Brothers bickering over blocks. Sisters arguing about the seating arrangement. Friends fighting over broken promises. Disagreements are natural part of life, but kids aren't born with the tools to effectively handle conflict. "Kids fight over many of the same things adults do, but with more raw intensity," says Peter Coleman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and education, and director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York City. "They fight over ownership of stuff, over envy and jealousy, over status and pecking order -- particularly when close in age -- over disappointed expectations in their relationship, over perceived incidents of unfairness or injustice, and because they are tired or bored and just feel like fighting." The key is finding out the true source of the conflict. Is the argument really about Legos, or about how one sibling feels like he has no private space to play? Is it really about the sweater the friend borrowed and hasn't returned yet, or about jealousy over a newer friend taking her time?
Though you might be surprised to hear it, arguing actually does have benefits. For example, arguing highlights the fact that there is a problem to be solved -- often a problem unrelated to the current argument, explains Ross W. Greene, Ph.D, director of Lives In the Balance in Portland, Maine and author of The Explosive Child. Arguments are vital to developing and honing our social skills. "Family is our first society, the first institution we are exposed to with rivals and allies and rules and regulations. Then comes school and our peers. These settings naturally present us with conflicts, big and small, and it is through our engagement with these disputes that we learn about ourselves, others, authority, group life, and the costs and consequences of our actions," Dr. Coleman says. "The issue is how we engage in the conflicts we face, in ways that make them worse or better, and whether or not we learn from these encounters." Arguments can give clues that a problem exists and they provide an opportunity for us to help develop a child's problem-solving skills.
There are two extremes that parents often take in response to arguments among children -- and both are problematic. "Some [parents] have the philosophy that the kids need to learn to work it out themselves, and so they are hands-off," Dr. Coleman says. "In my experience, this leads to a sort of a Lord of the Flies family dynamic, with older sibling tyranny and abuse." The other extreme is the helicopter parent who micromanages every sibling and peer encounter. "This leads to the hothouse-flower child who learns little about socialization other than to wait for the adults to come in," Dr. Coleman explains. The best solution is to achieve balance. Intervene only when necessary and make sure you're helping the child to see and participate in the problem-solving process. At other times, step back and let her put problem-solving skills to work.
If your child has frequent disagreements with a friend or sibling, consider practicing some of these techniques at a neutral time when the child is not upset and is not in conflict.
Teach empathy and understanding. Often, children who argue are so caught up in being right, they forget to think about how the other person may be feeling. Help your child understand that a friend may be upset because she feels jealous, sad, or lonely about something, and work on identifying times when your child has felt the same way. This can help your child step back from being "right" and remember to be caring.
Ask questions to identify triggers. Ask your kids to take some time to notice when certain conflicts arise so you can help them narrow down potential physical (fatigue, hunger, etc.) or emotional (envy, loneliness, etc.) triggers. Tell you kids to discuss the issues at a separate time, not in the heat of the moment. They can ask questions calmly like, "You seem angry. Did I do something to upset you today?" or "Is this really about the lost sweater or because I invited Sara over to play?" Straightforward questions can help defuse anger by giving the other friend a chance to explain herself and help your child figure out the root cause of the disagreement.
Apologize and admit mistakes. It's not easy (even for adults!), but helping your child learn to admit when he is wrong can take away the fuel that feeds many arguments. Role-playing apologies can be helpful here, but what's more important is to practice what you preach. "Young children are sponges who automatically soak up what the adults are doing and adopt it," Dr. Coleman points out. "So don't teach constructive conflict-resolution skills to children and then turn around and scream at them or your spouse. That doesn't work. Adults should take responsibility for their own behavior." Let your child see moments when you admit you're wrong and try to make amends.
Practice ways to compromise. Help your child understand what compromise is (when a common agreement or solution is reached) and why it's a valuable tool to use in any relationship. First, tell your child to keep calm and "try not to overreact," Dr. Coleman says. No one wants to compromise when she feels threatened, yelled at, or disrespected. Teach your child how to take a few moments to breathe and main her composure as best she can. Then help her figure out ways to work together on collaborative group problem-solving. Give examples from your own life (friendships, marriage), like dividing time evenly between two activities or finding a new third activity that both people want to do. Give kids the opportunity to practice compromising with you, too.
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