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All siblings have conflicts — and this is completely normal. As universal as fights are, learning to solve disagreements is also really important. How can parents handle sibling conflicts among their children?

I was initially going to start this article with a cute story about the (recent!) time my two children were angry with each other for days after my son wanted to introduce a non-Lego mini skateboard into their elaborate Lego role play, and my slightly controlling and order-oriented older daughter rejected the idea because "that ain't Lego, dude". Both thought the other was being unreasonable, by the way, and nothing other than both giving them time to work it out made it any better. I was then going to follow that up with some statistics about the frequency of sibling conflicts among children. 

There's a truth more universal than the fact that siblings sometimes argue, however, so I changed my mind. That truth is that wherever there are people, there will be cooperation, creativity, and innovation — but also conflict and rivalry. Any parent of two or more children is bound to see that conflict and rivalry in action on occasion, and any parent of two or more children will scratch their head, sometimes in utter frustration, wondering what to do about it. 

So, we'll be looking at that today. What can you do to foster positive sibling relationships, even from the moment you're pregnant again and you're wondering if you'll have a harder or easier time with your second baby? Should you try to minimize sibling conflict? And what should you do to handle it while it's happening?

What Causes Conflict?

I have to say I really liked the following quote I found in a research paper: "Because of the wide range of potential differences among people, the absence of conflict usually signals the absence of meaningful interaction." [1] The sibling relationship becomes one of the closest possible relationships out there from the moment your second baby is born and you start helping your older child adjust to a new sibling. The presence of occasional conflict just confirms that your kids are important to one another, and that they interact enough for conflict to sometimes arise. (Another interesting bit of information is the fact that most siblings spend more time interacting with each other than they do with their parents during their childhoods [2].)

What causes conflict, though? The paper — which is about interpersonal conflict in general, rather than sibling conflict specifically — goes onto describe three major sources of strife that parents the world over will also recognize:

  • Economic conflict, or "competing motives to attain scarce resources". In sibling conflicts, you, the parent, very often turn out to be exactly such a "scarce resource", but fights over who gets to use the shower or games console next probably fall into this category as well. 
  • Value conflict, meaning rows over differing ideologies and such. Though not currently a major cause of fights among my particular kids, it's certainly been known to happen. The paper mentions the Cold War as an example, but my kids can have endless debates over who is right and wrong in another war entirely — the Marvel Civil War. "I hate Captain America" vs "Iron Man sucks" can certainly get heated. 
  • Power conflict. See the Lego saga. Both kids tried to assert their control — to get what they want — and neither was willing to compromise. Feelings of rivalry can also fall into this category, and an example of that from my family is both kids wanting to be better than the other at swimming. Any parent of two or more will have seen variations of this themselves. 
Your goal as a parent should never be to prevent conflict altogether, but rather to teach your kids how to solve disagreements, to de-escalate, and to compromise. You can go about this in several ways. 

What Can You Do To Minimize Sibling Conflict And Encourage Positive Relationships?

Research has (unsurprisingly) established that stress can lead to negative mood changes [3], as well as that parental stresses can be quite contagious and "infect" children [4]. I am sure that we've all seen an increase in negative sibling interactions during times that are generally stressful for the whole family — things like moving house, financial hardships, and even a particularly busy time at work can all cause emotional turbulence. This stress has got to come out somehow, and siblings may prove to be a readily available "emotional punching bag" for a child. 

Rather than immediately focusing on scolding your child for negative behavior, try to create a more grounded family environment. The American Psychological Association has a set of tips to help parents manage stress in their families, and they include [5]:

  • Examine how you, yourself, cope with stress and whether it's healthy or not. Kids learn a lot by imitation, after all. 
  • Have frank and open conversations about stress to help each other come to terms with it. 
  • The APA mentions physically decluttering your home environment if necessary, but I'd add that emotional decluttering is also possible — try to make your home a place where you can temporarily leave life's other stresses, like worries about work and school, behind. 

You may have heard of the "five-to-one ratio", a theory that indicates that every negative interaction between two people needs five positive ones to keep the relationship harmonious. A study of teachers employing this model in the classroom suggested that employing this principle indeed leads to more harmonious behaviors in children. [6] This is one parents can keep in mind, because a child who feels good about their relationship with their parents may be less likely to pick fights with their siblings. 

Another crucial factor in determining how conflict-filled your kids' relationships with each other will be is their perception of how you treat them in relation to each other. Siblings who feel their parents treat them equally and fairly have more positive bonds. [2]

How Should You Handle Sibling Conflicts?

Not even college students have all the social and emotional skills they need to successfully navigate interpersonal conflict all the time [7], so it's completely natural that your preschool or primary school children will need your help in solving fights between them and their brothers or sisters. 

I've developed my own methods of mediating in my kids' fights over the years, and I'll share the ones that are backed by scientific studies [8] as well as those that aren't but still work for us:

  • When one of my kids tells me there's a problem, or I just notice one, I first have a conversation with each of them alone. Here, I try to practice active listening — I paraphrase what they just told me. This does two things. It confirms that I understood them correctly, and it helps the child feel heard. 
  • Towards the end of the conversation, I ask each child to try to put themselves in the other's shoes by encouraging them to imagine how their sibling might be interpreting the situation at hand. 
  • I then talk to both kids together. Everyone is allowed and encouraged to express their feelings, but nobody can interrupt, and statements like "it annoys me when I had something planned out and something changes" are encouraged over statements like "my brother ruined my day". Basically, everyone has to treat each other respectfully. If that doesn't go according to plan, I simply ask the child to apologize rephrase.
  • We then try to come up with something that will work for everyone, or at least a grudging compromise. 
  • When things are really heated, we break the doom clouds up with a walk or some other physical activity, and only come back to discussing the source of conflict when everyone has had time to think and spend some energy. 

We're actual real-life people and not zen masters, so while this process sometimes works swimmingly, that's not always the case. I haven't used "punitive" measures like time-outs or taking away privileges for years now, however, so talking it out works well enough for us. (Or should I say, "mom's lectures are punishment enough"? Whatever the truth might be, we usually reach a fairly OK working solution just by talking!) I did, however, put my kids in time out when they were smaller and tempted to hit each other.

In Conclusion

 Conflict is normal, and learning to solve disagreements is a really helpful skill throughout life. Who better to practice it on than a brother or sister, who plays such a large role in a child's life? 

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