Why leave mediation to the specialists when child development experts have confirmed that with parents help even preschoolers can successfully mediate conflicts with their older siblings?
As the first in a series of blog posts about resolving sibling conflict, we focus on the pioneering parent-led mediation study by Siddiqui and Ross in 2004. See Siddiqui, Afshan, and Hildy Ross. 2004. “Mediation as a Method of Parent Intervention in Children’s Disputes.” Journal of Family Psychology 18, no. 1 (March): 147-159.
Knowing that most sibling conflict is frequent, sometimes violent, and often left unresolved, Siddiqui and Ross (2004) were interested in seeing if parents could mediate conflicts between their preschool to middle childhood-aged children. Their fundamental research questions included:
Earlier research (Perlman and Ross 1997) suggests that parent intervention in sibling conflict may reduce sibling conflict intensity and increase children’s use of reasoning and perspective taking. Based on the potentially positive role of parent intervention in sibling conflict, Siddiqui and Ross focused their 2004 study on the general feasibility of parent-led mediation. Naturally, parent-led mediation involves parent intervention into children’s more intense, recurring conflicts.
Summary of Research
In this academic study of 48 English speaking Caucasian Canadian families (mothers with two children between the average ages of 5 to 8 years old), Siddiqui and Ross demonstrated that mediation-trained mothers could successfully use mediation to resolve their children’s conflicts and empower younger siblings to solve conflict issues.
While most parents tend to either ignore sibling conflict or interfere as judges between their children, Siddiqui and Ross (2004) demonstrated that both mothers and young children may prefer the process and results of parent-led mediation. The study also suggests that parent-led mediation promotes children’s socio-cognitive development. Further studies of parent-led mediation by Smith and Ross (2007) and Ross and Lazinski (2014) expand these research findings and will be reviewed in future blog posts.
In parent-led mediation, a parent serves as a communication assistant to his or her fighting children. Rather than acting as a judge, a parent-mediator ensures that the following four stages of mediation are followed so that children maintain their autonomy and collaboratively craft their own conflict resolutions.
Four Basic Stages of Parent-led Mediation
Essential Research Results for 2004 Study
Parents in both the parent-led mediation and control groups reported a similar number of conflicts during the study period. In terms of engagement by older and younger siblings, older siblings actively engaged in resolving issues in both groups, but younger siblings were more active in resolving conflicts in the mediation group. Children in the mediation group tended to discuss emotions more and were more positive about their parents intervention in their conflicts with siblings. In the mediation group, younger siblings supplied information and reasoned more often than younger siblings in the control group.
More than 75% of the participants in both groups reported satisfaction with their resolution process. In terms of the actual resolutions achieved by both groups, the control group arrived at more resolutions through compromising about the actual issue at hand. Mediation group compromise tended to focus on relationship compromise rather than issue compromise.
As for parent control of resolutions, in the control group, mothers initiated resolutions for their children more often that in the mediation group. Only in the control group some parents and children were not able to resolve issues and/or one child was forced to submit to the other. Alternatively, in the mediation group resolutions, mothers and children talked much less about solutions overall and were more willing make relationship compromises with an emphasis on harmony in family relationships.
All the mothers in the mediation group indicated that they would continue to use mediation processes in settling conflicts with their children for a variety of reasons mentioned in the “Benefits for Parents” section of this blog post.
Benefits for Family Unity and Understanding
Mediation group participants focused more on developing understanding between family members rather than just settling the issue at hand.
Benefits for Parents:
Decreased Parental Stress and Improved Skills
In the study, mothers mentioned that mediation steps helped them to “remain calm and be less emotional, improved their intervention skills, and helped their children develop their own solutions under [their] guidance (Siddiqui and Ross 2004).”
Greater Emphasis on Emotions, Interests, and Reason
With only an hour and half of mediation training, mothers in the mediation group spoke more frequently about emotions, interests, the process, and ground rules like formal mediators. These same mothers were also more likely to supply information, direct discussion, and reason with their children.
Mothers Balance the Power Differences Between Older and Younger Siblings
Given the structure of the mediation process, mothers ensured that younger siblings participated more fully in resolving sibling conflict. Typically, without mediation processes, older siblings dominate resolution processes with their younger siblings.
Improved Sibling Conflict Processes Following Study
Mothers reported more general improvements in conflict processes in the home even after the study finished.
Benefits for Children:
More Discussion of Emotions and Ground Rules
Mediation group children spent more time discussing emotions and ground rules for the interaction. Other child development research suggests that a child’s ability to discuss emotions in mediation may lead to greater emotional understanding in other situations and more positive social behavior overall.
Mediation Discussion Facilitates Understanding of Others’ Motivations
In the mediation group, there was more discussion of emotions overall, which may help children develop the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of their siblings and other people in contexts outside the home.
Empowerment of Younger Children
In the mediation group, younger siblings assumed more responsibility for resolving mediated disputes. Scaffolded by their parents’ participation in the mediation process, younger siblings initiated conflict resolution more often than younger siblings in the group that did not use parent-led mediation.
Real Life Mediation Between Two Brothers Fighting Over Legos
Several years ago, to figure out whether mediation could work with my own kids, I attempted to mediate a dispute between my two young sons over Legos. As you read, think about the types of fights your children usually have with each other. Ask yourself how you could begin using mediation principles to create a more constructive conflict resolution environment at home. What things can you do that will allow your children to learn how to collaboratively work out their more intense, reoccurring problems with each other?
Based on my Personal Journal: Thursday, March 21, 2013
I mediated a dispute between my boys tonight. George (8) was having a temper tantrum because Aaron (7) had destroyed several of his Lego creations. Although George was screaming, my first instinct was to punish Aaron for having destroyed George’s stuff. But, I took the time to do a little investigating by helping each boy share his perspective and jointly develop a conflict resolution plan with each other.
George was very noticeably upset, but I was very surprised to see how angry Aaron was. In fact, Aaron could hardly even talk he appeared so angry. I asked him to tell me in words what he was feeling. He finally mustered: “I am really angry at George.”
I then asked him, “Why are you mad at George?”
Aaron took a while to voice his next few words, but he finally blurted out: “Because he thinks all the Legos are his.”
Next, I did some restating and said: “So you’re angry with George because he acts like all the Legos are his?”
Surprisingly, following my question, George then began screaming because I guess he felt attacked by Aaron (and me). Once George calmed down a little bit, I asked George to point out to me which Legos in the room belonged to Aaron. He got kind of a blank stare and said that he couldn’t think of any that belonged to Aaron. Then he quickly suggested that we buy more Legos for Aaron (to solve the problem).
In response, I said, “I’m not going to buy any more Legos because the huge Lego box we have here is for all the kids.”
I then turned to both boys and asked, “Do either of you have suggestions about how both of you could have Legos without buying any more?”
At this point, both Aaron and George seemed a little clueless, so I suggested, “Maybe George could pick a few of his already-created Lego figures to give to Aaron so that he would have some.”
In response, George quickly redirected that distasteful idea and suggested, “Can I give Aaron all of the free Legos in the two boxes on the floor?” The two smaller boxes of Legos represented a fair number of Legos for Aaron’s use.
I then asked Aaron, “Would that be fair to you?”
Aaron agreed and said, “That that would be all right.”
Then I did some reality testing with their arrangement. I asked them, “What would happen if
George wants to use a Lego from Aaron’s box?”
I didn’t receive a clear response from either boy after this question. During this reality testing, I had to help them understand the future possibilities for conflict. Seeing their difficulty in coming up with an answer to my reality-testing question, I suggested that George would have to trade one of his Legos for one of Aaron’s.
Then I asked them: “What would happen if Aaron destroyed one of George’s creations again?”
George said, “Aaron should have to give me some Legos to pay me back.”
Aaron nodded his head in agreement to George’s suggestion for compensation. At this point, the boys both agreed to their deal and shook hands.
While more time consuming than making my own judgment about how the boys should share the Legos, I tried to help the boys set up a pattern for future negotiations. At that point, I was certain that there would be all kinds of other things they would disagree about in the future. Yet, in a small, but tangible way, my two boys’ experience effectively negotiating with each other helped to build their confidence and skills to manage future conflicts with each other.
To raise a generation of mediators who can collaborate with each other, we must mediate ourselves. We are parents and not necessarily neutral parties, but we love all our children and can learn skills that will model the behavior we hope they will incorporate into their daily interactions with peers, adults, and us. Mediation doesn’t just belong to the specialists, but can be effectively integrated into our daily patterns at home.
This week, think about one skill from parent-led mediation that you could incorporate into your daily interactions with your children. We may begin with our own skill building and move out towards teaching our children once we have a handle on a new skill. For a list of specific ideas, see below for the six essential conflict management skills involved with parent-led mediation that I have framed as questions: