I hear shrieks, followed by two sets of footsteps racing up the stairs to get to me first. My boys burst into the room, words falling out of their mouths before they even reach me. I had been happily minding my own business, making my bed as I listened to a podcast, but now I felt myself quickly fill with dread. I knew they were coming to ask me to resolve a dispute that I didn’t even see and that I already knew would be impossible to get to the bottom of…
School holidays have just finished here in New Zealand. As we were saying goodbye to our friends at the end of last term, I noticed an almost universal parental response to the impending break – they were looking forward to having more time with their kids but they were dreading the sibling conflict, which seems to escalate to new heights when our children have so much time together.
Last year, I wrote an essay called Snatching Squabbling & Slamming Doors – Siblings! In it, I exposed the parental desperation around sibling conflict. A lot of people related to the examples I gave –
…next minute…there’s shouting – no, roaring – and Jake has evicted Thomas from his bedroom. Thomas is banging on the door, crying that he wants to be let back in.
Or…Thomas has decided he wants the toy car that Jake’s got (even though his fists are already full with 3 others) and the snatching and squealing begins.
Or…Jake begins to slowly wind Thomas up, taking advantage of his 3 years senior. He argues, manipulates and competes with Thomas, who just can’t keep up and ends up hitting Jake in frustration. And, of course, Jake comes running to report to me, very indignantly, that Thomas hit him.
Or…(and this one takes the cake)…we’re in the car and Thomas starts wailing “I don’t want Jake to look at me!”
In my essay, I admitted that I didn’t know what to do and concluded that I just had to ride it out and trust that, as they got older, they’d better be able to manage themselves.
MY SECRET TO MANAGING SIBLING CONFLICT
Well, I’m pleased to report that, now that my boys are a year older (4 and 7 years old), things are improving – considerably. I put it down partly to their maturity and partly to my consistent message that we treat one another with respect & kindness.
But I have also discovered a secret that helps me to lead my boys more easily to a resolution. It prevents the situation from spiraling downward into an impossible confusion of interjections and tears, as it once seemed to do inevitably. Want know what my secret is? It’s this –
Don’t take sides.
Have you noticed how sibling conflict quickly turns into a jostle for Mum or Dad’s attention and affirmation? Our children come racing to us, wanting to be the first to have their story of mistreatment heard. They want to be told that they are the one who is “right”. Well, if one of them is “right”, then the other is “wrong”. If we play the role our children want us to, someone is always judged.
But, as a soulful parent, I stand by my boys through all things without judgement (well, ideally, anyway). My job in any situation is to be there for both of them, supporting them each in the way that they need to be supported. Doing this takes enormous intention and patience on my part because often my brain insists that there is one boy who “is clearly in the wrong”. It wants to pick up a wig and gavel, make an authoritative ruling and get onto the next thing (usually the next item on my to-do list).
But, if I don’t intervene by declaring who is victim and who is perpetrator, if I don’t order a “fair” solution to the situation, what do I do?
I upskill them. I take my boys through a process which gives them the skills to express themselves, manage their emotions, problem-solve and work with others.
This process is less a step-by-step how-to and more of a conversation that is adjusted for the individuals and the situation at hand. You could say I have found some rules for these conversations that help me to shape the discussion so that it is constructive (instead of becoming a cauldron of complaints, blaming and frustration). Here are the rules I have set for myself when managing sibling conflict –
Managing Sibling Conflict: Rules of Engagement (for Parents)
* Take no sides (already explained).
* Give each child a chance to explain their feelings and have them acknowledged by me. Usually, I do this with each of them separately because their sibling can’t help but interject if they disagree. Feeling heard helps them to calm down too.
* Get each child to focus on their own behaviour and what they can do in the situation, not what their sibling did or should do. For example, we discuss the impact of their behaviour on the other and prepare what they want to say to their sibling.
* Help the siblings to come together to problem-solve. Having coached them each already, I get them together and become the mediator for their conversation. I don’t usually put any ideas forth myself, I say as little as possible. I just help them to take turns to tell each other what they have to say and to listen to each other. The goal is for them to learn how to communicate well and to come to a resolution together.
After months of this kind of coaching and mediating, we’re beginning to see the reward. These holidays, I have heard both of my boys try to use the skills I’ve been teaching them on their own, without stepping into my courtroom. Having practiced the skills so many times, they’re getting the hang of how to express themselves, listen to each other and problem-solve together. I am freed of my judge’s wig and gavel.
IN SUMMARY – SIBLING CONFLICT COURT ADJOURNED
Of course, this is not the secret to eliminating sibling conflict altogether – arguments are normal! But, when I don’t take sides, my boys learn the many skills of managing conflict themselves. I intend to eventually be made redundant.
Personally, it is an enormous relief to realise that I do not have to get to the bottom of every argument, to determine who’s right or wrong and what the “fair” resolution is. Instead of wading through all the details, trying to excavate the “truth”, all I have to do is to help them find a way forward.
This makes each situation more positive for my boys too because, regardless of their role in it, they can both rely on my affirmation and support. They don’t have to compete for my allegiance as they once did because I no longer take up the role of judge. I give them the power in the situation instead of wielding it myself.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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Check out this great book, Siblings without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (not an affiliate link)