On a fairly regular basis, I can hear my boys (ages eleven, nearly ten, and almost eight) screaming at each other down in the basement while they are “playing” with each other. I often ask myself the following automatic questions: “Should I go down and see what’s going on?” Or, “Is that an ‘I’m hurt’ scream or an ‘I’m mad’ scream?” More recently, I have begun asking myself, “What kinds of things do my boys need to learn right now besides not hitting or hurting each other?”
Confirmed by academic research, as parents, we tend to interfere in our children’s more intense (usually physical) conflicts with each other. This seems natural for both mothers and fathers, but could parent intervention have greater benefits beyond solely preserving our children's physical well-being?
To explore how to answer this fundamental question about parent intervention, we investigate one research study by Perlman and Ross (1997), which focuses on parent intervention in sibling conflict between pairs of preschool-aged siblings. While this research remains focused on a younger preschool-aged population, the ideas and principles about parent intervention may also cross over into slightly older child populations. See parent-led mediation studies of Siddiqui and Ross (2004), Smith and Ross (2007), and Ross and Lazinski (2014) for specific methods of constructive parent intervention in sibling conflict between three to eleven-year-old children.
Perlman, Michal, and Hildy S. Ross. 1997. “The Benefits of Parent Intervention in Children’s Disputes: An Examination of Concurrent Changes in Children’s Fighting Styles.” Child Development 68, no. 4 (August): 690-700.
Knowing that most sibling conflict is frequent, sometimes quite aggressive, regularly left unresolved, and often ignored by parents, Perlman and Ross (1997) investigated the influence of parent intervention in preschool-aged children’s fights with their siblings. Perlman and Ross’ fundamental research questions included:
Summary of Research
To answer these questions, Perlman and Ross investigated the impact of parent intervention on the quality of children's conflict behavior using observational data from 40 English-speaking, two-parent Canadian families with two and four-year-old children. Studying a total of 2, 2271 conflicts, researchers found that sibling fights occurred an average of 57 times in each family or 6.3 times per hour. Parents intervened in approximately 57% of all conflicts while children ended 969 or approximately 42% of their sibling conflicts independently.
In this study, Perlman and Ross found that parent intervention in sibling conflict not only tended to decrease conflict intensity, but also facilitated more constructive patterns of conflict management between fighting children. In short, Perlman and Ross’ research suggests that children-especially young children--BENEFIT from parent intervention in sibling conflict.
In-depth Investigation of Research Results from Perlman and Ross 1997
To introduce their research study, Perlman and Ross first discuss prevailing beliefs about parent intervention in sibling conflict. Moving beyond Dreikurs’ (author of 1964 best-selling parenting book: Children the Challenge) blanket call to ignore all sibling conflict, we see there are nuances and caveats to blanket style approaches to sibling conflict. Perlman and Ross acknowledge the key beliefs underlying parents choices to either ignore or intervene in sibling conflict. These key beliefs include the following:
Key Belief about the Benefits of Ignoring Sibling Conflict
Most benefits for ignoring sibling conflict hinge on the idea that siblings are physically, psychologically, and mentally equal so that children jointly discover other options besides fighting for resolving differences. (Rarely, do children fight as true equals in terms of physical, psychological, and mental capabilities).
Key Belief about the Benefits of Intervening in Sibling Conflict
Parent intervention may help balance power between siblings who may not be physically, psychologically, or mentally equal and who may lack important conflict resolution skills that would allow for constructive conflict resolution.
Counteracting a common argument that parent intervention might unfairly bias conflict resolution results, research by Ross, Filyer, Lollis, Perlman, & Martin 1994 suggests that parents do not usually intervene in biased ways to their children’s conflicts with each other. This same research claims that sibling conflict outcomes are more equitable and there is more adherence to family rules when parents do intervene in sibling conflict.
What did Perlman and Ross Observe about Parent Intervention in Sibling Conflict?
Perlman and Ross observed and analyzed thousands of conflict tactics and skills used by children and parents in this study. To answer the first question about parent motivation for intervention, Perlman and Ross observed the following:
What Types of Fights Motivate Parents to Intervene?
Do Fights Change When Parents Intervene?
Children’s fights did change when parents intervened in sibling conflict. Perlman and Ross observed the following differences when comparing the length of conflicts, conflict tactics, and differences between older and younger siblings with or without parent intervention:
Observations of Sibling Conflict without Parent Intervention
Observations of Sibling Conflict with Parent Intervention
Observations Comparing Fighting Styles Between Two and Four-Year-old's
In addition, researchers also observed important differences between fighting styles between two and four-year-old's. Four and two-year-old's tended to use physical power at similar rates, but fight differently in other important ways based on parent intervention.
With parent intervention four-year-old's tended to:
Without parent intervention, two-year-old's tended to oppose their older siblings more often, but justified themselves less than with parent intervention. Considering these key differences in older and younger siblings’ fighting styles, we can see that even preschool-aged children are not necessarily fighting as equals. This implies that younger siblings may need some type of scaffolding or support from parents to be able to effectively resolve differences with their more verbally expressive and mature siblings.
Overarching Benefits of Parent Intervention in Sibling Conflict for Family Unity and Understanding
As Perlman and Ross (1997) state in their article: “for this sample of Caucasian, two-parent families, intervention seemed to both decrease the level of intensity of conflicts and allow the children to behave in ways that are more sophisticated than what they were capable of on their own (699).”
Benefits for Parents:
Benefits for Children:
Possible Explanations for Benefits of Parent Intervention in Sibling Conflict
While parents are three times as likely to ignore sibling conflict as to intervene in their children’s conflicts with each other, in this 1997 study, parent intervention appears to have positively influenced children’s chosen fighting styles and decreased conflict intensity. Perlman and Ross provide three possible explanations for why parent intervention may positively influence conflict outcomes between preschool-aged siblings. These three possible reasons include:
Moral Internalization: When parents intervene, they may encourage children to use inductive-reasoning discipline techniques to directly teach their children the harmful and beneficial consequences of their behavior on others. (Consider the doubling of conflict “moves” with parent intervention).
Modeling Constructive Conflict Management Skills: If parents intervene constructively, children may choose to follow their parents’ behavioral strategies.
Scaffolding: Given developmental differences between siblings, parents help structure sibling conflict in a way that deescalates conflict and focuses on elaboration and other-oriented reasoning, which facilitates constructive conflict management.
Example of Intervening in a Child’s Conflict:
Yesterday morning, my six-year-old woke up with the post-Halloween candy blues. Grumpy, ornery, and willing to dish out venom to anyone who provoked her, my boys and I attempted to eat our breakfast in peace; using the classic Dreikurs’ method of ignoring her attempts to engage her brothers in a fight. While we can always hope that negative vibes will somehow dissipate on their own, this may not always work as effectively as we’d like.
Yet, despite our collective attempts to ignore Lucie’s unprovoked, continuing outburst, we did not find peace in ignoring her as she crawled under the table and continued ranting. She writhed on the floor beneath our kitchen table in an apparent attempt to provoke our ire; trying to ignite sibling conflict.
Unwilling to fight her, my sons and I looked at each other in wonderment. How could we return to eating our breakfast in peace without just ignoring her or banishing her to her room? Those options had not worked so far.
Given her mood, I could tell that she needed to be separated from the boys who she could easily try to attack. In a way, her mood influenced her towards trying to pick a fight without any real existing conflict issue like fairness, privileges, or entitlement. In short, I could tell that this was not a sibling conflict situation, but an indication of one child’s need for teaching and de-escalation of intense emotion.
Recognizing that ignoring Lucie yielded little fruit, I gently pulled her out from under the table and held her in my arms. I carried her away from the kitchen area to a nearby couch where we could talk. I carefully asked her how she was doing and asked her to come with me to get dressed for school. While certainly not in the mood to calmly talk things through, Lucie at least began to listen somewhat.
As we talked through how to speak politely with each other, she did not immediately calm down or address me politely. However, I took the opportunity to teach her how to talk with others, even when she’s grumpy. I emphasized that we all have different moods, but we temper our moods to help others and ourselves get through each day.
While I chose to separate Lucie temporarily from her siblings, I took the time to teach her about how to speak with both me and her brothers. We could discuss, in simple terms, what is polite and what is not polite. Rather than merely censure her for impolite behavior, I could invest in teaching her appropriate behavior. Rather than allowing her to provoke her siblings, I could deescalate potential conflict before she ignited conflict based primarily on a lack of sleep and grumpiness. In sum, I tried to put the fire out before it spread throughout the family.
No one parenting situation looks exactly alike, but each of us encounter situations that demand our willingness to truly teach, rather than ignore, mandate obedience, or merely punish our children. There may be times like our post-Halloween morning to intervene, separate, teach, and then teach some more. Perhaps, rather than ignoring, we can engage constructively, then slowly pull away as our children learn more effective, sophisticated conflict management strategies.
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:
Responding to Conflict Resolution Needs at Home
If you had asked me even ten years ago if I would like to bear five children in six years, I would have called you crazy. And, yes, it was extremely crazy bearing five children in six short years. But, don’t get me wrong, I had always wanted five children as the third of five de Schweinitz children growing up in Palo Alto, California. While my husband and I experienced difficulties conceiving our first child, Kelly (12), a daughter, we were certainly surprised with how smoothly Kelly’s three brothers and only sister came along. In recent years, by adding George (11), Aaron (9), Andrew (7), and Lucie (6), we have filled our suburban Colorado home with lots of love, laughter, and opportunities for conflict management.
During the early years of having babies and raising toddlers, my husband and I labored intensively to clothe, feed, protect, and otherwise maintain our children’s physical well-being. Yet, as the pure physical demands of parenting small children eased and I pursued a master’s degree in conflict resolution at the University of Denver, I sensed a very strong need to review, redefine, and revitalize my vision of parenting. Like many other parents, I regularly wondered how to deal with the daily conflicts that threatened our family’s peace and happiness. Ultimately, while I had always imagined creating a peaceful home, I often felt unsure about how to achieve my vision.
Examining Our Own Conflict Resolution Habits
To figure out how to deal with family conflict, I had to first take a good look at my own tendencies and strategies surrounding conflict. Since childhood, I have recognized my tendency to run away from conflict. How ironic that I chose to study conflict resolution when I do not necessarily enjoy or naturally yearn to confront it! Yet, my studies and personal experiences have confirmed to me that my conflict avoidance patterns are mostly learned and not necessarily rooted in my personality. That means that even as an adult, I can modify and improve how I deal with conflict. In that vein, I am diligently working to more effectively confront, manage, and resolve conflict in my daily life using a variety of approaches, especially collaboration.
As I seek to modify and improve my own conflict resolution skills, I am convinced that every parent could reasonably model and teach effective conflict resolution and peacemaking skills to their children if they had the right tools. Naturally, I see so much greater potential in the young minds and fresh start of my children who won’t need years of unlearning bad habits to effectively manage personal, familial, or wider-scale conflicts. Consequently, I believe that conflict resolution skills should not just be left to the specialists, but need to be incorporated into our everyday teaching of our children at home.
Reflecting on Societal Patterns
If we could teach our children to confront, manage, and resolve conflicts in their daily lives using collaborative mediation principles, we could organically change our society dramatically in very positive ways. I am certain that the tenets of principled negotiation (as explained in books like Getting to Yes) give adults, as well as children great power to manage and resolve everyday conflicts.
Despite my strong academic background in international policy and conflict resolution, I write principally as a parent concerned with alarming societal trends about how people manage conflicts both publicly and privately. Like you, I regularly witness the polar ends of dysfunctional conflict management: from the tendency to avoid resolving everyday conflicts until they spiral out of control to the growing popularity of purposely inflaming contentions without respect or consultation with other parties. We see the results of these dysfunctional approaches with patterns of retaliation, intolerance, and hatred. These toxic societal trends regarding conflict management threaten not only our friendships, international politics, the economy, and work relationships, but, most importantly, our families.
While the Lorax spoke on behalf of the trees, I speak on behalf of the children who plead for a world of peace that begins in the home. Until we learn to act peaceably with each other within our own homes—no matter what the composition of our family—we cannot expect peace, happiness, or true success on personal or broader levels of society.
Putting our Best Efforts into Teaching our Children
As a believer that we should put forth our greatest efforts, talents, diligence, planning, and expertise into our greatest priorities, I have decided to create the Raising Mediators blog to share life-changing ideas to be applied in our everyday family lives to teach our children how to constructively manage conflict for a lifetime.
Many years ago, a family friend voiced his belief that he would always invest his greatest talents, efforts, and heart into planning for the success of his family. Sometimes in our families, I think we act as if things should just work out with raising a happy and productive family. We may fail to apply the best of our faculties and skills to the task of raising our children like we would to succeeding in our professions.
Too often, we spend the long hours developing the corporate strategy or forecasting the company’s numbers with great precision, but we leave our family success to some amorphous strategy of finding the best schools, signing our kids up for all kinds of extracurricular activities, and funneling money away in a college fund as if these steps were the only real keys to our children’s success. What if our children are missing the critical pieces of learning to manage interpersonal conflict and experience the resulting peace and connection with others that will make all these less central goals meaningful?
Exploring Family Conflict Resolution Topics
To broaden the possibility for parents to access life-changing parenting principles confirmed through rigorous academic research, I have developed the Raising Mediators blog, which will supplement my full-length Raising Mediators book to be published in Spring 2017. Through weekly blog posts focused on family conflict management issues, I hope to widen the audience for academically-based family conflict studies that involve such topics as:
I have found that these powerful conflict resolution studies focused on teaching children collaborative problem solving, perspective taking, and empathy should be readily accessible to parents who are best positioned to raise a generation of children who can effectively confront, manage, and resolve differences for the benefit of all involved parties. Given the right tools, we can revolutionize the way our children face the future and give them hope that they can manage the conflicts that will inevitably come as they rise to lead their generation. As their parents, I hope you will respond to the challenge of raising this needed generation of mediators.
Upcoming Blog Post to Review: Siddiqui and Ross (2004):
“Mediation as a Method of Parent Intervention in Children’s Disputes”
As the first in a regular series of blog posts featuring academic articles translated into real-life parenting applications, I will review the 2004 parent-led mediation study by Siddiqui and Ross. This pioneering study of parent-led mediation introduces the possibility for even very young children to learn mediation and achieve successful conflict resolution results by collaborating with their older, more mature siblings.
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.
Emily de Schweinitz Taylor