Parents of multiple children often struggle with how to handle sibling conflict. Often times, our homes can be filled with high-pitched cries of “Mom! He took my toy!” and “Dad! He hit me!” Parents find themselves in the role of arbitrator, judge, and referee. In an effort to restore quiet and sanity to the home, tired, overwhelmed and well-intentioned parents end up responding with “Share the toy” and “Don’t hit your sister.” And while this may result in momentary peace, the lesson for the child is, “He who screams first (or loudest) gets Mom on his side.” The unfortunate result? More screaming and fighting.
But beyond momentary household peace, what do we really want our children to learn? We want them to be able to communicate their needs, negotiate, tolerate, plan, and maintain their own boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others. We want them to be flexible and kind and empathic. We want them to learn to interact with others in a pro-social and responsible way. We want them to think about others without sacrificing themselves and we want them to explore and gain a solid understanding of themselves in relation to others. These are difficult concepts that require practice. And what better place to learn and practice all these skills than in the safety of our own home with our siblings? Unfortunately, when we referee as parents, we take away these opportunities for growth and interpersonal exploration. What if we embrace sibling conflict as an opportunity to grow, rather than a hassle to eliminate?
So how do we encourage and allow our children to benefit from sibling conflict rather than suffer from it? Rather than solve the problem for them, set the stage for them to negotiate it themselves. Here are three go-to responses to use the next time you hear conflict arise.
1) “I hear you’re upset with your brother. What do you want to communicate to him?”
Healthy, thriving individuals are able to communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs with others in a way that is respectful to both themselves and others. When a child hits, screams, pushes, takes a toy, cries, etc. she is communicating. Our job as parents is not to quiet the communication, but to help shape the child’s ability to communicate in an effective way. When we support our children in slowing down and trying different ways of communicating with each other, they learn not only how to do it, but also that it works. In the long run, kids learn that screaming for mom to intervene won’t solve the problem, but that communicating with their sibling will. Kids learn to identify their own thoughts and feelings about a situation, practice communication skills and build empathy.
2) “Wow, you both have different ideas of what should happen here! I wonder if you can make a plan that works for everybody.”
So often, a parent will respond to a scream of, “He took my truck!” with, “Give the truck back!” only to find the truck abandoned by everyone a moment later. The conflict between the children and the parent was pretty meaningless, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and agitated. That’s because it’s not about the truck. It’s about the process. Forcing the children to own the process allows the moment to become about the relationship rather than the object. When this happens, it is amazing what plans kids come up with. “I will be done in two minutes.” Or, “I can use this one and you can use that one.” They employ a variety of skills including creativity, problem-solving, empathy, and self-awareness. The children usually share a sense of satisfaction and pride in having come up with a solution and working together. Often the object-focused outcome is the same and the truck is soon forgotten by everyone. But this time, instead of a frustrating moment when a triangular power struggle led to a meaningless decision, the children feel connected, capable and satisfied. They practiced negotiation, empathy, listening, creativity, and teamwork. Success!
3) “Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here while you guys work this out.”
Leaning social interactions is hard work. It can feel scary and overwhelming, not only for the people struggling (presumably the child), but also for those who are observing the struggle (presumably the parent). Sometimes, as parents, we create a sense of urgency when conflict arises. We need peace to be restored quickly! Much of this has to do with our own lack of tolerance for distress. It’s hard to listen to our children fight. Our days are long and our patience runs short. But, over time, this sense of urgency can create anxiety for children around these types of conflicts. Sending the message to our children that we are willing to be patient while they work out their conflict (and that we will support them in the process) allows kids to learn to tolerate conflict as they work through it. It also sends the message that we are not going to step in and solve the conflict for them. This is especially important when we have adopted the pattern of stepping in to referee.
These three responses can be used effectively across ages. The difference may be in how closely involved the caregiver is in the interaction. For toddlers or pre-verbal children, the caregiver may need to do lots of interpreting: “You’re telling your brother you are so angry! You want the truck back!” For preschoolers, it may mean sitting closely to help ground the children in the moment or keep bodies safe. Reflecting back what each child says and modeling a rhythm for communication and dialogue may be necessary. For school-age children or adolescents, it may be simply making the statement and then getting out of the way. But whatever the age of the children involved, we as parents definitely need to be able to tolerate distress and conflict. Rather than responding with the thought of, “Oh, no! The kids are fighting again!” we can practice thinking, “Oh, yes! Another opportunity to practice communication!” We need to give up the immediate and momentary goal of household peace in exchange for the long-term goal of empowering children to develop the skills needed for peaceful conflict resolution. The results may just blow our mind.