“He Started It!”: When Kids Fight
With summer well upon us, parents often notice that fighting at home is on a sharp increase. And it can really try a parent’s patience to have to cope with the yelling, screaming, punching, and crying to Mom or Dad for help at the end of the melee.
I’m going to put forward a perhaps radical suggestion for dealing with fights between kids: stay out of it. Completely. I know, that hardly seems like “good” parenting. But hear me out before you make a decision.
First of all, consider how you’ve handled fighting between the kids in the past. Have your previous interventions been effective? Have lecturing, grounding, taking sides, or playing referee worked at avoiding, preventing, or resolving fights, worked? Probably not. Kids just don’t seem to respond to our logic when it comes to things like this.
So let’s go back to when we spoke about the goals of misbehaviour. I bet your kids are looking for attention. I’m going to presume that when your kids fight, you feel irritated, annoyed, worried, or guilty – all clues that the goal is attention. Let’s be realistic with ourselves: if one of the kids really wanted to do damage to another, she has many opportunities to do it when you aren’t around. It’s no coincidence that these fights keep happening when you are nearby, perhaps preoccupied with some task that keeps you from giving the kids your full attention. Unless they’re fighting.
It can be excruciatingly difficult for parents to not intervene when one of their kids is wailing in distress. It would be a sign of unhealthy parenting to not be emotionally charged by the sound of your child crying. But that’s really about us as parents, not about the kids. We want to go and soothe the unhappy child for our own benefit, because we don’t like the feelings it creates for us when they’re upset. Acting for our child’s benefit would be allowing the situation to play out without any adult interference, providing him with an opportunity to learn.
Does that mean we ignore the distress completely? Not at all. If, after the fighting has passed, one of the kids comes to you, crying, and needs comforting, do that! Saying, “I’m sorry you got hurt in the fight” is accurate, loving, and still hands the responsibility for working it out back to the kids. After a hug and a kiss, allow your child to feel competent and capable by resolving the situation without your direct involvement.
I won’t lie to you: there’s an extremely good chance the fighting will get worse before it gets better. Your kids have seen this tactic work over and over; they’re not going to give up on a good thing so easily. But if you can practice staying out of it (I agree that this takes a lot of work on your part), you’ll all reap many benefits. First of all, you won’t be hauled away from whatever you’re doing to referee a fight between your kids. And you won’t have to endure the emotional agony of worrying that your kids will never treat each other well.
But even better, your kids will learn, through experience, what it takes to get along with others. They’ll learn problem solving, conflict resolution, the importance of sharing, how it feels to be left out – or punched – by someone else, compromising skills, consideration, and respect for others. Might they get a black eye in the process? Could happen. But I promise you, they’ll think twice before behaving that way again. And they’ll stand a much better chance at healthy relationships as they age in the process.
(Two great books with chapters on handling sibling fighting are Rudolph Dreikur’s Children: The Challenge and Alyson Schafer’s Breaking the Good Mom Myth. And, remember: your intuition is your best parenting guide. If your gut is telling you that something is really wrong in your kids’ behaviour toward one another, trust that and seek counselling or other professional help. The information in this article applies to run-of-the-mill, everyday fighting between siblings.)
Read about the other goals of misbehaviour: power, revenge, and inadequacy.
Want more of the behaviour you like to see? Catch Them Being Good.
I wrote a newsletter a few years back on Managing Sibling Rivalry.
Maybe some thoughts on Keeping Cool: Avoiding Anger In Parenting would be helpful.