How to Help Kids Handle Fights with Friends
Disagreements are a 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.
Though you might be surprised to hear it, arguing actually does have benefits. For example, it 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. For example, is the argument really about the sweater your friend borrowed and hasn't returned yet, or about jealousy over a newer friend taking her time?
Arguments are also vital to honing our social and problem-solving 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."
Follow these expert-approved tips for helping your child handle fights with friends, whether they happen in the playground or at a sleepover.
Listen and empathize.
If your child is upset over a spat with a friend, help them calm themselves through exercises such as taking deep breaths, then ask what happened. Hear out what they're going through. You might say, "I can see you're really upset and this is bothering you." This response will help your kid feel heard and also label their emotions, which may make it easier for them to identify and express their feelings next time.
Get them to see their friend's perspective.
When a child is mad at someone, it can be easy for them to think about the issue from only their point of view. Try to help your kid see it from the other side. If your child called a friend a mean name, you might say, "I understand you were upset that Sophie wouldn't let you play" and "How would you feel if someone called you that word?" After they answer, you could ask, "Is it possible that Sophie felt sad or angry?"
As long as it's not a bullying situation, resist the urge to reach out to the school or the other child's parents. Friendship issues will occur throughout your child's life, so it's best that they learn how to navigate these problems themselves. To help, ask open-ended questions. For example, "What would you do differently next time?" and "What do you think needs to happen to fix this?" Going through this process can help them build skills for resolving conflict and think about the next steps they might take.
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 themselves and help your child figure out the root cause of the disagreement.
Walk them through the process.
Once your child figures out how they want to move forward, offer guidance based on what they've chosen. For instance, if they feel bad about their part in the fight and want to say they're sorry, role-play some simple apologies that might work. For example, "I'm sorry I called you a mean name."
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If they believe they were wronged, encourage them to share their feelings with their pal. They might say, "I felt really sad yesterday when you ignored me." Sometimes your kid's goal may be to get a friend to be nicer, so help them come up with a way to express that, such as, "I like being your friend, but you can't take my stuff without asking." In other cases, though, a fight means the friendship is over. If your child decides they no longer want to be friends with the other child, respect their decision.
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.
Source: Jill Emanuele, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and senior director of the Mood Disorder