Cooped up together
Managing Conflict Under Quarantine
The stress of COVID-19 puts pressure on sibling and couples’ relationships. What can we learn from research as we cope with being cooped up together?
fighting per hour
Siblings clash an average of
With the stress and close quarters of quarantine, these numbers might start to climb. Insights from sibling research may help families cope.
Laurie Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studies the effect of a program she designed to get siblings to be nicer to each other. The program has been successful. After participating in the program for 6 weeks, siblings had more positive interactions and fought less at home.
What makes her program unique is that she doesn’t attempt to teach parents conflict resolution skills, but rather aims to teach children to enjoy each other’s company. Taking this approach helps prevent conflict before it arises rather than deal with it after the fact.
An unexpected finding came out of observations of the comparison group for her intervention. For parents in the comparison group, Kramer gave them books and DVDs with story lines of siblings learning to get along. You would expect that story lines about siblings would model positive relationships. However, after several weeks, she visited them to observe the siblings’ behavior. Surprisingly, she found that their aggressive behaviors increased.
This might be because in a typical story line, the siblings spend the majority of the story fighting. Only a few minutes/pages show how the siblings work out their problems. And if kids lose focus at the ending of the story, then they miss the positive message entirely. Instead of modeling positive conflict resolution, these stories might just be giving kids more examples of ways to chastise and belittle their siblings.
Sibling relationships, unlike most friendships, have the added challenge of balancing children’s different developmental levels. This can make it difficult for siblings to play together in the same way that they would play with their friends.
To encourage siblings to play together, Kramer recommends that parents focus on the “invitation”
Parents can show older siblings how to invite younger siblings to play. Kramer noticed in her observations that older siblings often decline their younger siblings’ invitations to play in negative ways like taking toys away, whining, or yelling. Parents can talk to their children about how to graciously accept or decline their younger siblings’ invitations to play (Kramer, 2004).
How can parents' reactions to children's anger, jealousy, and sadness shape sibling relationships?
When fathers reprimand or ignore their older children’s expressions of anger and sadness, their children are more likely to experience greater sibling rivalry, avoid their younger sibling and be aggressive (Yaremych & Volling, 2018).
Jealousy is another emotion that is powerful in sibling relationships. In a study of families with two children (one toddler and preschooler), researchers instructed moms and dads to alternate between paying attention to each child while instructing their other child to play with toys. Not surprisingly, toddlers were more visibly upset when their older siblings were the focus of their parents’ attention. However, perhaps the older siblings were equally irritated, but just didn’t show it. They might even be more jealous than their younger siblings. Past research has also shown that older siblings tend to be more adept at picking up on social cues that trigger jealousy than their younger siblings, particularly when it comes to their parents’ attention (Miller, Volling, & McElwain, 2000).
The anxiety and isolation we are experiencing will probably strain many couples’ relationships and lead to more fighting.
There’s no clear cut answer to these questions. But insights from Dr. Cumming’s research at the University of Notre Dame offer a clue. His work involves exposing kids to conflict. First he asks the child’s parents to have a scripted argument. He then tests the kid’s stress levels by measuring their cortisol and surveys their teachers and parents to learn about their behavior following the conflict. He has done many versions of this experiment with different levels of severity of conflict, having the parent pretend to argue on the phone with their spouse, or argue with a research assistant.
Unsurprisingly, the children tended to behave more aggressively after the conflict and have higher stress levels. But the striking finding was that the aggressive stress reaction was eliminated when children were allowed to witness the conflict be resolved.
If we argue with our partner and leave the room mid-argument because we don’t want our kids to hear, then we’re keeping them from hearing the most important part of the conflict - the resolution. Conflicts are inevitable. By observing how we resolve conflicts, kids can start to learn how to address conflict effectively themselves.
Cummings found that over time, kids who were exposed to “constructive conflict” at home tended to be rated higher by teachers on their prosocial behavior (sharing, kindness, etc).
Should we shield our kids from conflicts we have with our partner? Or hash out our problems in the open?
Take care to show extra support for older children. They may not show it as much as their younger siblings because they’re more adept at managing their expression of emotions, but they are probably struggling just as much.
Practice invitations to play with older children. Show them how they can invite their younger siblings to play with them, and show them how to graciously accept or decline their younger siblings invitations.
Be mindful of the sibling-related story lines in children’s media. When characters are experiencing conflict, talk with your kids about how they could resolve that conflict. This can help children focus more on the part of the story line related to the resolution.
When you have a fight with your partner, allow your children to witness the full arc of the argument so that they can observe how you resolved it. For bigger fights that you’re not comfortable having your children witness, it might be helpful for them to get an update afterwards that everything is okay.
Carlson, S. M., White, R. E., and Davis-Unger, A. (2014). Evidence for a relation between executive function and pretense representation in preschool children. Cognitive Development, 29, 1–16.
Cummings, E. M., Ballard, M., El-Sheikh, M., & Lake, M. (1991). Resolution and children's responses to interadult anger. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 462–470.
Kennedy, D. E., & Kramer, L. (2008). Improving emotion regulation and sibling relationship quality: The more fun with sisters and brothers program. Family Relations, 57, 567 – 578.
Kramer, L. (2004). Experimental interventions in sibling relations. In R. D. Conger, F. O. Lorenz, & K. A. S. Wickrama (Eds.), Continuity and change in family relations: Theory, methods, and empirical findings (pp. 345 – 382). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.