At the school coffee last Thursday morning, a mom shared her frustrations about her children fighting. Few sounds irritate parents more than the noise of sibling battle: the crying, the accusations of “unfairness,” the shouts of “He hit me!” For children without brothers or sisters, arguments occur with friends, cousins, and with us, and they can be just as agitating.
Our nervous systems don’t usually respond happily to child conflicts, especially those that involve out-sized emotions and physical aggression. After a fracas, parents rarely comment, “Wow, what a productive conflict that was,” because mostly we’re just glad it’s over.
However, if we reframe our reactions, we can see that conflicts actually have the potential to build important communication skills. There are many examples in the world around us of people who have never learned to disagree in a way that maintains positive connection and promotes mutual understanding. How can we teach those abilities?
Give attention to peacemaking, not fighting
Praise children for expressing their feelings in words, even if they are shouting. Give them positive feedback for stopping a behavior when someone asks, for listening to the other person and responding, and for proposing ways to problem-solve the situation. “I love the way you shared your ice cream, without my even asking.” Remove or separate children when there’s aggression by simply saying “Reset,” not by lecturing them about not hurting. The more negative attention they get for fighting, the more they will do it.
Make rules for conflicts
Make up rules as a family. No name calling. No hitting. No hurting someone’s heart. Start with how you feel. Teach children that productive arguments start with the word “I” – “I feel angry when you take something without asking” – not “You’re always bothering me.”
We don’t want to blame children, or ourselves, for natural upsets. Getting angry at them for fighting adds fuel to the proverbial fire. One of the ways we help children handle disagreements better is by providing a calming, empathic presence, not by taking sides or trying to get to the bottom of who’s at fault. We want to build skill children’s skills. “I see you’re both angry – how can we work this out?”
Spending predictable time alone with each child also helps children to regulate themselves and can cut down on conflict.
Try not to take sides
Many behavior problems result from parents stepping in to “protect” a younger child, with the assumption the older child should know better. It’s easy to fall into asking an older child to accommodate to a littler one, because as the elder they have more self-control. This is especially true if the younger child has meltdowns. Siding with a younger child often creates anger and resentment on both sides.
Teach ways to repair
Everyone gets upset. We all hurt people’s feelings. We want to role- model apologizing and help children to understand that making up after a conflict preserves connection.