Mommy, he took my toy!” “Get out of the bathroom already! Argh!” “I can’t believe her, she unfriended me!” Sound familiar? If you’re the parent of a toddler, tween or teen, you’ve likely heard some variation of these recently. These distress calls, while not the most pleasant sounds of parenting, are heard from children of all ages during disputes with siblings, friends and, yes, even their parents.
Conflicts like these are a part of life. For many parents, the ordeal of working out and muddling through their children’s battles feels infinitely more difficult than dealing with their own. Can’t we all just get along? Well, no. Not everyone gets along all of the time. And is a little conflict really so bad? If everyone always agreed, the world would be a very boring place.
Lucky for parents, there is a way to find the positive side of conflict: the problem-solving side. Read on to find out how to help your kids learn the skills they need to fight the good fight:
1. Hold off on the rescue. Often the first indication of a clash between kids is some variation of, “Mom, make her stop!” Indeed, when we’re faced with red, tear- streaked faces or tiny, tightly-crossed arms, our instinct is to intervene. But stepping in too soon may have long-term consequences.
Tim Elmore is the founder of an international non-profit created to develop young leaders who can impact and transform society. Elmore believes that when parents step in too soon to resolve their children’s conflicts, it sends the wrong message. “We’re saying ‘you can’t solve the problem for yourself, so I have to step in and do it,’” he explains. “If a child experiences this enough times, they’re going to start to believe it.” The result: parents get called to mend every tiny tiff that arises.
The obvious exception here is if one of your children is hurting another. Little kids in particular have to learn that behaviors like hitting or kicking are not okay, so in these instances, act swiftly to ensure safety and maintain consistency with your expectations.
2. Facilitate, don’t fix. Most children, regardless of age, believe all arguments have a winner and a loser. But parents can present options for cooperation. The next time you witness an argument arising, interject some information about compromise. Explain that grown-ups make concessions all the time at work and at home, and provide examples. Elmore suggests modelling and facilitating compromise at home, such as offering several solutions to a conflict that includes give-and-take for both children. Be sure that you aren’t offering a solution that favors one child; simply provide some ideas for working out a solution. The kids have to agree on one of the choices to come to a resolution, and they see how compromise works.
3. Model the good fight. Teaching good conflict- resolution skills is like getting your kids to eat vegetables. If you don’t do it, they probably won’t either. Children look to their parents as a guide for behavior, and take on many of their habits and quirks. So is it okay for parents to fight in front of children? Maybe. A number of studies have been conducted on this very topic with no clear-cut answer. Yet most research supports the idea that fighting can be okay, beneficial even, but it must be done correctly.
“Raising voices or talking in a condescending or sarcastic tone is no way to resolve a conflict, or teach our children how to disagree in a healthful way,” says Elmore. “However, engaging in an argument in a reasonable tone and using statements like, ‘I respectfully disagree and here’s why’ is worth your children witnessing.”
Seem far-fetched? It doesn’t have to be. Parents simply need to agree on how to disagree. Determining a protocol, such as setting a time limit on how long an argument can last, is a good starting point. In addition, kids need to see that arguments don’t destroy relationships. Afterward, parents should be as respectful and affectionate as they usually are, and allow their kids to hear them apologize, determine a solution and move on.
4. Get emotional, not hysterical. Fighting is, by nature, an emotional experience. As a result, people express emotions in different ways such as yelling, whining or even crying. Though parents never want their children to feel hurt or sadness, feeling these emotions is a natural part of life. It’s okay for parents to show their kids when they are sad or upset, and recognize when a conflict causes such feelings in their children. The trick is not to be ruled by emotion in an agitated state. “Children need to harness this raw emotion and learn how to think strategically, rather than act on emotion alone,” says Elmore. But when emotion escalates to hysteria, it’s time to act.
Parents should put disagreements, between themselves or their children, on hold if the participants are becoming hysterical. Watch for the signs: name- calling, screaming, bringing up old problems or simply not making any sense. Give yourself or your kids a cool- down period, and revisit the problem when everyone involved has had a chance to take some deep breaths and count to 10... or higher.
5. Process and reflect. It’s usually a relief when an argument comes to an end. If, however, the problem was particularly troubling or major, it may be a good idea to process it as a family. Elmore thinks that a conversation following conflicts between parents, a parent and child, or children is often a good idea. “Discuss the premise or cause of the disagreement, as well as ways the resolution was handled well, and things to improve on next time,” he says.
Although reflecting on these things may be uncomfortable at the time, it’s also a good teachable moment. Both kids and parents can get a sense of their own dos and don’ts for future conflict, and putting the matter to bed once and for all reduces the need to revisit the problem during a later argument.
Conflict resolution might not be the easiest skill you ever teach your kids, but it is an important one. Take the time to build these skills as a family, and be consistent. If all goes well, you may see less tears, hear less screams and help your kids grow into independent, respectful problem-solvers.
Remember these tips (from real parents who've been there) the next time you find yourselves mid-conflict in front of your kiddos:
Keep calm. Shouting can cause your kids to stress and escalate the fight.
Stay present. Avoid revisiting prior disputes; stick to the issue at hand.
Remember your audience. You are being watched (maybe even studied!). Don't do or say anything you don't want repeated back to you later.
Keep talking. The silent treatment, contrary to popular belief, is rarely effective.
Press pause. If the issue can't be resolved quickly, table it until later; use a code word so you know when to temporarily end the discussion.
Make up. Even if you don't completely resolve the conflict, it's important to show your kids you still love and respect one another.
Beth is a freelance writer and mother of three.
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