Parents are often seeking ways to make sibling conflict stop, and understandably so. Unfortunately, this is generally unrealistic as sibling conflict is normal and to be expected. Home is a safe testing ground for social dynamics, and it can take skill and patience for siblings to learn to play together, especially when they are difference ages.
Psychotherapist Heather Turgeon writes about the importance of being a Sportscaster rather than a Referee when it comes to sibling battles. As a parent, it is important to let kids know that you see and hear them, but that you are not necessarily going to solve their sibling conflicts for them. When conflicts start, imagine that you are a sportscaster and describe what you see in front of you, without judgment and without taking sides. Turgeon provides an example of what this might look like (Turgeon, 2019):
Example: You hear shouting and walk in to find your kids looking upset with each other.
Instead of: Hey settle down in here! John, what did you do this time?
Say: I’m hearing really loud voices in here, Dan, you’re looking mad with your hands on your hips. John, you’re laughing. There’s a pack of Pokémon cards on the floor.
Narrate what is happening and repeat back what your kids say to you. Try to remain neutral.
Ah, got it. You’re telling me he always takes the cards. You feel like he’s the boss all the time. I see. John, you wanted to play the game you usually play and Dan wanted to change it up. Dan, you got frustrated and threw the cards. Am I missing anything?
It is an automatic reaction for many parents to try and force siblings to be nice to each other and try and smooth over negative feelings. The truth is that siblings can feel love, anger, frustration, and connection to each other all within the same day (sometimes even within hours). If you are sending out the message that you only accept their positive feelings, they can put more power into the negative ones so you hear them, or repress and hide them from you, neither of which lead to good outcomes. By accepting the negative feelings without judgment, the warm and loving ones will naturally resurface.
Turgeon (2019) describes the “Iceberg Analogy.” She explains this as kid’s words and behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg, as they are the easiest to see and the part parents often fixate on. However, there is usually something more telling under the surface. For example, one sibling pushes the other sibling not just to be mean, but because he is angry, testing boundaries, has been pushed at school, is tired, overstimulated, or trying to get attention.
Aside from understanding the root of the issue, it is also important to set limits. Healther Turgeon and Julie Wright call this the A-L-P model, for the steps of attuning, limit setting, and problem solving. Attuning means that you lead with understanding, limit setting states the rules and realities, and problem solving is for coming up with alternatives and solutions. Turgeon and Wright (2019) provide this example for the A-L-P model:
Ouch, that looked like it hurt. Let me check and make sure you’re O.K. You were really mad and you slammed the door on his arm? Tell me what was going on. O.K., got it. You were angry and you wanted space from him (Attune to both kids).
We absolutely cannot slam doors, because it’s dangerous. Remember that’s a family rule (Limit Set).
Let’s get your brother some ice. Pause. What could you say, in clear, strong words, when you need space? Let’s write those down, because it’s really hard to remember when you’re mad (Problem Solve).
This system can help parents feel empathy for their children. By working to see kids through a lens of curiosity, it can make you less reactive and better able to acknowledge their struggles.
Turgeon, H. (2019, July 11). For Sibling Battles, Be a Sportscaster, Not a Referee. Retrieved
from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/11/well/family/sibling-battles-parents- sportscaster.html?utm_source=pocket-newtab