What To Do When Kids Fight

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An interview with Michael Grose

Punching, pushing, and hair-pulling. When my young sons engage in this kind of, er, sport, I initially stare in wonder. First of all, where did my babies go? Second of all, uh-oh, the little one is crying, and, major uh-oh, now he’s wailing. I guess I’ll peel myself away from the bowl of cookie batter I was pouring all my energies into, and play ref to my children. Or should I? Are they capable of working it out alone? Or perhaps the blood-curdling shrieks warrant a look-see?

In our modern culture of “hands-on” parenting, when is it a good idea to stay out of fights or arguments that take place between friends and siblings? When should parents insert themselves? Michael Grose, renowned Australian author and parenting expert, shares when parents should and shouldn’t get involved. — Managing Web Editor, Laurel Moglen, TMC

At what point in a verbal or physical fight between friends or siblings should parents intervene?

Children have learned and  inherent differences that influence how they resolve conflict with friends or siblings. Children don’t naturally know how to solve conflict, they must learn.

They are born domestic anarchists who need to develop a social set of resolution skills, partly through observation of those around them; partly due to direct teaching and intervention by parents and carers; and partly through experience.

Children at this age group, when left to their own devices will in all likelihood reach a compromise when they have a disagreement. It can be noisy but they usually reach an agreement. The second most likely option is that one child will give way. So children do have an inbuilt set of peacemaking skills. They need opportunities to resolve their problems and disputes themselves, so resist the temptation to rush in at the first sign of conflict.

However, parents need to intervene when there is a power imbalance; when one child doesn’t stop when the other surrenders; when they think they can help kids resolve an issue; and when they want some peace. There is a case for bearing fights; making a retreat to another room and simply sending them outside to resolve their disputes and arguments. This strategy is particularly useful when the sibling fighting is for the purpose of keeping you as parents busy with them — sibling disputes are great ways to keep parents busy in the service of kids.

Conflict between friends is similar to siblings, but usually conflict between friends isn’t as intense, unrelenting and as uncompromising as it can be between siblings. It’s best not to let conflict be physical between friends, as it can sometimes be with siblings. Parents need to be more directive about resolving conflict when friends are involved as other parents expect their kids to be safe when in your care. Tact and common sense needs to be your guide.

Once parents have intervened, what can they do to help solve the problem?

When kids come to you about a fight or dispute they are having, focus on the problem that caused it rather than the fight. Help kids identify the issue, and make suggestions about how they may resolve it. For example, if it’s a dispute over who should play with a toy, then isolate that as the problem and invite them to come up with some ideas. If no ideas are forthcoming, then suggest that they take it in turns or both play with another toy. If they can’t decide, then decide for them and be firm. Calmly explain what you are doing, and give the reasons for it. Model calmness for them, so they see that conflict doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means we need to work things out, and it may take some time to get there.

What should be the goal of parents once they’ve intervened?

There are usually high emotions involved when children fight and argue so the first goal is to maintain, or help kids calm down. You can do this by listening to their story; giving them a cuddle; or suggesting they go to their bedrooms to calm down.

Then the goal should be to help children resolve relationships issues themselves; to understand their place in the dispute; to see that they can’t always get their own way, and to maintain an atmosphere of safety for children.

Parents should see sibling disputes as teachable moments rather than punitive moments, and adopt a teaching mindset when they intervene.

When one child consistently dominates another child, how should parents guide the conflict-resolution?

When one child dominates another, then parents need to be the advocate for the one who backs down. That is, a parent may need to stand up for the more submissive one from time-to-time and make sure they get their own way. Also parents should try to give the quiet or more submissive child some lines or skills to use with the more dominant child, but this can be difficult to change. Usually firstborns use high power skills with their later-born siblings, including aggression and assertion, and youngest-borns generally use low power skills such as humor, charm and manipulation to get by. In many ways, it’s difficult to change this dynamic. It’s useful to remember that families are usually very hierarchical by nature and the role of parents is to lead the tribe or gang rather than resolve individual problems. There are some things parents can’t change.

Michael Grose is Australia’s leading parenting educator. He’s authored 8 parenting books including his best-selling, Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change it. He holds a Master of Educational Studies with research into what makes healthy families thrive. He has three children.

This article was originally published May 24, 2012.

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Discipline, Friendship, Learn