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Oregon Family Magazine


07/01/2021 ● By Rachel Martin
During the long days of summer, when school is out, children often spend more time with brothers and sisters (siblings) than usual. Sometimes this can mean opportunities for building close sibling relationships, and other times it can mean lots of shouting, fighting, and parental stress and frustration. Whether siblings go to childcare together or stay home together, they are likely to experience increased intensity in all aspects of their relationships during summer break. These changes also impact levels of parental stress and the children’s relationships with their parents. Many interactions involving conflict between family members are stimulated by sibling quarrels.

When family life is characterized by arguing, the bonds between parents, as well as between parents and children, are likely to suffer.  Levels of closeness and conflict that exists between siblings vary greatly. Some siblings have little conflict, while others engage in so much antagonistic behavior toward each other parents need to keep a close eye on interactions to ensure no one gets seriously hurt.  In general, most sibling relationships fall somewhere in between.  Reasons for quarrels are many, from a clash in temperaments, to boredom, one wanting attention from the other, or difficulty sharing possessions.

Parents don’t need to intervene in every sibling disagreement, but should focus on those where strong emotions are apparent. Such intervention gives the message that you care about each child’s feelings, and emulates essential social skills children need to learn. It is important to teach children that the feelings of other children are important and need to be taken into consideration. 

Because children under the age of 3 have very little self-control, it is often a good idea for a parent to help distract and redirect a younger child bothering a sibling by offering another toy or activity, or gently moving the child away. Providing a place for an older sibling to play without interruption can be helpful too, such as a table or a room with a baby gate for separation.  Recent research has shown that sibling relationships are better when parents use a problem solving approach, helping children to understand each other’s point of view, and look for a solution satisfactory to both.

When sibling interactions start to become loud or when a child asks a parent or other caregiver for help in dealing with his or her sibling, it is often a good opportunity to help children learn the process of problem solving. In cases where a child has broken a family rule, problem solving is not the best first response, but many other quarrels lend themselves to this process.

The following are some basic steps for teaching interpersonal problem solving to children who are old enough to talk and have enough self control (beginning at about 3 years) to follow through with agreed upon solutions.

Problem Solving in Response to Sibling Quarrels

  • Interrupt the quarrel by asking, “What’s going on?” Ask the children to sit down together to talk. Refusal to talk should not be an option, especially in cases of hurt feelings. Hold on to, or move children away from, any objects in dispute to elevate this distraction.
  • Clarify children’s feelings and the problem at hand. Ask each child what he or she is feeling and what they would like to do. Help each child truly hear and understand the point of view of the other, including feelings. Summarize or restate the problem to make it clear. If one child objects, talk about it some more until all agree on what the problem is.
  • Suggest possible solutions. Ask the children: “What can you do so you can both (or all) be happy?” Then provide a few creative suggestions yourself to help the children understand what is being asked and to help them think “outside the box.” Keep asking for more solutions until a reasonable one is clearly acceptable to everyone involved. This may be difficult at first, but it gets easier and easier with practice. Parents must truly value putting the children in charge of choosing a solution, rather than imposing on the children a solution the adult wants or likes.
  • Choose. Once the children have found a solution they agree on, and it is okay with you, check facial expressions and ask the children if each of them is happy with the chosen solution. If one is not happy, keep trying to find a solution truly acceptable to each child involved.
  • Implement the solution. Keep an eye on the children, and if the solution is not working, suggest they think about some new ideas and try again.

For example, Susie is making a structure with wooden blocks. Tommy comes along and wants to add some blocks to Susie’s structure. Susie objects and yells at Tommy. You, the parent or caregiver, hear this and go over to where the children are playing.

Going through steps 1 and 2, you move the children out of reach of the blocks, discuss both children’s feelings and desires, and then sum up the problem as “two children want to play at the same time with the same blocks.” Next is step 3, and you ask the children “What can you do so you can both be happy?” At first they probably will struggle to answer the question, so you make outside-the-box suggestions, such as we could “take all the blocks outside and play under the bushes,” or they could “get sponges and wash and dry all of the blocks.” Then if the children still can’t think of any ideas, you could suggest some more reasonable solutions – like dividing the blocks in half, or “Tommy could gather up the farm animals and bring them over to live in the block structure if Susie will allow Tommy to add some blocks to the structure.” It usually doesn’t take long for the children to agree. Then you can go back to your cooking and just keep an eye and an ear out to see if the solution is working.

The more parents respond to children with a problem solving approach, the better children tend to become at using the process on their own without adult help, and they will find these skills useful in all of their future relationships.