Refereeing Sibling Fights – Pitfalls and Alternatives
All siblings argue, at least occasionally, and as a parent it can sometimes feel that you’re constantly called upon to smooth over disputes and re-establish a fair playing-field. However, it quickly becomes clear that trying to referee puts you in an impossible position as you can never get it right for both children, sibling disputes are rarely clear-cut. By refereeing you are having to make judgements, often without knowing the full facts of the situation, and if you didn’t see what happened then you can never be absolutely sure of what was going on no matter how convincing one child’s story is.
Children tend to come for adult help when they feel that they have been unfairly treated but it is often the case that both children involved have their own grievances and perceived injustices. By siding with one child over another, one will feel righteous and justified and the other will feel misunderstood and resentful.
It is also the case that parents often feel a natural empathy for one child’s position over another. For example:
• The younger child who often gets “targeted” by older siblings.
• The “kind or sensitive” child who often gets taken advantage of.
• The child who holds the position in the family that you held in your own family of origin is particularly easy to identify with as they often trigger the resurfacing of old feelings.
This, together with insufficient facts, can lead to unfair “judgments” on your part, which can leave children feeling dissatisfied or resentful.
Empathise with the child who seeks you out but don’t get drawn into siding with one child over the other or trying to sort out the situation. Remain caring but neutral, for example, “I can hear you’re upset that Adam has the police truck when you really wanted to play with it”. Especially with younger children, showing that you have understood your child’s feelings is enough for them to move on. Older children also need their feelings acknowledged but may continue to try to get you to arbitrate. Whenever possible it is better to encourage them find their own way through the dispute instead of jumping in to sort it out for them.
From around the age of three children can be encouraged to work towards their own solutions: Get both children together and set them the challenge of working out a solution that they are both OK with. Let them know you are confident that they can do it together and hold firm on this, even when you have strong reservations yourself. Initially, you may need to give them some ideas but eventually this will provide them with a template for managing future negotiations. Hold firm on being empathic towards each child, refuse to take sides and praise successful sibling negotiations. Over time you will start to see them manage minor disputes without drawing you in.
It is easy to become angry or upset with a child who hurts their siblings. Hitting, pushing or biting should not be tolerated but work out consequences in advance so that you have a clear plan to follow and can manage the situation calmly. Reacting angrily in the moment is likely to leave you upset, guilty or feeling hopeless afterwards and your child feeling confused, resentful and more likely to lash out in the future. Talk through alternatives to violence at a time when you are both calm and make an effort to notice and praise when you see your child trying any of them out.