Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Sibling Rivalry: When the Kids Fight…

Many years ago I visited the home of what some might call the perfect family.  Imagine a beautiful colonial home, fresh flowers, five children who are all home-schooled and who help each other without whining.  As an avid student of children, I immediately was very curious to discover the source of this family’s domestic tranquility and so I interviewed the mother to discover the secret to her success.  When I asked her, “What is your solution to sibling rivalry?”, she confusedly look at me and said, “What rivalry?”.

Sibling Rivalry isn’t All Bad

Breathe fellow parents.  The parents in the above example are excellent parents and should be given a pat on the back for their successful child rearing.  Although these “perfect” parents won a genetic lottery of sorts by evidence of their sweet-spirited children, by no means could skillful parenting ever completely remove rivalry from the home and nor should that ever be the goal.  Why?

Last week, we set a theoretical basis for why sibling rivalry occurs.  If you haven’t had a chance to brave your way through the slightly wonkish article, I assure you that it is worth you time.  Without understanding why children behave as they do it is very difficult to discuss how to fix problem behaviors.  The theory is the basis for the methods and some methods may seem unnecessary without their theoretical counterpart.

Now that we have our theory (the root of all rivalry is the innocent, yet egocentric, quest for survival) we can also appreciate that conflict and disagreements are a part of life and sibling conflict offers our children opportunities to understand and confront disagreements and social frustrations from an early age.  Every time your children haggle over who should be able to play with the red truck, they are practicing essential skills that will be highly valuable to them in their future careers, marriages and other relationships.  It is therefore not the absence of conflict which denotes perfection, rather the proper handling of conflict.  

Embrace the Conflict

When your kids fight, embrace the conflict as every instance of sibling rivalry is a ripe learning experience for your children.  Sibling rivalry is a healthy, normal and necessary behavior, albeit obnoxious and stressful.   Sibling disagreements are usually conversations over how scarce familial resources should be divided up.  While unpleasant, these conversations are not all bad as we previously decided, however sibling conflict can become unhealthy when emotions overcome rational thought and everyone gets carried away (including mom and dad).  A parent’s job is to prevent emotional reactions from derailing conflict resolution, not to prevent conflict and fighting.

The Role of Moderator 

It can be hard for parents to restrain their urge to resolve conflicts for their children.  Conflicts are overwhelming for young children and they want adults to solve their problems for them, but this does not help the child.  Instead, when a child asks you to resolve their conflict (whether directly or indirectly through unbearable behaviors), a parent’s job is to turn the burden of resolution back onto your children and to do so you must limit your role in the dispute to that of the moderator.

Moderators are not part of the debate itself.  They remain on the edge of the action and bring seek to peace, reason, order and fairness to the controversy.  A moderator who supersedes his proper role causes an upheaval in the debate, detracting from the contestants ability to engage, reason, challenge each other and learn.  Therefore, it is important that you stay out of the conflict as much as possible by redirecting your children to address each other instead of you.  This cuts down on the instances of tattle-telling and children who thrive when playing the victim.

Real Example

When young children fight, typically one offended child will come to tell you all about how poorly the other child behaved.  The offended child typically played her fair part in the problem as well, but doesn’t recognize this.  Both children are angry, neither are getting what they want and their emotions blind them from finding a solution.  Your response?  Moderate their dispute.  For instance:

  1. Parent: What is going on A?  
  2. Child A: “Mom!  B is hiding my favorite book!”
  3. Child B chimes in from the other room: “Well A wouldn’t give me a turn!”
  4. Parent to Child A: “A, did you first try to tell B what is bothering you?”
  5. Child A: “Yes, but he didn’t listen.”
  6. Parent: “Go try again, but make sure you get his eye contact so that you know that he hears you.”
  7. Child A Returns: “I tried, but he ignored me.”
  8. Parent: “OK, tell B to come here and you can come back as well.”
  9. Parent: “A, tell B what you think about B taking your book.  B, listen to A because she has something important to say and then you’ll have a turn to talk.”
  10. Mother then steps back and starts doing dishes while moderating the dispute.
  11. Child A: “B, I want a turn with the book.”
  12. Child B: “I felt mad when you tried to take the book.”
  13. Parent: “A, tell B what you want him to do instead.”
  14. Child A: “B, can I please have a turn in 2 minutes after your turn?”
  15. Child B: “Sure.”
  16. Parent: “I think you both owe each other a hug and an apology.”

Let’s dissect this example to learn more about being a moderator.  First, it is notable that the mother did not solve the problem for the children.  She created an environment where a solution could be discovered and compromised upon.  Her calm tone and complete lack of judgement statements keeps everyone feeling peaceful and heard.  No one is accused of any misdoing and therefore no one is acting defensively.  When children feel like they need to defend themselves, their emotions will overwhelm their ability to be rational and they will not be able to solve the problem independently.

Step-by-Step Guide

If we know that making judgmental statements and solving the problem for the children are not effective, then what should parents do to moderate?  Let’s go step-by-step:

Step 1: Ask the Right Questions

In line 1, the parent starts the moderation by asking the offended child a question to discover the source of the conflict.  If you address a group of children, assigned one child to speak first while stating that everyone will get a turn.  This tactic helps to remove the need for the children to be defensive because they know they will be heard in turn and will allow the children to be rational instead of emotional.  When children are rational, they can stay in control of their own conflict.

Step 2: Teach Conflict Resolution Skills

Line 4 demonstrates the parent’s first attempt to teach the offended child how to solve her own problem.  The first step in conflict resolution is to communicate your frustrations to the offender.  Most young children will bring their frustrations with their siblings right to you NOT because they want to get their sibling in trouble, but because they just don’t know what to do with the problem.  Once the child has tried to solve his own problem unsuccessfully, then the mediation can continue.

Line 6 is a second attempt on the parent’s behalf to teach the child conflict resolution tools.  If someone isn’t listening to you talk, then obtain their eye contact.  This is a trick that has it’s roots in our evolutionary biology and is effective.  Only a child who is unwilling to reasonably solve the dispute will ignore their siblings after this step.

Step 3: Everyone to the Table

When a moderator is dealing with unreasonable (i.e. emotional) counter-parties, then it is necessary to bring them to the discussion table.  Call the children both to you, not so that you can tell the child who is behaving poorly and what needs to be done, but so that your children can work out the problem together in a safe space where everyone is accountable to listening and coming up with a compromise.  The parent uses this strategy in line 8.

Step 4: Set the Stage for Conversation

Now that everyone is together and ready to talk, the moderator needs to set the stage for conversation so that everyone is ready to hear and be heard.  The parent in line 9 invites the offended child to try again to communicate her problem and then asks the offending child to listen closely to his sibling, while reminding him that he will also have a turn to talk.  During conflict resolution, I like to validate children’s communication efforts by saying that their thoughts and experiences are important, just as the parent did in line 9.

Step 5: Take a Step Back

Once a parent reaches this point, if the air of the conversation seems reasonable, then take a step back and busy yourself, just as the parent did in line 10.  The ultimate goal is for your children to negotiate and come up with a compromise without you and if you are there physically, it will be hard for them to accomplish this because they know you can do this, but are unsure if they can without help.  The moment you notice that you are absolutely needed, step back to the table with a commanding, but not controlling presence.

Step 6: Elicit a Compromise

Once your children have each had a chance to talk, the resolution falls into the court of the offended child.  Yes, you know they are mad, but what do they really want?  Ask the offended child to tell their sibling what they want them to do instead?  This turns the negotiation towards compromise.  If a child cannot communicate his ideas, then you can suggest solutions but preface them with, “What do you think about….”, so that it is ultimately up to the child and not you to solve the problem.  Let the children take turns talking and eventually reach a compromise just like in line 13.

Step 7: Enable Restoration

Unlike a moderator at a debate where parties can part and go their separate ways, a parent’s job is to foster a life long loving relationship between their children.  Therefore, end the dispute with a loving gesture.  Perhaps it is as simple as an apology, hug or handshake or maybe one child needs to help the other clean up a knocked over block tower.  A parent ensures that this restorative gesture happens, but doesn’t force an unwilling participant.  If a child is unwilling to be kind after a dispute, let her know that she is “not ready” and ask to leave the area and only return when she is ready.   Insincere apologies are counter-productive and will only fuel more disputes.

Let’s Be Realistic

Following the above steps will promote peace inside the home, but keep in mind that being an effective moderator takes practice, just like your children need practice to learn how to solve their own disputes.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when your kids can initiate some of the steps above on their own.  This process is not easy, so keep reasonable expectations for yourself and your children.  Also, stay tuned next week for more ways to foster and understand healthy sibling relationships.

Kiss and make up...

Kiss and make up…

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