When Children Fight, How Can You Help?

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

Last Saturday, we spent a windy and rainy afternoon at a nearby petting zoo. ‘We’ is my partner and our 5 (step)children, all between the ages of 6 and 9.

Our two daughters are really close. They were best friends long before my partner and I fell in love, and they are now pretty much sisters in how connected they are. But with that much closeness comes the promise of the occasional fight. Our girls differ quite a bit in how they deal with these fights, with one being more sensitive and the other a bit cruder in how they approach social situations.

Luckily, they have two parents who love to focus on communication (although I’m not sure they feel very lucky about it). So we can help them figure out how to deal with these little spats when they occur.

First of all, we try to interfere only when we feel they have a hard time resolving things between themselves and their feelings are getting in the way of doing something else. In short, when we feel like it makes sense to help resolve things sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the way we interfere tries to leave as much room as possible for the children to learn how to deal with these matters on their own in the future. Getting into and out of conflict at an early age is essential for learning how to deal with conflict later on.

We’ve never really made our approach explicit, so what I’m going to describe now I’ve picked up from observing how we’ve dealt with things in the past, what has worked repeatedly and what hasn’t worked for us.

What works:
  1. One of the essential first steps in getting through to kids who are fighting is listening to them. They have a story in their minds that is absolutely their reality. When you listen to understand, their feelings usually make perfect sense. They end up having very good reasons for being angry, sad or scared, even if those reasons aren’t always 100% fact.
  2. Get each child to hear how the other child is feeling. This can be tricky when kids are really young, but starting from 6 or so, they can somewhat imagine what something would feel like and that someone else may have different feelings from their own.
  3. Encourage children to listen, respectfully, to each other. When you’re attached to your side of the story, it can be hard to open yourself up to another version of that story, perhaps even a version in which you’ve done something wrong. That’s already tricky for adults, so for kids it can be even harder. But when you emphasize that usually, in a conflict, both parties have done something that the other disliked, and that they probably both want to get out of the conflict, it can help them listen and take responsibiliy for their part.
  4. Give them private space where they can resolve things on their own once the first steps have been taken. This way they learn how to mend after the connection is broken, and they build self-esteem and trust in themselves and others.
  5. Watch out for behavior that is not okay: name calling, attacking or contempt are all an absolute no-go, as is physical violence or blackmailing/manipulation. You’d be surprised how quickly kids learn to operate these social powertools.
What doesn’t work:
  1. Whenever we try to rush the reconciliation process, it seems to backfire in our faces. Emotions need time and space. When my daughter is angry, she needs to be angry for a while, and my plusdaughter needs time to really let the hurt sink in before she can put things into perspective.
  2. Downplaying problems doesn’t ever take either. Sure, we can clarify misunderstandings and try to reframe issues, but saying something like ‘I really don’t see why this is an issue’ (as we can do in our frustration) has never made it any less of an issue. What may seem small to us can be huge to our kids, and vice versa, right? My kids generally don’t really care whether my new bed sheets get stained, and look who’s making a big fuss then!
  3. If you’ve ever tried to force kids to make up, you’ve probably seen what amazing acting skills most kids have (not!). A fake ‘sorry’ doesn’t do anything to fix the underlying friendship.
    There is a caveat here, however. I do ask my children to apologize when they’ve hurt someone because I see it as a sign of respect for the other person. It shows that we take things seriously, and also that it’s possible to move beyond things. I’ll often say something like ‘I heard you boys hurt each other out there. I’m guessing neither of you really likes being hurt, right? And I’m guessing you would much rather play together than fight. It would be really nice if you apologized to each other so you can go on to play again.’ With smaller children this usually works well, and getting both children to apologize really helps them in making the click to move forward and not get stuck in the conflict.

How do you deal with children who fight? And how do you approach teenagers in conflict who are really having a hard time? Our daugthers are turning 10 this year, so I want to make sure I’m prepared!

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