Laura Greenwald knew that it was normal for her girls, Skylar, 5, and Sage, 3, to quarrel sometimes, but lately it seemed as if they were constantly clashing. The arguments began when the girls opened their eyes in the morning and continued throughout the day. All of the traditional or time-honored methods of dealing with the problem -- counting to 10, scolding, or sending the girls to time-out chairs -- often did little more than cause a temporary lull in the fighting.
"I had to find a way to help my daughters get along better, for their sake and mine," says Laura, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "I didn't know where to turn."
Sibling squabbles will happen -- from arguments over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car to fights over the biggest piece of cake. It's a typical part of family life. Although sibling conflicts are tough on parents, they can provide positive opportunities for children to learn problem-solving techniques.
"By arguing with their siblings, children can learn to value another person's perspective, to compromise and negotiate, and to control aggressive impulses," says Laurie Kramer, PhD, professor of family studies at the University of Illinois. She observes families and provides tips for resolving conflicts.
As long as siblings have plenty of positive interactions with each other and the rest of the family, the disagreements shouldn't cause major concern.
"Many kids report regular bickering, but they still enjoy each other and grow into good friends," says Susan McHale, PhD, professor of human development counselor. Her friend suggested that Laura try an abbreviated version of a technique known as peer mediation. This process for resolving disagreements involves a mediator -- the parent, in this case -- who helps children find a mutually acceptable resolution.
Mediation takes the parent out of the role of problem solver and allows her instead to help children resolve their own conflicts, says Hildy Ross, PhD, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who has tested mediation in her research with families. "Parents say that arguments are more successfully resolved when mediation is used," says Ross.
To give mediation a try, follow these steps:
Establishing fair and reasonable rules of engagement is essential to controlling sibling skirmishes. Work together with your kids to establish guidelines. You may even want to write them down and post them somewhere prominent. For example, rules could include no name calling, requiring everyone to remain seated during the discussion, and not allowing anyone to interrupt the speaker.
No one can listen effectively when he or she is too mad, so if tempers are still hot from the argument, you might include a rule that calls for a 5- or 10-minute break that lets the combatants separate. Don't send kids to traditional time-out zones -- this isn't about punishment. Let them go where they want, as long it helps them cool down, suggests Kramer. When you come back together, stick to the rules you've all established so each child can hear the other's concerns.
To help Skylar and Sage settle an argument, Laura used a toy wand as a talking stick. Each girl was allowed to talk only when she had the wand. The approach worked because the ground rules interrupted the escalation of the argument and everyone knew what to expect.
Make sure each child has a chance to tell her version of what happened. During a cool-off break, you might talk to each child alone to help determine the problem. When you're back together, use that talk to help define the issue by rephrasing what they say, making sure everything is clear.
Children will be more committed to sticking with a decision when they come up with it in the first place, so encourage kids to generate ideas to resolve the fight. Just be prepared to challenge their suggestions if the solutions don't seem feasible. In the heat of the moment, kids may be perfectly amenable to, say, agreeing never to speak to each other ever, but as the voice of reason, you'll have to step in and gently suggest that they try again.
Continue the discussion until the children arrive at one solution that both of them have chosen. If they can't reach a reasonable agreement, go back to brainstorming.
It may take some time at first, but once kids can agree on a course of action, it's easier to let go of the conflict, and neither side leaves the table with bruised feelings that could fester.
Eventually, you want kids to be able to follow the rules and articulate their problems by themselves, especially when you only have 30 minutes before basketball practice and you're trying to get dinner ready.
After you've successfully mediated three or four arguments, try a little active nonintervention. When you hear the start of a fight, you might say, "Hey, I hear that you're having some trouble. I'd like to see you work it out. If you need some help, let me know." This lets kids know that you are aware of a problem and think they have the skills to resolve it on their own, says Kramer.
Kramer's research found that most parents respond to sibling conflicts by ignoring them or by responding in an authoritative manner, which does nothing to help teach kids the fine art of compromise. Instead, parents should guide children with strategies that avoid disputes, or help them to deal with conflict more calmly.
Having guidelines for settling an argument is important, but you can help kids avoid many squabbles altogether by setting rules for common activities or shared possessions. Those rules could include how computer time is split, what the expectations are about sharing toys, or who gets to choose a TV show.
How you interact with your spouse, your friends, neighbors, and even strangers, teaches kids how to act. If a parent gets frustrated easily or teases too much, kids may do the same.
Provide activities that encourage kids to have fun together and enjoy each other so they see their relationship as something more than a bickerfest. Go roller skating, sledding, or bowling together.
"We have game nights," says Karen Cunningham, mom of six children, ages 7 to 19. This tradition is good practice for handling sibling arguments, she says, because game play with family members helps kids solve problems and regulate emotions, two skills they'll need long after game boards are put away. Karen also tries to have the whole family sit down to dinner together, or weekend brunches where everyone helps in the kitchen. In birthday cards, Karen reminds the kids to include meaningful and kind personal messages for their sibling. "I ask them to write about what they like about their brother or sister -- how they make them laugh, what they are good at. They always come up with something," says Karen.
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, June 2006.