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It's happened so many times you can replay the scenario in your head. One of your children runs in from another room screaming. He's got a complaint against a sibling and he wants justice.

How do you respond? What do you say when faced with the accusations of one sibling against another?

Start with One

One of my favorite "secret weapons" for deflating sibling conflict quickly is to work with once child at a time.

Start with the one who came to you for help.

Eventually, you'll need to get them both involved in the conversation, but here are three things you can do before you add another person to the conversation.

1. The Rest of the Story

It is human nature to focus big and bold on other people's offenses against us and minimize our offenses against others. As a result, the first report of a sibling fight often sounds quite one-sided indeed.

"Sarah hit me!"

If you've been a parent (or babysitter, or teacher, or nursery worker) for longer than 36 seconds, you know that this is rarely the whole story.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)

You could call in the accused sibling and let them interrupt each other and yell at each other and be driven by the fear that they won't be heard or believed. Or, you could begin the conversation right now in the safety of your private interaction with this one child.

Start with some questions like this:

  • Why do you think your sister did that?
  • What happened right before that?
  • What else would your brother tell me if he was here?

You can even begin to introduce some calming and careful thinking with a statement like one of these:

  • Your brother doesn't usually just hit for no reason. Was there something that upset him?
  • You and your sister usually enjoy playing together. Did something happen to disrupt your playtime?

You might need to go a little deeper. Sometimes the roots of sibling conflicts begin days or even weeks before the event in question. If it seems like the reaction was out of balance to the circumstances, or out of character for the child in question, you might be dealing with a grudge or a long-term difficulty.

Ask questions like these:

  • Has this sort of thing happened before/a lot?
  • Where you already feeling angry with your brother (or was he already feeling angry with you) before this situation happened?
  • Did it seem like he got angry with you (or you got angry with him) very quickly?

2. Turning the Tables

Everyone knows the "golden rule".

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. (Luke 6:31)

The first step in developing empathy is learning to see things from another person's perspective. While it's definitely relevant to nail down the play-by-play of events in chronological order, it's even more important to understand the motives.

When one child has been hurt by another, is angry at another, it is very difficult for him to see beyond his own pain. It can be even more challenging to do this when the offending sibling is present.

So before you involved the second sibling, use the information you gained from the questions above and ask some questions like this:

  • How would you feel if that happened to you?
  • How do you think your brother was feeling when that happened?

Playing Hard to Get

Now, I know how this can sometimes go. It can go like this:

Parent: How would you feel if someone messed up your Lego house?
Kid: I wouldn't care. I can make another one really fast.

Kids are sharp. They understand at some level that you're trying to get them to feel empathy for their sibling. And they are resisting.

It isn't that she is just trying to be difficult. She is afraid.

Admitting that she can understand the motives behind her brother's action seems like it validates the action and removes her claim to comfort, help, or justice.

It's important to emphasize that relating to how a person felt or the reasons behind their action is not the same as rubber stamping the behavior as "OK". It's simply the first step in reminding ourselves that people are complex - not all good or all bad.

Learn How to "Zoom Out"

If a theoretical approach isn't making headway, see if you can think of a relevant example that might serve as a parallel.

Maybe he actually wouldn't care if someone destroyed his Lego house. But that doesn't mean he can't relate to the experience and emotions of the sibling. Teach him how to "zoom out," to widen the lens to find a situation that might not be identical, but is similar.

Is there something else he values that he'd be sad to see destroyed? Is there something else he's put a lot of work into that he's very eager to protect and preserve?

If you're not able to get traction with a parallel example from his experience, try a parallel experience from your own life.

"Remember last week when someone knocked over the vase on the table and it broke? I was so upset that I yelled. I was really sorry that I did that; it wasn't OK. But I can understand how it feels when something you love gets damaged."

And of course, it always helps to zoom out all the way and consider the big picture: ultimately your sibling wants to know that you care about her.

3. How Can I Help?

When two people cannot resolve a conflict, it's right to get help. And for children in the home, a parent is usually the best choice when a mediator is needed.

However, children don't always come to a parent looking for a mediator who can facilitate the process of reconciliation.

More often, they come because they want revenge or control and they're hoping you can be their weapon.

Once you've heard the complaint and talked to your child about events and emotions, ask a simple question, like one of these:

  • OK, what would you like me to do?
  • OK, how can I help you with this situation?

These are intended to be sincere question. Don't ask with a tone of irritation or sarcasm. And don't ask to set a trap. You're not the opposing counsel on the cross-examination.

It's very likely that the response will be some variation of "I want you to punish my sibling," or "I want you to make my sibling do what I want them to do." And this isn't necessarily a wrong desire. It isn't wrong to want justice or help with a circumstance.

But we do want to expand the vision of what is possible. Perhaps some consequences are needed (for one or both parties). But the ultimate end-goal is a restoration of fellowship between the two siblings.

You can further convey this aim with questions like this:

  • How can I help you to reconcile with your sibling?
  • Are you ready for me to help you talk with your sibling about this?

Heart Insight Tools

I purposefully did not use words like "tricks" or "hacks" in the title of this posts. Relationships can't be "tricked" or "hacked" into growing and strengthening. Rather they must be nurtured, encouraged, and discipled.

These ideas aren't going to "fix" your children. Honestly, if your goal is to "fix" them, you're probably undercutting the process from the beginning.

Rather, these strategies are designed to help you get to the heart of the matter. They are intended to give you insight into the nuances of sibling complaints. Used with care and love, they will serve you well!

  • This is so good Lynna! My two young teen daughters are having a really hard time reconciling after arguments. One of them always needs to be right. It is helpful to see how I can maybe talk to her separately and get closer to her heart on this!

    • Yep. Relationships can get into ruts. Sometimes talking to each one individually can avoid the common pitfalls.

  • Great advice! When I really don’t want to deal with this kind of stuff, I just remind myself that by leaning into dealing with the conflict, it actually makes things better around my house. My kids usually get along. But I want them to love each other after I am gone. So I have to do some hard work now. It doesn’t always seem to bear immediate fruit, but over the longer term, I know it makes a difference.

    • Jen, so true! It is so hard to keep going when it feels like we aren’t making any progress, but you’re right. It’s a long-term investment!

  • I like the questions, but do you sometimes find you’re playing judge and jury too often by taking so much time to focus on the squabbles when you use this technique? I’m eager to find answers for peaceable sibling interactions without too much mom interaction time. Is that possible?

    • April, I definitely understand your concern – conflict mediation can take a lot of mom’s time! But if you’re just playing judge and jury, you’re not working yourself out of a job. If they come to you and you say, “OK, I heard both sides. He’s the winner and she’s the loser.” then they will always have to come to you and they will always be just as dependent on you.

      The purpose of these questions, however, goes far beyond just settling individual disputes. It’s kind of like the give-a-man-a-fish vs teach-a-man-how-to-fish question. Teaching someone how to fish takes time. You don’t just list the steps and then leave them on their own. There’s a lot of demonstrating and practicing involved. But the end goal is that they begin to adopt the practice for themselves.

      So as you ask these questions, you aren’t just working through a process that ends with a judgement (who gets to play with the thing or have the next turn). You’re training them in how to think about each other, how to consider things from another person’s perspective, how to value relationship over immediate gratification, etc.

      And that does take a lot of time. Habit training and character training is like that. But if you approach conflict like this, then each instance is a stepping stone on the pathway to lifelong relationship skills, not just one more squabble that has to be eliminated. Does that make sense? Feel free to email me (lynna at hswotrainingwheels.com) if you’d like more specifics. Also, if you haven’t already, download this resource to help your kids work towards independence: https://hswotrainingwheels.com/swim/

  • Mom of nine says:

    Thank you. Good lesson for
    me as an adult as well, that the goal of resolving conflict should be growth, learning and especially reconciliation.

  • Excellent work! I really appreciated this!

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    Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.