Hosted by SISP student committee, McGill University
& Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology
How Parents Can Manage Conflicts Between their Children
by Samantha Burns, M.A., Sumayya Saleem, M.Ed., Calpanaa Jegatheeswaran, M.A., and Michal Perlman, Ph.D.
A child’s relationship with their sibling(s) is one of the longest-lasting relationships they will have in their lifetime. It is also one of the earliest opportunities for children to learn and practice social skills such as empathy and cooperation (1, 2, 3). Healthy sibling relationships can promote positive relationships when children attend school and help prevent mental health challenges from middle childhood to teenage years (4, 5, 6, 7). On the other hand, unhealthy sibling relationships such as ones with high levels of conflict, have been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, aggression, and negative adjustment in early adulthood (4,8, 9).
Parental involvement can be a powerful tool in helping reduce sibling conflict; yet many parents have said that managing disagreements between siblings is one of the hardest challenges they face as a parent (10). This may be, in part, because there is no solution that is one size fits all. There are, however, some strategies that work better than others.
It is important for parents to have positive relationships with each of their children (11, 12). Children often copy/adopt behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs from their parents. So, parents should interact with their children the way they would like their children to interact with others.
Modeling responsive parenting includes some important considerations that, together, help children build strong social relationships and demonstrate positive ways for your children to interact with others (13, 14).
Tips for Managing Sibling Conflict for Parents
1. Be clear in your communication. Modelling clear communication means using words that are explicit, understandable, and appropriate for your child’s developmental age. For example, when your children are fighting over a toy, instead of saying “Can’t you get along better when you play with your brother” try saying, “How about you take turns so that each of you gets to play with the toy for a little bit. Why don’t you start by having a turn for five minutes and then give it to your sibling to play with?”
2. Promote back and forth interactions. Taking turns when communicating is an important part of modeling positive relationships. Some ways to model this is by asking questions and waiting for your child to answer. Remember, depending on your child’s age, they may answer verbally or by using non-verbal cues (for example, nodding, turning away, etc.).
3. Work on understanding one another. Understanding a child’s thoughts, feelings, and abilities is difficult but is an important part of building strong positive relationships. Recognizing and labelling your child’s emotions can help your child feel understood and provide them with a vocabulary to model. For example, if your child is crying on the floor, you can get down to their level and say, “I can see you are sad/angry/not happy.” In addition, you can specify to the child the cause of these emotions: “Having to stop playing and putting away our toys can be very upsetting”. Ask questions about what may help them, such as “How can I help you?”, “Would a hug make you less upset?”, “Can I help you to put them away?” It is alright if they need a few minutes before they can answer. These kinds of behaviours will help your child understand their own feelings and how to manage them. You should also look for ways to help your child understand how their sibling is feeling by pointing out cues such as their sibling’s expression, body language or helping them process what their sibling is saying. This helps them develop perspective-taking skills.
1. Don’t end the conflict on your own. It might be tempting for you to end the conflicts for your children, but research has shown that when parents unilaterally decide on sibling conflicts without providing any explanations, the sibling relationship can suffer (15). If you get involved, work with both children to understand and resolve the conflict together.
2. Consider sibling ages. Young children can find it difficult to convey their side of the argument to their elder siblings, who in turn can become frustrated. You can help translate the perspective of the younger sibling in a way that is developmentally appropriate for the elder sibling. This way you can also target any power differences that both siblings might perceive (16, 17). Be aware that this works better when both of your children are very young. As children get older, it’s good to help them build the skills to resolve conflicts on their own, which may involve parents stepping back a little (18). In fact, intervening during adolescent sibling conflicts can have negative effects on the sibling relationship (19)!
3. Parenting style matters. The effectiveness of your intervention can be influenced by the way you interact with your children. For example, parents who provide child with high levels of support but also set firm limits, have been found to be the most successful at mediating conflicts between their children (16).
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(19) McHale, S. M., Updegraff, K. U., Tucker, C. J., & Crouter, A. C. (2000). Step in or stay out? Parents’ roles in adolescents’ sibling relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 746–760.
Samantha Burns, M.A., Sumayya Saleem, M.Ed., Calpanaa Jegatheeswaran, M.A., are all Ph.D. students working with Michal Perlman, Ph.D. in the Applied Psychology and Human Development Department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, in Toronto, Canada.
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