Letting siblings “work it out among themselves” is the worst way to resolve a conflict

That’s my candy.
That’s my candy.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Imagine the scene: your six-year-old daughter creates an intricate Lego world. She’s spent hours constructing and reconstructing buildings, cars, and stores. Her brother demands the treasure chest, carefully placed in the middle of her city. Voices rise. Insults fly. Tears flow.

What do you do?

Most of us tell them to work it out and walk away. This strategy, called “passive non-intervention” by researchers, is also known as “doing nothing.” Some of us do it intentionally: we are trying not to helicopter. Many of us do it because we are busy making dinner or trying to have a conversation with another human being.

“It’s pretty ineffective,” says Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois. Parents seem to know this. In studies, she says, they rated it as the least effective, but the one they did the most.”

Kramer has studied siblings for more than two decades, including some from infancy through adulthood. She’s found that siblings who play more than fight end up closer. Rather than focusing only on responding to fights, parents need to teach kids proactive social skills to prevent more fights. If siblings know how to manage conflict, they will have less of it.

“If you haven’t taught them something, they don’t know how to do it,” she says.

Parents deal with conflict in four ways:

  • The authoritarian approach, by which you tell them to stop fighting (“because I said so”)
  • The passive non-intervention approach, in which you ignore it and hope it resolves itself
  • Collaborative problem-solving, where you work with your kids to identify different solutions and help them implement them
  • Modeling and rewarding positive sibling behaviors (“wow, you two are playing so beautifully together that I think we all need some ice cream!”)

The last two strategies are the most effective, but the least used, she says.

“We found that parents don’t talk very much about how to manage conflict,” Kramer says. “It’s emotionally draining, and everyone just wants it to end.”

Help-them-solve-every-fight feels like confusing guidance. After all, the key message to parents today veers more toward back off, let kids solve their own problems and stop doing everything for them.

But Kramer says this is one area where we would be well served to helicopter more, not less.

“What we are trying to teach are basic fun, social, emotional competencies that they will use the rest of their life,” she says listing the people they will someday be expected to get along with: roommates, colleagues, the neighbor who argues about everything.

Kramer developed an intervention to help siblings get along called “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers.” It focuses on the skills kids aged four to eight need to foster positive relationships, including being able to initiate play, manage conflicts, maintain a positive emotional climate, and perspective taking. It’s been a success. In controlled trials, siblings in the intervention group get along much better than those in a control group.

There’s an added benefit for parents. In a recent study, which used the same programs, parents whose kids were in the intervention group reported feeling better about themselves than those in the control group, with mothers reporting the strongest gains. To anyone who has spent a car ride negotiating between warring camps over who gets to put his elbow on the hump, this will not be a surprise. We often feel our competence as parents is reflected in how well the kids are getting along.

So maybe we need to spend some more time working on it.