Jul 4, 2013

Dealing with Kid Conflict

I was once told that one benefit of having more than one child is that kids learn how to have healthy conflict by fighting with their siblings.  I don't know what that says about only children, I assume they must learn about healthy conflict from fighting with friends and parents?  Regardless of what lessons they are learning, or who they are fighting with, kids (especially mine) seem to come out of the womb ready to fight.

Summertime presents the best opportunities for your kids to learn about how to have healthy conflict, and practice frequently.  There has not been a day this summer that has been free of conflict in my world.  My kids are such active learners, they don't merely save their conflict for home, but will have conflict with friends and cousins as well.

I have watched conflict unfold and have often wondered: What is this about?  What do they gain from this?  What are they learning? I have enough of a background in Child Development to understand that most conflict, can be related to attention getting and/or control or asserting their dominance.  It can also be a form of entertainment as well (for my 10 year old son, it is for sure).

Sometimes kids fight because they see too much of each other (more independent "play dates?"), or their personalities clash, or they have deep resentment of perceived favoritism.  In my house I have a super sensitive child and an extremely annoying child... it gets ugly some days.  It might help to ask your kids (individually and collectively) why they fight and to have them help come up with strategies that will decrease the frequency of the fights. (Like bribing them or challenging them to resolve their own conflict with the promise of a reward). 

Sometimes kids, like us, are more vulnerable to crankiness when they are hungry, lonely, tired or bored.  Regardless of WHY kids fight, let's quickly define the different types of conflict kids get into.
My kids have three stages of conflict {I would guess your do too}.  I call them the ABCs of conflict.

The first stage is the annoyance stage.  They seem content to just say and do things that seem to be intended to annoy or aggravate.  Things like annoying noises and repeatedly saying the same thing over and over. Sometimes one of them is more irritable, and the other is having fun poking at them.

The second stage is the bickering stage.  This is usually small arguments, punctuated by tattling and whining.  It can at times be about something like what T.V. show they are going to watch or taking turns with a toy or even something really frustrating, like if someone is sitting too close to the other one.  This often is an escalation from the annoyance level, and can get really loud really fast.

The third stage is the combat stage.  This is name calling and at times physical violence, like slapping or kicking, or perhaps throwing toys or remote controls.  This is usually an escalation from the bickering level, though at times it can be a sudden escalation from the annoyance level (like when my daughter has had enough of being annoyed and hauls off and punches her brother). 

So how do you handle kid conflict?  Most parents will use one (or more) of these four strategies:

1. Separation
The kids start to fight, and if it starts to escalate, you just send them each to their own rooms (or their own corners).  Another form of separation is distraction (turning on the T.V. or telling them to go play video games).

When/Why it works: If kids are engaged in combat, they should be separated because name calling and physical violence is not productive, healthy or helpful and will only serve to damage their relationship.  If one or both of the kids are emotionally "flooded" (they are furious or crying hysterically) they won't be able to defuse the conflict on their own, and may need some space to cool off before interacting again.

When/Why it doesn't work: If you understand that the goal of allowing kids to fight is to help them learn how to have conflict in a healthy way, separating them when they are bickering or annoying each other may keep the conflict from escalating, but it also keeps the kids from learning how to defuse conflict (which is a valuable skill).  It may also teach children that the correct reaction to conflict is retreat, distraction or avoidance, which will not serve them well as an adult (especially in marriage.)

2.  Intervention
The kids start to fight and you get right in the middle of it, and maybe take a side or resolve it for them.   Either way the fighting is over, and you made it happen.

When/Why it works: Sometimes, kids can learn by listening to someone else resolve their conflict. If your goal is to get them to stop fighting, this can be an especially effective way to do so, plus, if they are fighting to get your attention, everybody wins.  It's best to use this when kids are engaged in combat.

When/Why it doesn't work: This reaction may create hard feelings if you are "always taking her side" and it can serve as reinforcement for those negative behaviors because you are giving attention for conflict.

3. Let them "fight-it-out" (AKA ignore them until they go away)
Your kids start to fight the second you get on the phone, so you leave the room and let them fight, away from you.  The theory behind this is that almost all conflict is an attempt to gain attention from the parent, and kids will eventually either resolve the conflict or learn to avoid each other.

When/Why it works: Eventually kids will figure out that fighting isn't fun, and will do so quicker if no adult intervenes to resolve their fighting.  If kids are fighting because they are trying to get your attention, this way will not reinforce the negative behaviors. This approach is most appropriate in the annoyance and bickering stage of conflict.

When/Why it doesn't work: Kids may not have the skills to resolve conflict on their own, so if you are letting them "have at it" without giving them resources, this type of fighting can possibly cause lasting scars in their relationship, or leave them feeling bullied or ignored.  I had a friend whose big brothers would regularly beat her up, to the point where she was being abused by them, and her parents just let them "fight-it-out" because "kids will be kids".  It damaged her relationship with her brothers for many years, well into their 20s.

4. Coaching or mediating
Similar to intervention, when the kids start fighting, you start coaching.  It is different because this style of conflict resolution asks questions, lots and lots of questions.  "How do you feel about that?" "Did you tell your brother?"  "What do you think you can say or do to make him stop without screaming at him?" "Why does that bother you?" etc. It's focus is helping your children gain the ability to resolve conflict on their own.  It also relies on a list of "fair fighting rules" that you can remind your children of. {To see an example, that you can take and print, see below}

When/Why it works: In every stage of conflict, from the annoyance stage to the combat stage, you can use this strategy to redirect their attention.  While it does reward attention-seeking fights, it is "work" for them, so it may not be a long-term reward.  When you only ask questions rather than making pronouncements, you are forcing allowing them to think for themselves.  Whining daughter comes up to me in tears crying because her brother called her a dirty diaper.  "How do you feel about that?" "It hurts my feelings" "Why does it hurt your feelings?"  "I am not a dirty diaper" "Did you tell your brother?" "No" "Go talk with him about it and tell him how you feel". 

When/Why it doesn't work: If your child is in an especially defiant or obnoxious mood, they might not respond well to the questions or their siblings sharing their feelings with them.  Sometimes you need to use another strategy to resolve a huge combat situation or hysteria.

As frustrating as it can be when children are constantly bickering and arguing, do your best (and I will do mine) to avoid losing your temper and join in the fray, like with all things, modeling is the most effective strategy there is. If you and your husband or other adult family members fight "dirty" and your kids observe it, they will follow your example.   The following fair fighting rules are for more than just kids, they can be family rules as well. 

How do you typically deal with conflict between your kids?  Honestly, I wish I was more consistent with the "Coaching" strategy, but sometimes (like my kids) I am just done.  I think I use all of them some of the time, depending on the level of chaos in my home at that moment.

Feel free to use my "Fair Fighting Rules for Kids" if you don't have your own.

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