I have one sister, and I remember fighting with her as a child. I have two children, and I also remember them fighting. I have five grandchildren; and, of course, those charming cherubs never fight—although they do have occasional challenges with interpersonal conflict resolution. Every relationship has the potential for conflict, so the manner in which those conflicts are resolved is critical.
What can parents do to avoid their kids fighting and address the fights when they inevitably do occur?
Give as much individual attention to your kids as you can. Recognize that fighting is a way of acting out and seeking attention. As busy as you are, try to give each child some regular, individual special time. Try to recognize when your kids are getting bored and help them find an interesting activity or distraction.
Try to avoid trouble. Be sure your children get personal space. Don’t expect them to share everything. Recognize when they’re getting tired or hungry, and therefore more ‘ready to rumble.’ Don’t give an older child responsibility for a younger one. If an older child tries to enforce rules or disciplines on a younger sibling, remind both that you’re the parent and are responsible for them. Avoid allowing one child to feel victimized by the other.
Teach your kids basic problem-solving skills. Guide them to understand ‘win-win’ solutions. Divide the snack. Play games in sequence. Enforce standards of mutual respect. Help them understand they can disagree, but still love and respect each other. Don’t call each other names. Work to repair damage and hurt feelings when they do occur. Help them to work together as a team and reward them when they do.
Discipline in a positive manner and seek out opportunities to recognize and reward good behavior. Avoid physical punishment for your children.
Treat everyone with respect and cultivate empathic behaviors in your kids. Empathize with your kids’ feelings for each other, but set reasonable and definite limits on their actions. “I know you’re upset with your brother but you can’t mess up his things.” Point out the feelings of others to help them understand. Most important, set a good example. No yelling at the guy who cut you off in traffic.
Finally, remember that your kids are just that: kids! They need to learn that they are good people who sometimes do less-than-good things.
Despite all of your best efforts and extraordinary parenting skills, your children still will fight. When they do, stay calm. For better or worse, children learn to manage their emotions by watching their parents manage theirs. Try not to take sides because you’ll probably never really determine the truth about who started the fight. Separate them, if necessary, and especially if one or the other is too upset to be civil and work things out. Once all are calm, take advantage of the opportunity to teach appropriate behaviors and conflict-resolution methods.
Remember, unhelpful strategies include ignoring the problem, giving negative attention and punishments, and playing judge. Helpful strategies include distraction, giving your children individual time, acknowledging and rewarding good behaviors and interactions, and teaching your children how to resolve conflicts—as well as recognize and respect the feelings and needs of others, including their siblings.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Kids (mercykids.org), an expansive network of pediatric care dedicated to meeting the needs of every child, every day.