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Sibling Conflict: Can Any Good Come of This?

Article based on the work of Positive Discipline, Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., Lynn Lott, LMFT

Aside from the usual challenges about parenting, I felt fairly confident to handle what came my way until my seven month old, crawling and curious, began getting into my three year olds’ prized possessions.  As my daughter was demanding that he get out of her room and my son is wailing and flailing, as I hold him back…I had no idea what to do.  All the training as a school counselor, all the hours of problem solving with students and even the trainings I did to teach kids how to be conflict managers were no match for the daily challenges put on by a nearly one year old and a three year old.

Learning Life Skills

It was about that time, (thank goodness!) that I began teaching parenting classes.  Conflict had always been difficult for me.  And now it was permeating my house.  I didn’t want to deal with it. I just wanted everyone to get along.  Through my teaching, I was reminded how bear cubs, lion cubs and wolf cubs all wrestle, taunt each other and pounce on each other.  They learn necessary life skills, like hunting and self defense.  So, if through the tussles, they are gaining much needed life skills, what were my kids learning from the bickering, the wanting of the toy that the other has, and the pushing and screaming.

I know that from my own siblings, I learned how to build great forts, make cities out of mud and dodge snowballs on snowy day.  I also learned how to walk away, how to stand up for myself, how to negotiate, how to take turns and how to learn from others. Sometimes I learned these skills in times of peace and sometimes I learned them in times of conflict.  Despite the usual teasing and pushing of buttons, I gained so much, and have such great memories from my siblings.

I wanted my kids to have some of those same memories.  I found that I needed to see conflict as an opportunity to grow. An opportunity to gain interpersonal skills that will someday help my children negotiate the adult world of spouses, work, neighborhoods and hopefully their own children.

Minimize Competition

One of the most important things a parent can do to decrease the amount of sibling conflict in your house is to minimize competition.  Avoid comparing siblings. Avoid rewards, but don’t forget to celebrate each child’s achievements in a way that is appropriate for them.  Use encouragement instead of praise. Avoid labeling or treating one as the bully, one as the victim (you never know exactly what happened).  If you have to intervene in conflict, put the kids in “the same boat”, treat all parties the SAME.

Take Time For Training

The next step you can take is “take time for training”. Encourage your children to use their words.  Teach them to use “I messages” (I feel mad when you come into my room without knocking).  Teach them that stop means stop.  If anyone in the house says “stop”, that means that you stop what you are doing or saying.  (That goes for kids asking parents to stop too!)  Avoid teasing.  Teasing is hurtful.  It can go too far and feelings get hurt, which leads to more hurting.  Ask your children, “are your words hurtful or helpful?”. Recognize the feelings behind the behavior. If a child is feeling hurt, they will hurt others.  Use empathy and say, “Could it be that you feel hurt because I yelled at you.  Could it be that you feel so hurt that now you want to hurt your brother?”  

Take a Look at the Sibling Conflict in Your Home

Once you’ve done your part to decrease the competition and provided some training, it’s time for you to remove yourself from the conflict.  Take a look at the sibling conflict in your home.  How much of it is truly over the problem at hand or about involving mom or dad?   Believe it or not, your children might see your negative reaction as better than what is currently going on between them. Do you find yourself rescuing the younger one and telling the older one…”you should know better, stop picking on your little sister”.  (Don’t worry; we all do that!)  So the conflict continues because now the younger ones knows that he or she can get mom or dad to come to the rescue.   Chances are the older one will become resentful of the younger one….and the conflict will continue. Enough of being the referee, it is time to step out of the conflict! 

Next time the kids get into a conflict, try one of the following strategies:

Adapted from Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way; Nelsen, Lott

    • Leave It: As the conflict begins, Get down to their physical level…so that you’re not looming over them, and be sure that you have eye contact and that they hear you.  Then say “I notice you are having a conflict, I believe that the two of you can work it out.  I’m going back into the kitchen to finish dinner.  Please come let me know when you are done with your conflict.”
    • Live It: Once again, get to their level, gain eye contact.  Then say “I notice you are having a conflict, I am going to sit down near you and read my book, newspaper, magazine while the two of you work it out.  Do everything you can to not get involved.   This one works great in the car!  Just be sure to pull over before you begin reading!  And allow yourself some extra time.
    • Let ‘em go: Again, their level, eye contact.  Say “I notice you are having a conflict, you are welcome to discuss this, and I need you to do it somewhere other than the kitchen.  Would you like to finish your conflict upstairs or outside?
    • Listen: Let both siblings share their story without interruption and without judgment.  
    • Love ‘em: How about a group hug!!  Get right down in the middle of their conflict and give them both a big hug!
    • Lighten up: Use humor, How important is it?…Is this your problem or theirs?

Staying out of kid’s conflicts is a process.  You may only be able to do it for a few minutes the first time.  Stretch your self, the next time the conflict happens, add on a few more minutes.  Eventually, you’ll have the confidence to stay out of the conflicts and your kids will have the encouragement to solve their own problems.   

by Melanie R. Miller, M.Ed.,

Parent Educator and School Counselor

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