Soothing Sibling Conflict - Part I

"My 20 month old daughter started to cry and when I went in, there was my 5 year old son standing there. She had a red welt on her forehead and I was convinced he'd hit her, but he denied it. I began interrogating him, and wound up accusing him of hitting her. I found out later that she'd hit her head going under a table. I felt so guilty!"

"I walked into my infant son's room where he was lying in his playpen. My 3 year old son had taken every item of clothing out of the dresser drawers and piled it on top of my four month old. I was horrified!"

Siblings. They find ingenious ways of getting parents' attention, and of torturing each other. Likewise, parents of more than one child tend to be on the alert for "sibling rivalry". Especially alert when that rivalry takes the form of physical violence. Handling these inevitable conflicts is of critical importance. Our expertise (or lack thereof) will determine how our children relate to one another, how they feel about themselves, and how we feel about them as well.

In order for parents to be able to handle sibling conflict in positive ways, it is first important for parents to recognize that not all conflicts are created equal. At first glance, the two situations related above seem similar. An older sibling is involved in a conflict with a younger sibling. For the parents involved, it appeared in both cases that the older sibling had done something against the younger. In reality, however, the two situations are very different, and require quite different handling on the part of the parent.

The main, and perhaps most important difference lies in what the parent knows about the situation, rather than what the parent assumes. In both cases, the parent did not see one child doing anything to the other. In essence, the parent had walked in AFTER the "crime" had been committed. However, in the first scenario, the parent drew conclusions about what had happened based upon her assumptions. In the past, her son had hit her daughter. Seeing them standing close together, a red welt on the younger's forehead, she assumed that her son had once again resorted to hitting. In the second scenario, while the parent hadn't actually seen the older child take the clothing out of the drawers, it's unlikely that the clothes jumped out themselves. Likewise, the four month old was too young to be involved. The parent in the second situation could easily and correctly draw the conclusion that the older had placed the clothes on top of the younger based upon the facts in front of her.

The first step in handling sibling conflict is to separate situations based upon the facts. There are four basic possibilities:

1) You're in the room and observe the conflict, so you know exactly what happened, but you believe your children are old enough to work it out themselves. ("Old enough" would be children who are verbal, usually age 3 or 4 and above.)

2) You're in the room and observe the conflict, so you know exactly what happened, but your children are either too young (not verbal) to handle it themselves and/or the situation was dangerous and warrants intervention from you as the leader in the family.

3) You're not in the room, so you didn't see what happened, but you can make a correct guess which doesn't involve ANY assumptions on your part.

4) You're not in the room, so you didn't see what happened. You're pretty sure you know, but you would have to rely upon past experiences and/or assumptions to make a guess.

These four possibilities can be divided into two groups which will facilitate the parent's handling of the situation and preserve the children's self-esteem. In this issue we will discuss numbers one and four. Next month we'll talk about how to handle numbers two and three.

When you either believe that your children can work an argument out themselves, or if you weren't in the room, and don't really know what happened, (numbers one and four, above) you'll want to work with your children in coming up with a solution to the problem. When you engage your children in the problem solving technique described in this column, you'll find the benefits will far outweigh the time it will take you to help them arrive at a solution. Some of the benefits include building your children's self-esteem as they begin to recognize that they can handle things themselves, giving them techniques which they can take with them to school and other places where conflict with peers or others might occur, giving them a repertoire of solutions to problems which will replace old "misbehaviors" and physical reactions such as hitting. In addition, this technique will help you avoid labeling one child as the perpetrator of all conflict. When a child feels as though he's always "wrong" (and it's usually the older child whom we blame, incorrectly believing that the older one "should know better") he will soon begin to live up to our expectations of him as the "bully".

The problem solving technique you are going to use requires that you keep your voice as calm and even as possible, remembering that you're not there to judge, but to assist your children in solving THEIR problem; and that when your children are out of control what they need most is a parent who is in control.

The first statement you will address to your children is: "Seems like there's a problem here." This may be met with a variety of responses. Usually, the children will turn to you to arbitrate, attempting to convince you that each of them is in the right, and that the other should be punished. Their voices are likely to escalate, momentary chaos may ensue. Don't get caught up in this. Your job is to FACILITATE problem solving, NOT solve the problem. If you try to solve the problem, you will end up being the judge and jury, one child will inevitably feel "blamed", and you won't have given your children skills which they can use in the future. Stay calm and recognize BOTH children's feelings. You might say something like: "Seems like you're both really upset by this." It is important to use the words "seems like" (or words such as "sounds like", "I guess" and the like). You don't want to come on too strongly or you may inadvertently label something as a problem which isn't, or create a negative label for a child's feeling which is incorrect. When your children continue to squabble, you might add a few more statements which would acknowledge their feelings, such as: "Megan, you seem really angry, and John seems defensive. What seems to be the problem?" Should both children (or all the children, depending upon how many you have) talk at the same time, you should add "I can't really hear when both of you are talking. Who would like to go first?" By asking the children who should go first you will avoid seeming to take sides by naming one or the other.

As the story begins to unfold, be an active listener. Pay attention by making eye contact with the speaker, keep your body turned toward the children, and don't engage in another activity while you're listening. Acknowledge that you hear what's being said by giving verbal cues such as "Uh-huh" and "I see." Be empathetic by acknowledging the feelings being expressed. Say things like "Sounds like that made you angry" and "Seems like you felt really pushed around when that happened." If the other child tries to interrupt, calmly state that he'll have a turn in a minute. Say that you feel both sides are too important to miss hearing, and that's why it's important to take turns.

As you listen, restate what you hear. For example: "Megan, it sounds like you're suggesting that John shouldn't touch your things without asking you first" or "John, I hear you saying that you didn't mean to break Megan's toy, it was an accident." Be careful that you only restate what was said, without interjecting an opinion of your own. For example, DON'T SAY: "So, Megan, Johnny always touches your things without asking" or "John broke your toy by accident, Megan, he didn't mean to." By phrasing your "restatements" beginning with the words "It sounds like..." and "I hear you saying..." you will avoid looking like you're taking sides. There's nothing more frustrating when you're trying to help than to be dragged into the argument when one child accuses you of siding with the other.

When you've heard the story from both (or all) sides, support the children in arriving at a solution. To do this, ask the question: "What do you two think should be done about this?" Your children may be surprised. In the past, it is likely that you tried to arbitrate, and they won't be expecting to have the responsibility turned over to them. As they begin to sort through different solutions (which they probably won't do calmly at first, in fact, it is likely that their argumentative attitudes and loud voices will actually increase), be patient. Use the "restatement" technique again, saying things such as "So, Megan, I hear you saying that you'd feel better if John asked before going into your room", and "John, you seem unhappy with that solution, what would you suggest." By working through suggestions calmly, restating what you hear, and watching your children's faces for their reactions to the presented solutions, it's likely that you'll be able to facilitate the problem solving process.

If it seems as though your children are getting nowhere, or that the process is taking an unreasonable length of time (more that 45 minutes, in case you were wondering, and yes, you do need to be that patient!) you would want to make a summery statement, then leave the decision for what the solution will be in the hands of your children. It might sound something like this: "This sounds like a tough problem. You're doing a great job discussing it, and I know you'll think of something. If I can help, come get me, I'll be in the other room reading the newspaper." Many times, children will quickly come up with a solution at this point. Even if they don't, your encouraging words will give them the confidence they need to solve their own problems.

A few hints, words of caution, and pertinent facts:

1) Be careful not to take sides. It creates a situation where one child is seen as the victim, the other as the bully. They will soon act out these assigned roles.

2) Do take the time. If you invest your time, like any good investment, it will pay rich dividends in the future. Ultimately, you'll be called on less often to help with problem solving. Taking the time now will save you time in the future.

3) Remember that this will work even if one child is pre-verbal. You'll simply carry out the dialogue with the child who can express herself verbally, working with the same non-judgmental attitude. In this way, you will empower her to do the problem solving herself, even if her younger sibling can't take part.

In Part II, we'll talk about the other kind of sibling conflicts, ones in which you will be called upon to intervene.