Managing Sibling Conflict

As a parent of two children, I know how challenging it can be when your children are in conflict. All interpersonal relationships experience conflict and every parent knows that it’s especially true between siblings. It is normal for children to struggle with one another, compete, antagonize one another, and have disputes.

As parents, it is our job to tune in to these instances and equip them with skills to work through contention well.

Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish (also known for How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk) sets forth practical guidelines for parents as they coach their kids through rivalry and disagreements:

1. Encourage emotional expression and describe what you observe. During a dispute, acknowledge their feelings about whatever conflict they are having. Avoid dismissing any negative feelings and instead put their underlying emotional need into words. For example, if a child says, “My sister is mean. She doesn’t want to play with me”. An appropriate response would be, “It sounds like your feelings are hurt. I can see that you want to spend time with her and it’s hard for you when she doesn’t want to play.”

2. Resist the urge to compare. Comparing behavior, personalities or skills could potentially escalate the tension and increase competitive feelings.

3. Equal is less. While we might think that equal treatment is best, Faber and Mazlish encourage parents to focus on each child’s individual need and character. Instead of giving equal amounts (whether it’s time or material things), give according to individual need. Instead of expressing equal love, demonstrate to children how they are uniquely loved.

4. Sibling roles. It’s easy to place children into roles either by birth order (“she’s the baby sister”, character (“he’s the funny one in the family”), or skill (“she is the creative one”). While this can appear harmless, over time it can add pressure to the child in the family assigned role and feel restricting to the other sibling(s). Consider how you can create a family atmosphere that encourages them to explore their own potential and discover their strengths as opposed to labels that confine their identity or self concept.

5. Remain neutral and resist taking sides during their conflict. Encourage them to express their feelings or needs. Help them create options and negotiate solutions. By remaining neutral you are communicating that your role is to support and not solve the issue for them.

Michelle Rathburn