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A parents' guide to settling fights between siblings

November 21, 2009

How to hold peace talks

Mediator and parenting coach Susie North offers these suggestions for parents mediating disputes between siblings:

Embrace neutrality and acknowledge bias. Reflect honestly upon your biases (gender, birth order, temperament -- anything). Take them into account when you approach conflict between the kids. You will mediate more effectively if you admit to your biases than if you pretend they don't exist.

Ask open-ended questions. Start with, "What happened?" Try to avoid questions with a yes or no answer. Opening with "Why . . . ." and "How . . ." also is good. Try to avoid asking, "Who started it?" because the answer will be the other sibling.

Separate position from interest. People in a dispute are usually very attached to their position. ("I have to have the remote.") It can be illuminating to examine their interests -- the "why" behind the position. Help children to express the needs and wants that underlie their position. Once two people start talking about their interests, they are ready to begin negotiating.

Reframe kids' statements. By employing active listening, you can reframe one child's statement, "You're so selfish!" by saying, "It sounds like you get really frustrated and angry when Jeffrey doesn't share the remote. Would you like to tell him that?"

Use "I" statements. The model for an "I" message is: "I feel [emotion word] when you [verb]." Example: "I feel frustrated when you forget to put your dirty clothes in the hamper." The more you use "I" messages, the more likely your children will employ this technique with ease themselves.

Model language that is emotionally rich and honest. Kids don't just feel "bad"; they feel angry, frustrated, scared, worried, annoyed, indignant, ashamed and so forth. They don't just feel "good"; they feel brave, proud, surprised, loved, excited, joyful and all the rest. To say "you're a little upset" to children who are furious is to discount the depth and intensity of their emotions. Using emotionally rich language leads to greater mastery of one's feelings and lays the groundwork for skillful negotiating.

Accept the fact that peace is work. It will help to remember that peace is not the absence of conflict. It is a way of handling conflict. Conflict is here to stay, but peaceful conflict resolution builds character and promotes harmonious relationships.

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