Sibling rivalry is one of the most discussed topics in my practice. “How do I get my children to stop fighting? How do I help them get along?” No matter what the age difference between the children, this is an area of no escape. Common areas of conflict include siblings sharing rooms, siblings being rude to one another and siblings arguing when a friend is over. And when rivalries flare up, parents get stressed. So what can parents do to create more peace?
Learn to be a mediator instead of taking sides. Although your intention is to not protect one child over another, your children might feel that you are playing favorites. These feelings can build into resentment. One child might feel that you always take the other’s side, that you are always protecting his or her sibling and don’t see what the other child is going through.
Your children’s different personalities can complicate matters. The child who feels he or she is always wronged may be the one who is more outspoken and extroverted. The other child could appear more introverted and calm, leading you to tend to act protectively toward that child more often, even when that child is in the wrong.
In politics, they say that in order to keep the peace, it’s best to be neutral. You cannot go wrong with this technique. These conflicts also offer a teaching opportunity and way for you to role model healthy communication and conflict resolution.
Before the next conflict erupts, let your children know that the next time they argue, you will be using a new technique to help them learn how to resolve conflict.
Once the conflict erupts, have your children sit together in the same room. This can be in a hallway or any room of your choice that is quiet, neutral and free of distraction. Let them know that they will need to stay in place until the conflict has been resolved. This is not a time out, but a chance for the children to discuss what happened and resolve their conflict.
Give your children about 10 minutes to process what occurred. Let them know that you would like for them to voice their opinions to one another, not talking over or interrupting one another, but each listening while the other speaks. Tell them that after 10 minutes you will return to listen to the resolution they have decided on together.
If your children haven’t reached a solution in 10 minutes, and continue arguing, it is time for you to step in as mediator and role model what you would like for them to do. Take turns listening to each child’s side of the argument and the possible solution she or he child feels can be reached. Children tend to be impulsive and have difficulty waiting their turn. They feel that if they do not share their thoughts at that exact moment, they will not be heard. If one child argues or interrupts, take the opportunity to say, “Johnny, we are now listening to what Jackie has to say. Please wait your turn and you will be able to share your thoughts as well.”
This technique can be used as early as 7 years of age. For younger children, you’ll need to take the lead and address each child separately, refraining from using blaming language such as “you shouldn’t have,” “no,” and “don’t.” Instead, offer a neutral explanation of the other child’s perspective, such as, “When you threw your brother’s toy, he didn’t feel happy,” followed by suggestions for action such as, “Let’s go and pick up the toy and give it back.”
Encouraging siblings of all ages to apologize and make eye contact is crucial.
Siblings are a blessing, and helping your children see this will take time and effort. And while this technique requires patience, it is an excellent way to teach conflict resolution and empower your children to find new ways to resolve problems. If they see you as a neutral mediator who helped them learn to solve problems on their own, they will be grateful to you and gain skills they can use throughout life.
Regine Muradian, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who uses evidence-based treatments for children, adolescents, adults and couples with a wide range of emotional, behavioral and adjustment problems such as obesity, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, relationship issues and ADHD. She provides workshops in positive parenting, teen issues, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, family conflict resolution and organizational management. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children. Learn more at www.reginemuradian.com.