Study looks at parents' use of mediation to resolve sibling conflicts

Children whose parents were trained in mediation skills had better conflict-resolution skills than those whose parents did not receive training.

That's the finding of a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and published in the May/June 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.

The study examined the effects of parents' mediation of sibling conflicts on children's conflict understanding and resolution skills. Mediation is a conflict management technique in which a neutral third party (in this case, the parent) intervenes in a conflict to help the people in the dispute reach a mutually satisfactory solution.

The researchers looked at 48 families with sibling pairs between the ages of 5 and 10. Parents were asked to record on daily checklists all conflicts in which they intervened. Half of the parents (the mediation group) were trained in the use of mediation and asked to use this training in their children's disputes; the other half (the control group) were asked to intervene as they normally would when disputes arose. This phase of the research lasted approximately two months, or until parents had recorded at least five sibling conflicts in which they intervened.

The researchers found that children whose parents had mediated their disputes had more sophisticated conflict-resolution skills at the end of the study than did families in the untrained group. Conflicts that arose at home were resolved more positively in the mediation group, according to the parents' reports, in that children behaved more constructively, the conflicts were resolved more equitably, and the children were more involved in resolving the disputes.

Children's independent conflict negotiations also differed between the two groups. The children in the mediation group used some mediation techniques in their discussions (e.g., setting ground rules and identifying issues), while the children in the control group used more contentious strategies (e.g., accusing siblings and demanding justifications).

In terms of children's skills in taking others' perspectives, children in the mediation group were better able to identify one another's goals and emotions and to understand their siblings' perspectives in conflict negotiations than were children in the control group. Furthermore, children in the mediation group (especially older children) were better able to understand that people interpret the events of a dispute and attribute blame according to their own perspectives.

"While this study had a few limitations, and further investigation of mediation should be done in different contexts, it also demonstrated promising results of parents' use of mediation to resolve sibling conflicts," according to the study's authors, Julie Smith, who is now a psychologist with Renfrew Educational Services in Calgary, Alberta, and Hildy Ross, who is professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

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