Sun, Sep 23, 2012
“Talk to your sister!”: How to manage sibling conflict
The parents were getting a little tired of filling the role of judge every time Lucy and Rosie had a disagreement — so we turned it over to them.
Our children get along with each other quite well, but they do have their moments. At least once a day, one of the girls will approach a parent with a grievance. “Lucy kicked me!” “Rosie took the book I was reading!” Whenever you have two sisters spending all day, every day, with each other, there’s bound to be some conflict.
Click photo to enlarge.
When Rosie was much younger, we needed to intervene in these disagreements since she didn’t have the verbal skills to hold her own with her older sister. In those early days, frankly, Lucy got her way a lot of the time while we redirected Rosie to some other activity, toy, or book.
Our new approach
Now that the girls are both fluent in English and have a basic grasp of “fair play,” we’ve found that it’s not ideal for us to manage their problems. Lately, in response to these daily complaints, I almost always ask the same question: “Have you talked to your sister?”
It is amazing how often the answer is “no.” Often, I think it simply doesn’t occur to them to discuss their own conflicts with each other. At other times, I think they feel offended and just want to complain to someone. Or sometimes the complaint isn’t even a request for arbitration, but rather a plea for parental attention. Because of this, I almost always begin with a little dose of empathy (“Oh, that’s frustrating!”). But then it’s time to bring it around to conflict-resolution mode.
Another complicating factor for a parent is that you rarely have all the facts at the beginning. Yes, maybe someone got kicked, but that could be because the other sister was tormenting her or not sharing. Yes, we can all agree that kicking is not a good solution to the problem. But since it’s also not okay in our house to be a jerk in the first place, they’re going to have to work out both problems at the same time.
Heart to heart
Here’s the sort of thing we hear a lot in our house:
Lucy: “Mom! Rosie hit me with the ball!”
Mama: “Ouch! That can hurt. Did you talk to Rosie about it?”
Rosie: “But Lucy won’t let me have the jump rope!”
Lucy: “Well, I’ve only had it for one minute!”
Mama: “Oh! I can tell you two are having a conflict over the jump rope. How about I hold the ball and the jump rope while you girls talk to each other and find a good solution for sharing?”
I find that it is important to express a sense of hopeful expectation, communicating confidence that they have the ability to find a solution. We promote the use of apologies and absolution. (“I’m sorry I hit you, Lucy.” “Thanks, Rosie, I forgive you.”) It’s good to be clear on the apology so the grievance can be put behind them. Sometimes, if they’re really upset, I’ll ask them to go into separate rooms to cool off for a bit, before talking with them together again.
A couple of times, I’ve requested that they look at each other and hold hands while they talk, which can inspire giggles (and that never hurts). Occasionally I insist that tell each other, “I love you,” and have a hug after they’ve worked out their troubles. “You have only one sister,” I say, “so it’s important to work hard to get along, enjoy being together, and love each other.”
Does this work? I’d have to say, miraculously so. They don’t fight any more than they did before (and probably less), and when they do, they no longer default to seeking parental intervention.
This concept comes from my very, very favorite parenting book in the whole world, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (or it might be from their Siblings Without Rivalry — the books run together for me). I’ve always loved the idea of empowering kids to work problems out on their own, and over the last couple months we’ve been delighted to see that all this theory actually works in practice.
When it doesn’t work so smoothly
There are times when the girls have a more difficult time working out their problems. When that happens, I encourage them to come talk to me together. When Lucy was in preschool and had a challenging conflict with a playmate, I advised her to go to her teacher and, instead of “telling” on the friend, to ask Ms. Laura for advice. We practiced saying this sentence a lot: “Ms. Laura, I have a problem, and I need help finding a solution.” If the girls can come to me with that kind of problem-solving attitude (instead of always “litigating” their conflicts), then we sit down together, hear the problem from each side, and brainstorm a few possible solutions.
More often than not, Lucy and Rosie are able to work out their disagreements on their own, and this brings joy to my heart — not only because our daughters are able to play happily together, but also because I know they are building conflict-management skills that will serve them all their lives.
Conflict resolution for life
These are challenging skills to develop:
- confronting a person in love
- acknowledging responsibility for your part of the problem
- finding solutions in community
Everyone has trouble with these — children, grown-ups, government leaders, you name it. I don’t think I really learned how to deal with conflict maturely until maybe my college years.
We’re hoping that Lucy and Rosie’s arguments over sharing toys and playing nicely will translate into healthy adult friendships, creative problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to stand up for their convictions.
Dear Lord, may it be so!