Handling conflict between older siblings

>>that’s lots of good advice, but it seems to work best when started at birth. any suggestions for starting it “later in life” or would you just do the same? also, how do you deal with conflicts so that they build relationships between siblings instead of breaking them down? i know people say they make the kids ’sort it out’ or ‘fix it’- but i am wondering what those terms actually mean in a real context. i have tried putting certain children in a room together, but the fix they come up with is a temporary band-aid and it doesn’t seem to have any real consequences… thanks to you and possibly other readers for advice on this!!<<

Yes, everything works better started at birth but most of us don’t have that advantage!  I think you’ll begin to see improvements in sibling closeness as you homeschool for longer periods of time, but at the same time, the increased time together also gives siblings more opportunities to annoy one another and have conflicts. 

I actively facilitate interactions between the kids a good part of the time because I don’t believe kids can sort things out between one another appropriately if they don’t have the skills.  I absolutely don’t believe in letting kids sort it out on their own, unless they’ve demonstrated the necessary interpersonal skills to handle the situation.  For a young child, this obviously means being involved in their interactions with one another much more than the older kids!

When the kids are young, I literally give them the script to use when a challenging situation comes up.  When they’re older, I explain the concept and then give suggestions for how to improve the communication. “You just spoke in a disrespectful voice to your sister.  If you feel your point is worth saying, then repeat it in a way that it doesn’t sound like you’re making fun of her.”  I don’t disappear after my  little speech – I stand right there and listen to the response.  My kids know that I’ll have them repeat it again and again until they get the tone right (doesn’t have to be perfect, but has to be decent).  So it’s not worth messing around because they’re only going to waste their own time. :)

One time a couple of years ago both of my older girls were both extremely upset with one another and were emotionally escalating.  I finally told them I was going to be the moderator of their conversation since I saw they had very strong feelings about the situation, and they both deserved to be heard and understood by the other but their emotions were getting in the way.  Each would be given a chance to speak and say her point, but one person had to feel understood before the other person would get to have her say.  They hated this.  They tried to do a quick, “Okay, I’m sorry, can we eat now?”  They didn’t want to communicate, they just wanted to tell me and each other why she was right and the other was wrong.  But I insisted – and the entire family waited 45 minutes (this was on a Friday night right after kiddush and before washing – fortunately dh was there to occupy the other kids while they waited!) for them to calm down and appropriately speak with one another.  I jumped in every single time either of them used a manner of speaking that was accusatory or negative and helped them rephrase it.  Don’t think this was fun for them (or me).  It wasn’t, and they really didn’t enjoy it.  But so what?  Parenting can’t always be about doing what’s fun, but what’s necessary.  If I’m not going to teach them these skills, when and where are they going to learn them? 

I felt this was crucial to do even though it was very inconvenient.  It seems that the worst situations occur when you don’t have the time or energy to deal effectively with them, doesn’t it? And precisely for that reason I felt it was important that they see that inconvenience wasn’t going to change our expectations of appropriate communication in our home, that respect was a higher value than anything else at that minute.   When you make your stand at times like these, I think it gives a very strong message, much stronger than anything you can say.  They see that you mean what you say.  And it stands out in the mind of all the older kids because this has never been necessary to do to this degree since then.

But just doing something like this without putting it in a larger picture makes it into a technique, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m very anti parenting with ‘techniques’.  So the bigger picture is, what kind of home environment does everyone want to have?  Why?  When the kids are small, you can tell them what your vision is and get them to go along with you (if for no reason other than being bigger and stronger than them), but as they get older, they’ll need to have an active part in creating that vision or there’s no buy-in.  Like if you tell them you want a home of respect, and one child says, ‘I don’t care if people speak to me respectfully or not, and I think everyone is too oversensitive about their feelings.”  What are you going to do then?  I can tell you lots of ways to get your kids to do what you want, but if the desire isn’t there, then how much is their compliance really worth?  So the vision has to be a family creation, and the desire comes because they aren’t doing it because you tell them – you’re just reminding them of the kind of home/family/life they want t have.

Now this is something that can be formalized with a family mission statement, but I’ve never done that.  I regularly articulate the kind of home we want to have and my kids know what our expectations are, we talk alot together about how things are going and where they can improve, and they generally feel good about the standards we have (though dd13 and 14 were complaining to me that I dropped my standards in the last year for the littles and want me to up them again; they also complained that no matter how often the house is cleaned, the littles mess it up within five minutes – but that’s another topic!).  dh and I discussed this in the past couple of months, and decided that having an official mission statement that we all create together will be valuable.  We’ve told the kids we’re going to actively work on a family mission statement together (we haven’t yet had the official conversation since for the last two months up until tomorrow, everyone hasn’t been home at the same time).  That means we’re going to sit down as a family and agree upon what the rules, expectations, and values of our family will be.  It’s not a one time conversation, but a topic that regularly is revisited.  We’ve already explained the concept to the kids and told them to start thinking about what they want so they can participate in the conversation intelligently.

Once your kids are older, I think this is the only truly effective approach. You can mold behavior but I don’t want to have to work to control their behavior long term – I want them to want to do the right thing.  Otherwise at best they’d do what I said when I was there and do what they wanted when I wasn’t. 

I’d love to tell you techniques, because it’s easier to tell someone the ‘recipe’ than teach them to cook independently.  I know people are usually looking for specific rules to follow – as if, “Follow these instructions and your family will be perfect.”  That makes this approach a more challenging one to understand and implement, and I also know that a lot of people will blow off what I’m saying because I’m not giving you the 1-2-3 steps.  But the only way you can change your family culture, is to change your family culture!  And that’s going to require the active participation of all the family members.


PS- a book you may find helpful is The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Families, by Stephen Covey – it has a solid, principles based approach to building a family.

One thought on “Handling conflict between older siblings

  1. wow! thanks, as always, for much food for thought. and i think i will check out that book- and possibly plan a family meeting…

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