Illustration by Denis Shifrin
As parents, there are two types of relationships that consume most of our parenting thoughts: the relationship between parent and child and the relationship between siblings. Where there are one or more siblings in a family, there are almost certainly going to be conflicts, and the number of conflicts usually increases the closer the siblings are in age. The challenge to parents is how to deal with these conflicts in the best possible way.
Going back one hundred years, the attitude of both parents and children to sibling rivalry was clear. If the matter was minor, then parents were not to be bothered by it. If the issue was more serious, the parent was judge and jury who would listen and decide who was in the right, and rule in the light of that decision. Then came along a whole slew of theories on how to raise children. One of the ideas was that children would learn how to resolve their conflicts through experience. Parental intervention was seen as a barrier to learning how to deal with arguments; this was the “go to your room and don’t come down until you’ve sorted it out” era. These ideas were highly popular during the last decades of the twentieth century. The success of these theories is hard to decipher and is based mostly on anecdotal evidence.
However, there was growing concern that non-intervention was not “safe enough” for children and that children had neither the experience nor the tools to resolve the conflicts themselves. This meant that children were simply repeating unhelpful and unhealthy patterns again and again in each conflict instead of learning to deal with them themselves. These thoughts were based heavily on the inequality that siblings faced in dealing with each other where invariably one would be stronger/more verbal/more persuasive reasserting an unfair advantage in each and every conflict.
This backlash led to a shift away from non-interventionism to “helicopter parenting”. Helicopter parenting meant that parents were involved in all conflicts. Children would bring their arguments to the parent to decide, in effect going back a hundred years to when the parent was both judge and jury. The difference between this approach and the one taken a hundred years ago, is that no argument or disagreement is too small to bring to the parent to arbitrate and decide who is right and wrong. The main drawback is that intervening in the siblings’ arguments also affects the parent-child relationship. As the judge, the parent is responsible for the “fairness” of the situation, and is in danger of being accused of favoring one child over the other and of “not being fair”. Additional disadvantages of this method are that children do not learn any other way of resolving their arguments and parents are spending a lot of time resolving conflicts.
Lately, there has been a newcomer to the arena of conflict resolution between siblings, and that is the parent as mediator. Mediation involves an impartial third party to help those embroiled in a conflict to come to an agreement. The mediator is not there as a judge or to decide who is right or wrong, but rather is there to help the parties reach an agreement. The mediation process involves identifying the needs of the parties rather than deciding the merits of the issue. Once the needs are identified, the mediator helps the parties come up with creative ways to satisfy their needs and resolve the conflict.
There are two main advantages for a parent to mediate their children’s arguments. First, instead of children being left to themselves in the hope that they will learn from their experiences how to resolve conflicts, they are effectively being taught how to do it themselves and, more importantly, they are being given the tools to do so. The second advantage is that by acting as mediator, the parent is keeping a neutral stance that does not favor one child over the other and does not lay the parent open to accusations of “unfairness”. The process empowers children to work out their arguments with the parent alongside them, not against them.
Most people associate mediation with its more official use as an alternative to a court appearance in a family or commercial dispute. So how does a procedure, that sounds all very well and good for litigants who are in conflict, apply to a sibling argument? In practice, it means that when children come to the parent to intervene in a conflict, the parent needs to step away from their traditional and instinctive role as arbitrator or judge. Instead of jumping into the fray and asking for the facts and evidence (in parent speak, “what happened?”, “why is Julie crying?” “whose toy is it?” etc.) and then pronouncing judgement based on them, the parent offers to act as the mediator.
Acting as a mediator involves listening to both sides of the argument, letting each party give a full account of what they think happened and of their grievance. Then, the parent needs to help the children move on instead of looking back and rehashing the validity of the facts, to help them look forward and identify their needs. To do this the parent will need to stay clear of deciding who is in the right or in the wrong. Avoiding the “blame game” is the hardest part for a parent-media tor, as any parent knows who has tried to navigate children past the, ‘it was her fault/she started it’ rabbit hole. For this reason, it must be noted that mediation is not applicable in every case. In some circumstances, the need to teach the child what is right or wrong can mean that mediation is not the appropriate mode of conflict resolution.
Where mediation is appropriate, parents, once they have helped the children identify their needs, should summarize those needs back to their children. This ensures that children understand that they have been listened to and that all points have been understood. This is a good opportunity for the parent-mediator to “reframe the situation” by stating all the facts as seen by an objective third person, without placing blame on either side. After this, the parent should move children on to negotiating an agreement. This calls for the children to suggest ways to move forward which would fulfil the needs (or as many needs as possible) for all parties. If at any point the children do not want to continue with the mediation, their other options for resolving the conflict can be outlined - usually that the parent will just decide or that the children have to work it out for themselves.
A practical example highlights just how simple and effective this method can be.
Tom, a fourteen-year old boy, came to his mother, Sarah, to complain that his sister Ruth, aged eleven, entered his room and played on his computer. Tom focused on what Ruth had done, which was that she entered his room and used his computer. Sarah, as parent-mediator, steered clear of telling Ruth off for invading Tom’s privacy, but asked each of them how they saw the situation. Tom and Ruth explained their versions of what happened and Sarah then summarized what each had relayed in a “non-blame” way, clarifying with them what their needs were. In this case, Tom’s need was for respect and privacy. He specifically mentioned that he didn’t like people messing with his computer as he was building a new program on it. Ruth’s need was for a computer on which to watch her favorite program. Both children shared a need for a working relationship with each other.
Illustration by Denis Shifrin
After Sarah had finished summarizing each of their needs, they moved to the next stage which was to negotiate solutions to the problem. Sarah asked the children for their suggestions. Tom offered that there should be a blanket ban on anyone entering his room without permission, but he did add that if Ruth were to request it, he would allow her to use his computer. However, he would create a separate login which would preserve his privacy in regard to his computer. Ruth agreed to this suggestion and apologized to Tom. Both children were left with a solution they had agreed upon themselves which meant that it was much more likely to be self-enforced in the future.
The whole mediation took about ten minutes and the lasting benefits saved many more arguments and time in the future. The process also benefitted the children by introducing them to conflict resolution tools.
Many studies have shown that the role models and dynamics which surround us in our formative years are deeply embedded and create instinctive behavioral pathways. Our relationships as children create a model which influences the way we relate as adults to the world around us. Learning to manage arguments between siblings creates a model which enables better conflict management throughout life.
Parenting is probably the job for which the list of skills required is never-ending, and parents need all the tools available to them. Mediation should definitely be in a parent’s back pocket. It is worth trying before becoming embroiled in the argument itself. The downsides of trying this approach are negligible and, as whenever dealing with children, you may well be surprised with the results.
See also: www.mediationinisrael.com
Hadassah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org