  At a time when everything is calm and you’re just having ‘family time’, you can explain that you won’t be taking sides; and you won’t be deciding who’s right or wrong.  Explain how you will be mediating their fights - that you will be helping them to hear each other, and they will be responsible for resolving their own dispute.

2.            Remember – this conflict is between your children.

Remind yourself that your role is to facilitate the relationship between your children, not become involved in the disagreement.  Awareness is always the first step!

3.            Set the physical stage:

Tip 1:  Separate the warring parties. 

Tip 2: Get down to their level.

Place yourself between the young people who are arguing, or in a triangle with you at the apex (if possible).  If they are sitting down, then try sitting down with them.  If we remain standing, then our towering physical height will suggest ‘power over’, and our children may continue to see us as the Judge, rather than the facilitator.

4.            Try a ‘solution book’.

The idea of a ‘solution book’ came from a participant in one of the parenting groups I run.  Whenever her children began to fight, or if she needed to solve a problem with them, she’d ask them to get the ‘solution book’ (just a simple notebook).  The kids loved it, and would race to find the book.  Even though they couldn’t read or write, they valued seeing their words written down, or pictures that Mum would write to illustrate the ideas.

In the case of sibling conflict, the presence of a physical object such as a ‘solution book’, or even a smart phone or tablet, to write down ideas, can be a fantastic way of taking the focus away from the fight. 

5.            Define the Problem.

Tip 1: Keep your voice calm

Tip 2: Remain neutral – don’t take sides

Tip 3: Only one person to talk at a time

Ask each child to explain their version of what happened, and why they are angry, sad or frustrated.  Start with the child who has been hurt, or seems the unhappiest.  An important ground rule is that while one child speaks, the other has to avoid interrupting.

6.            Parent ‘active listens’ each child

After each child has their say, the parent active listens.  This involves reflecting back both the feelings and the facts that you’ve heard your children say.  At this stage, both children will probably be looking at you.

7.            Parent helps each child HEAR the other child

Tip 1:            Ask each child to look at each other.

The disagreement is between the siblings.  By looking at each other, they are then ‘owning’ their relationship, and you are simply the facilitator.

Tip 2:            Ask each child to repeat back to their sibling what they heard their brother or sister say.

 This is a VERY powerful step, and I think is the secret to resolving sibling conflict.  Often, children just want to be heard and understood – and this includes by their brother or sister.  Once a child feels acknowledged, much of the built-up feelings may dissipate (and the dispute may even dissolve).  They are then able to move into the next step, which involves thinking.

8.            Summarise the issue for each child.

Before moving into problem solving, I’ve found it useful to summarise the needs that may have been uncovered during this process.         

9.            Invite children to come up with ideas to solve the problem.

Tip 1:            Begin with an age appropriate invitation, such as “Do you have any ideas that would help you both be happy?”

Tip 2:            Don’t evaluate ideas – allow all ideas to come out first.

Tip 3:            Write the ideas down.

Children don’t enjoy fighting, and research shows they will come up with solutions that are fair to both parties if given the chance.  Problem solving allows them to be considerate of the needs of both their sibling, and themselves.  Preventing each child from evaluating the other’s ideas allows creativity and respect to flow.

10.            Evaluate, choose and implement the solution.

These three steps usually tumble out quickly once the ideas have been discussed.

11.            Check the result

Coming back to see if the problem has been solved is a useful step that is often forgotten.  You may discover that one person, upon reflection, was not happy with the solution.  You can help them start the process again.  You will also help your children realise that this method may work for future conflicts. 

An Example

Let’s look at Ben (6) and Maria (4).  Ben’s birthday was yesterday, and he got a new, red toy car to play with.  Maria asks if she could play with the car, and Ben said “no!”  Suddenly, Maria takes the car from Ben and begins to play with it.

Mum places herself between the children.  She gently takes the car from Maria, and puts it on her lap.  Both children are clearly very unhappy.  Mum decides to talk to Ben first, because he is crying and very upset.

          Mum (defining the problem):  “Ben, would you like to tell me what happened?”

          Ben:              “Maria took my new car – I’ve only had it one day!”

Mum:            “Maria – would you like to tell me what happened?”

Maria:            “Ben always has new toys! I only get his hand-me-down toys to play with, never anything new!  And I like red!”

Mum (active listening):  “Hmmm.  So Ben, you’re sad because you were playing with your new car, then Maria took it from you.”

Ben:             “Yes”

Mum (active listening):  “And Maria, you were annoyed because you wanted to play with a new toy, not those second-hand toys.  And you like the colour red.”

Maria:            Nods her head, not looking at Mum or Ben.

Mum (helping them hear each other):“I’d like you to look at each other (without making faces), and tell each other what you heard them say – why you think they are sad or annoyed.”

(Mum moves back slightly so they are looking at each other directly)

Ben (active listens Maria while looking at her):  “You are sick of playing with my old toys, and wanted to play with something new.  And you likes red”.

Mum:            “Is that how you feel, Maria?”

Maria:            Nods head

Mum:            “Maria, why do you think Ben is sad?”

Maria (active listens Ben while looking at him): “’Cause I took your red car and then you couldn’t play with it?”

Mum looks at Ben, who nods his head.

Mum (summarises issues before inviting them to problem solve):           

                    “So – it seems that Ben is annoyed because the car he was playing with was taken by Maria.  Maria did this because she wanted to play with something new and red.  I wonder if you have any ideas to help you both be happy?  I can write your ideas down in the solution book if you like, and then we can discuss which ideas you both like the best.”

The children decide that they’d like Mum to put the timer on for five minutes, and each child can play with the car for 5 minutes.  When Mum comes back to see how they’re going, she finds they are both engrossed in a car game.  At dinner that night, she asks how they felt about their solution, and acknowledges the way they handled the conflict.

Friends for Life

Many years ago, these words from my grandmother made a lasting impression . “All I wanted for my children was for them to be friends.” Facilitating the development of a respectful, caring relationship between your children will help them be friends for life.

Further resources and relevant blogs:

When I'm Angry With My Child and My Child Is Angry With Me

Examples: Reasoning with a very young child: when parent and child are unhappy.

Resource: About Conflict Resolution - Kidsmatter

Written by Larissa Dann         Posted December 18 2014.  Updated 2017.                  Image used under license from Shutterstock   

© Larissa Dann. 2014,2017.  All rights reserved.   


Thanks for this very practical example Larissa

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