Understanding the Influence of Parent Beliefs on Constructive Conflict Resolution
Two kids are rolling around in the snow throwing snow in each other's faces then one child begins to cry. There is yelling down in the basement among two of your own kids and two kids from the neighborhood. Your youngest daughter is crying from the back bedroom while you’re cooking dinner. You hear fighting from the trampoline out back.
Even before you’ve entered a conflict situation like these with your kids, you have probably already started making assumptions about what’s happened and which child is to blame. Naturally, our minds turn to understanding who the victims and perpetrators are, and how to deal with the child who started the fighting, screaming, or yelling.
While it’s natural for us to begin sorting through, and either ignoring or intervening in our children’s conflicts, we behave very differently when we assume guilt before entering sibling conflict. This post’s parenting research demonstrates that when we assume guilt, we are much less likely to discuss and support our children’s sharing of perspectives and emotions with each other. Yet, when we are unsure of who’s at fault, we are much more likely to support our children in understanding each other.
In this post, we will focus on how we, as parents, respond to sibling conflict. Do we behave differently when we assume one child is at fault or if we are unsure who we should blame? We will explore Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe’s 2013 article, “Two Sides to Every Story?: Parents’ Attributions of Culpability and Their Interventions into Sibling Conflict” to see what parenting tendencies can help guide us in teaching our children constructive conflict resolution skills.
Recchia, Holly E., Cecilia Wainryb, and Nina Howe. 2013. “Two Sides to Every Story?: Parents’ Attributions of Culpability and Their Interventions into Sibling Conflict.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 59, no. 1 (January): 1-22.
Summary of the Research Study
This study involved 61 sibling pairs of Caucasian, Canadian children from 4-10 years old and their primary caregivers (53 mothers, 7 fathers, and 1 legal guardian). Through private and joint interviews, researchers gathered information about how parents judged who was at fault for a given sibling conflict, and how parents chose to intervene based on those judgments of guilt, innocence, or unclear blame.
This study showed that parents’ beliefs about which children are at fault in sibling conflict are linked to specific parenting choices with older and younger siblings. Researchers uncovered that when parents are unsure about which child is at fault in sibling conflict, they tend to intervene in more constructive ways to help children understand each other.
How Do Parents Typically Respond to Sibling Conflict?
With the average preschooler conflicting about eight times per hour with a sibling, parents deal with a lot of regular, everyday conflict. Given the frequency of sibling conflict, researchers have found that parents are three times more likely to ignore sibling conflict than to get involved in helping kids settle their conflicts. Yet, when parents do get involved, they usually intervene as judges, determining who’s at fault and what punishments are deserved.
Generally, parents tend to believe that there is one clear victim in sibling conflict. When parents intervene in sibling conflict, they tend to “address the child who violated a rule by supporting the victim, and they consistently uphold particular moral principles, such as condemning harm or failure to share (quoted from Ross et al, 1994, 1996).” In short, we tend to judge who is innocent and who is guilty based on our specific rules and principles.
Yet, when we do intervene, we tend to balance the power between our children. We try to make sure our younger children’s views are represented, but we do not usually do this to overpower the older sibling. Drs. Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe’s research suggests that: “Even though parents tended to favor their older children’s view more often, they were also almost twice as likely to elaborate on their younger child’s perspective (18).”
In addition, this research suggests that “When parents become involved [in sibling conflict], resolutions may ultimately be more equitable because parents are able to level the playing field by [representing] the younger sibling’s perspective (18).”
On the flip side, when we choose to ignore our children’s conflicts, our children often do not resolve their conflicts effectively with each other. We will briefly look at what happens when we ignore sibling conflict and what variables motivate us to get involved in sibling conflict.
What Usually Happens When Children Try to Resolve Conflicts with Siblings on Their Own?
What Motivates Parent Involvement in Sibling Conflict?
While we each have unique relationships with our children, we are highly influenced by certain social factors when deciding (1) whether to intervene and (2) how to intervene in our children’s conflicts.
Why Does It Matter How We Intervene in our Children’s Conflicts?
For preschoolers through 12-year-olds, research shows that our children benefit from parents intervening in their more intense, recurring conflicts with siblings. But, the type of parenting beliefs and actual strategies we use matter a lot. Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe have said that:
“Research suggests that parenting strategies in sibling conflict that support children’s understanding of their brother’s or sister’s perspective may be particularly effective for strengthening our children’s understanding of each other and lead to more constructive conflict resolution (p. 4).
Understanding these natural parenting tendencies in sibling conflict, Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe looked at what additional factors, such as assumption of guilt or innocence, influence our choices as parents. In short, when are we more likely to help our children listen to, empathize, and problem solve with each other?
Who do Parents Usually Blame for Sibling Conflict?
To help us understand our own personal parenting tendencies, we first review what Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe have gathered about parents general blaming tendencies in their study group:
From these general tendencies, we then look at how our beliefs about our children’s guilt, innocence, or unclear blame influence our parenting strategies.
How do we behave with sibling conflict when we assume the guilt of one child?
How do parents behave with sibling conflict when we are unsure which child is at fault?
When are we most likely to use parenting techniques that help siblings understand each other better?
Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe’s research reveals that, as parents, we are more likely to intervene with positive patterns like asking questions and helping our children listen to teach other when we are unsure of which child is a fault. This lack of clarity about who’s to blame is associated with more listening, more talking, and more sharing of emotion.
The research suggests that our beliefs about our children’s actions directly influence how we parent when our children are fighting with each other. We tend to interact much more constructively when we assume that there are multiple ways of seeing what happened in our children’s conflicts. If we can withhold judgment about who’s at fault, we are more likely to help our children discuss feelings, empathize with each other, and problem solve as equals.
In short, these small (and large) differences in how we think about and approach our children’s conflicts with each other make a big difference in how our children learn to successfully handle conflict. As parents, we can stop, take a breath, and hold back our initial assumptions to help our children learn to share their thoughts and feelings to resolve conflict more effectively with each other. Eventually, our children will be solving their conflicts on their own; they will need these perspective taking, empathizing, and problem solving skills that come with more listening and more sharing with their siblings, especially in conflict.