Q: I have two boys age, 8 and 10. They play very well together, but there is more and more conflict between them and they are playing together less and less. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to turn the tide.

A: Sibling conflict is indeed stressful, sapping our reserves to effectively manage any contentious dynamic between our children. I’m sure it’s truly a gift when they “play very well together.” You mention there is increasing conflict between them. With more than one child in the family, there will inevitably be jealousy, resentment, and competition between siblings. Your approach to their conflict will determine the course this dynamic will follow. Should you choose to be the referee, you’re reinforcing your role as judge and jury. Taking sides creates an imbalance, deciding who’s the bad guy and who’s the victim, shaping what children perceive as protecting the more loved, the more acceptable, the “best” son. Consider several possibilities: Do you identify with the son who is the same birth order as you? Do you tend to protect the one who seems less resilient, more sensitive, or blame the son who is louder, more physical? Perhaps the identified “perpetrator” reminds you of a bullying brother who made your childhood miserable. It’s important you don’t determine the verdict before you have heard both sides of the conflict.

I wonder if “no matter what I do, I can’t seem to turn the tide” translates to “my job is to FIX their problem, to ultimately settle the score and restore peace between them.” Children work out their differences in a safe environment at home, building the skills and understanding for negotiating relationships with their peers outside the family. Something prevents us from allowing children to work out their own solutions, rather than adopting ours. Perhaps it’s because we believe their battles undermine our parenting confidence, leaving us feeling inadequate.

Connecting to the root of what’s fueling their discontent with each other might actually help both children to process their emotions and respond differently. Being fully present to accept each child’s angry or sad feelings, absent of judgment or criticism, is challenging. This helps your children consider other more acceptable options for releasing their hostility. Be patient and forgiving with yourself, as this takes practice and more practice. No matter how much you might try to find the best solutions for them, the problem is theirs to work through. Whenever one of your sons pleads for your intervention, by crying, begging for you to punish his mean brother, resist assuming the role of manager. This doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize, acknowledging their problem is indeed painful, unrelenting. Supporting their respective feelings does not mean reinforcing their polarization. Children see this as: “If mom is on my side, she loves me best,” OR, “If mom is on your side, she doesn’t love me as much as you.”

When your children are unable to work out their problem, asking for parental help, try to assume a coaching role, rather than that of referee. Their respective developmental stages and temperaments will play a role in how each reacts, sometimes revealing a poor “fit.” Sibling rivalry is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. When your child is unreasonable, unmanageable, uncooperative, anxious, withdrawn, moody, or behaving in ways you don’t understand, he’s having a problem, struggling with emotions he’s unable to communicate. Your job is to help him identify what those feelings might be. Children will always fight, as competition, jealousy and resentment ebb and flow, but the way we approach their battles — intervening, ignoring them, choosing their solutions, or punishing them — either stages the next battle or teaches them how to assume responsibility for their conflict. Learning the tools of conflict mediation helps parents be compassionate, supportive, neutral facilitators of direct, honest communication.

Conflict mediation is a process that empowers siblings, and any contentious parties, to address their differences effectively and respectfully so they will maintain a healthy relationship:

Name the problem (focus only on the problem without reasons; separate problem from children involved; no blame or judgment; no preaching or teaching).

Clarify the problem (ask if this is the way each understands problem — if not, get to the root of what it is).

Hear all points of view (time without interruptions or criticism/judgment).

Determine what’s needed to reach agreement (win/win — find out what each needs from the other [promise, apology, etc.]; find out if the other is OK with that, as all must be in agreement; if one of them is not able to do what’s being asked of him or what’s needed, it might indicate unresolved issues of resentment are being uncovered; remind both that they will get what they want in the end as process takes a while).

Write all possible solutions, no matter how ridiculous (ask for ways agreement can be reached; parent can also add suggestions, however no shoulds).

Determine resolution (review until one is reached; if no agreement, take a break and return to this later; write down final agreement).

All these steps may not be necessary, as children may tire of the process and resume playing together again!

Siblings should never be compared to each other, as each is unique. We all have expectations of how we hope our children’s relationship will be, yet remember these are influenced by our own past, the ghosts of our childhood. Treating our children fairly doesn’t mean treating them equally. Ensure that competing for mom or dad’s attention isn’t worthwhile, there are no perks. Work yourself out of the job of judge and jury. One of the most powerful messages we can give our children is that we accept them for who they are, just as they are.

Please send me your questions.