Parenting more than one child can sometimes feel like refereeing. When the sibling bickering and brawling starts, it might seem like you’ve got two choices: Go in and break it up or let ‘em work it out for themselves. Either way, they’ll be right back at it in a few minutes anyway.
There are real reasons to look for a more effective longterm solution. For one, kids who are victimised by a sibling are more likely to be victimised by peers. But beyond that, you probably want your kids to get along and be close to each other throughout their childhood and into adulthood. And it’d be nice to have some peace in your home.
To achieve this, you’ll have to teach your kids to mediate their own arguments. As journalist Steve Calechman writes for Greater Good Magazine: “It’s time- and energy-consuming, but the investment pays off. The siblings consider each other’s feelings, while the younger sibling is empowered and gets equal footing—without intervention, older ones tend to dominate.”
But how do you step into a mediator role? Imagine yourself putting down the referee whistle and, instead, welcoming all parties into the brightly lit conference room to sit around the long wooden table to air grievances and brainstorm solutions. It’s not going to go exactly like that, but you get the visual. Here’s where you go from there:
Set the ground rules
I’d suggest doing this ahead of time, but they’re probably going to need a reminder up front the first few times you walk them through mediation. You might start with: “No interrupting,” “No hurtful words,” and, “No yelling.” Rinse and repeat as needed.
Takes turns speaking and listening
Each child gets a chance to say the thing they really want the other child to know, whether it’s “I really wanted to play with those blocks” or “I don’t want to watch this TV show.” The other child listens and repeats back what they hear the first child saying before they get a turn to be heard. There may be multiple rounds of this if the grievances are many.
Ask for possible solutions
Until they get the hang of this, you’ll probably need to suggest some ideas; they may start off by offering solutions, as Calechman points out, that simply aren’t realistic:
When they do, you reality-check the suggestions, a camel ride may sound fun, but rarely is it feasible. As the parent, you can nudge them to dig deeper when necessary, but ultimately the kids own the result.
If they’re arguing over what to watch on TV, they might agree to watch 10 more minutes of what’s already on before the other child gets to pick something to watch for 10 minutes. Or they switch the channel now and the first child gets top pick tomorrow.
Elaine Shpungin writes for Psychology Today that she uses a similar approach that she and her family call 'Micro-Circles':
By engaging participants in hearing each other and creating their own solutions, you decrease both the sense of helplessness (we don’t know how to solve this) - and powerlessness (we don’t have choice in how things are gonna go) - which often result from having a third party (even a well-meaning one) be judge and jury to one’s conflict.
Of course, this simply isn’t going to work every time. Sometimes kids just aren’t going to be in problem-solving mode. That’s when Shpungin asks if the kids would like to move on to something else - usually they do - and she still considers the outcome a win because the kids have heard each other and are 'done' with the conflict.
Have a Plan B
If the kids would rather not simply move on, you could implement a 'Plan B' solution, as Calechman suggests.
Plan B might be a coin toss or rock-paper-scissors to determine who ultimately gets their way. It’s a last resort, but it’s fair because it’s random, and it’s random enough to motivate them to try to compromise first.
Over time, with patience and consistency, siblings should start to control their tempers more and tolerate and collaborate with each other, rather than dominate, with less parental intervention.