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“Taming Sibling Rivalry” continued...


Children need to develop empathy as much as they need to develop individuality. They need to learn to consider and care about the needs of other family members. While children should be taught that it is kind to share their things they should not be forced to share. When children are forced to share their toys, games, etc. they often hurt back at their parents by become aggressive toward the sibling they were made to share with. The same lesson applies to children’s friendships as well. A mother of eleven-year-old twin girls was concerned that only one of the twins was invited to a classmate’s birthday party. She decided to call the classmate’s mother to ask if her other daughter could go to the party also. Both girls went to the party, but the one twin resented her mother’s interference with her need to develop a friendship apart from her sister’s involvement. When we minimize having our children share their possessions and their friends we are giving them respect.


Another pitfall that causes parents to fan the flames of sibling rivalry is labeling. As children grow they develop their own talents. As parents, when we label one child an athlete, one a scholar, and another a musician, animosity between siblings may also develop. When we show delight in one child’s talent we need to be sensitive to the feelings of our other children. Our reactions to the one can diminish the feeling of self-worth in another. When we declare one child to be an expert we both stimulate resentment and suppress the other’s willingness to explore the same interest. It is wise to tell all our children that the same opportunities are open to all, and that there is room in the family for more than one child to excel in any area. It helps to take care not to brag about one child in front of another, especially if the sibling not being praised is sensitive.


Let us take a look at how we should intervene when there is a sibling squabble. First we want to be a judge and then we want to be a mediator. As the judge our job is to determine whether any family rules were broken and to enforce the rules by providing consequences when rules are broken. If we neglect enforcing the three family rules mentioned earlier we can expect sibling conflicts to escalate. Those rules not only tame sibling rivalry but also teach children lifelong attitudes necessary for success in both the world of work and personal life.


Suppose one of our children has a complaint against another and comes to us for help. As we listen to the complaint suppose we learn that both sides called the other a name. As the judge we recognize that they both broke the family rule about not hurting others with words or actions. Breaking this rule was probably not the root issue of their squabble. They both used name-calling as a way of hurting one another, instead of focusing on fixing the real problem. Ultimately we want to teach them how to resolve their differences without attacking or hurting one another. We can use mediation to do this. But, because they both broke the rule they both need to receive a consequence. Enforcing the rules is what we do in our role as the judge. Teaching them how to resolve their conflicts without attacking or hurting one another is what we do in our role as a mediator.


Our role as a mediator is quite different from our role as a judge. This approach is very effective if we explain to our children the difference between our roles as judge and mediator. As the mediator, not only do we help resolve our children’s conflicts, we also train them how to resolve future conflicts. Suppose one of our children comes to us again and complains about a sibling. What we need to do is get the other sibling and say, “Your brother has a problem with you and he wants to fix it. Do you want me to be a judge or mediator? As the judge I am going to be looking for who is right and who is wrong. If you are wrong there will be consequences. I will also be looking to see if any family rules have been broken and I will enforce those rules with consequences. That is what I will do if you want me to be the judge. If you want me to be the mediator there will be no consequences. As the mediator I will not take sides and my goal will be to help you find a solution that you both like. You will get to tell your brother your feelings and point of view, and you will hear his. I will help both of you work things out instead of fighting. If you want me to be a mediator you must agree to solve the problem. Which do you want me to be?”


The reason there are no consequences in mediation is because it is voluntary. We want our children to see it as being non-threatening and safe. Mediation does not work unless children are willing to cooperate with it. Whether or not to use mediation should always be their choice. The process simply falls apart if both sides do not buy into to it. Pointing out that the alternative is for the parent to assume the role of the judge makes mediation a more favorable option. As children become familiar with family mediation they will be inclined to use it again and again. Conducting a mediation takes between five and ten minutes to complete. The following is an outline for conducting mediations:


  1. Conduct mediations with only two siblings at a time. Mediations are always one to one, never two to one, or group to group. People have relationships with people personally, meaning one to one, and that is how conflicts should be fixed. If two siblings are having the same issue with another sibling then two separate mediations should be conducted. Generally, if a problem is fixed with one sibling it will be fixed with the others who are concerned as well.
  2. Bring the two siblings together in a private place.
  3. Ask them to agree to the ground rules: (a) agree to solve the problem, (b) no name-calling or using insults, (c) be honest, (d) no interrupting, and (e) no questioning each other. Insist on a “yes” or “no” answer from both siblings. Remember to enforce the ground rules as you conduct the mediation, especially rules four and five.
  4. Explain your role: I am not interested in who is right and who is wrong. I will not take sides. I will help you find a solution that you both want. I will not allow any witnesses because you both agreed to solve the problem. (In your role as judge witness are appropriate, but not here.)
  5. Chose one to go first: Usually the one requesting the mediation goes first, but another way is to flip a coin.
  6. Say, “Tell what the problem is and how it makes you feel.” Make sure he says how it makes him feel. If he says, “I feel like hitting her.” Reject that answer, because he is stating what he feels like doing, not how he feels. If he says, “I feel she needs to learn a lesson.” Reject that also. He is telling what he thinks and not what he feels. Insist that he state how he feels—e.g. angry, sad, upset, annoyed, etc. Restate what was said. Restate in your own words the problem and how it made him feel. By restating we are showing that we understood what was said as well as giving support. It is important that we do not forget to use a restatement. Repeat this same step with the other sibling before going on to step seven.
  7. Say, “Tell what you need in order for the problem to be fixed?” Restate what was said. Repeat this step with the other sibling.
  8. Say, “What will you do to fix the problem?” Restate what was said.  Repeat this step with the other sibling.
  9. Ask both sides: is the problem solved?
  10. Complement them for working out the problem in a responsible way.
  11. If during the mediation their stories disagree they have reached an impasse (a dead-end). One side may not be telling the truth or there may be a misunderstanding. Explain what has happened and either take them through the mediation steps again or assume the role of the judge.
  12. If no impasse was reached and the conflict could not be resolved with mediation, ask them to discuss a compromise. [continued...]