“It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!” “No it’s not, it’s MINE!” Your blood pressure starts rising as you hear your kids yelling at each other in the other room. Again. For what seems like the fiftieth time today. How can you keep your cool and break what often feels like a never-ending cycle of conflict with your kids?
As a parent, it’s often tempting to do whatever we can to bring the conflict to an end as quickly as possible. When tensions are high or we’re exhausted after a long day, our gut reaction may be to yell “stop it!” and threaten our kids with punishments just to get the noise to stop, or to jump in and “fix” the problem by telling them what to do (“Take turns!” “You need to give that back to your sister!”). Many of us are also not above bribing our kids with a reward if they will just get along-- we’ll do anything to return the calm to our household.
While this might resolve the situation in the short term, we know that it does little to teach our kids how to resolve their own conflicts or to prevent the same issues from happening in the future. We end up in a stressful cycle of conflict, yelling, and punishment where nothing really changes.
What can we do instead? It might seem daunting in the midst of our busy lives, but if we can invest the time now in teaching our children how to express their feelings, truly listen to each other, and to resolve conflicts themselves, we will be giving them skills that they will use for their entire lives, not to mention bring greater peace to our homes right now. Research shows that kids who learn how to resolve conflicts have higher levels of self esteem, academic achievement, and resilience. They are more independent and are set up to have healthier relationships with peers as they enter their teen years and adulthood.
Conflict is inevitable, and will be part of any sibling or parent-child relationship. The key is learning how to stay calm and teaching your kids how to work through their problems and come up with effective solutions. Below are 8 steps you can take now to empower your kids to resolve their own conflicts and bring peace back to your home:
1. Pause Before Reacting
Before we can help teach our children how to resolve conflicts peacefully, we need to be able to stay calm ourselves. This can be really challenging when our kids are fighting and our stress is through the roof, but it’s critical. When we’re stressed or angry, it only escalates our kids’ emotions and we won’t be able to help them effectively. The next time your kids are fighting, remind yourself to take a few deep breaths before reacting. Think about the kind of calm behavior that you want to model for your kids, and try your best not to get drawn into their negative emotions or take things personally.
2. Have Them Take a Break
When you’re trying to help your kids learn how to resolve conflict, timing is important. If your kids have just been fighting and emotions are still running high, having a conversation with them likely won’t be productive. Tell your kids that you want them to take a break from each other, take some deep breaths, and that you’ll talk about the problem together when they feel calmer. Let them know that you’re there for them if they want to talk one on one while they’re trying to get calmed down.
It can also help to give your kids choices about where they can go to take a break, a special place or two in your house like a corner with a stress ball to squeeze or fidget items, or a bean bag chair with some music and books. After practicing this with them, you may find that your kids even start to seek out these places on their own.
If it’s taking a while for them to calm down or you’re rushing out the door to get to school or an activity, you can also give them a choice about when you’ll meet to talk through the problem (“Do you want to talk about this after I pick you up from school or would you rather talk about it after we have dinner?”). Just be sure they know they can’t avoid the conversation altogether-- you will be talking about it when the time is right.
3. Normalize Their Feelings
Let your kids know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or upset. It’s a normal part of life and something they need to learn how to handle. Sometimes kids shut down and don’t want to talk through an issue because they’re embarrassed about how they’re feeling. Try to help them understand that their sad or angry feelings are normal, but teach them that they have a choice about how they are going to react to those feelings. (“Feeling angry is okay, but yelling or hitting your brother is not okay. Let’s talk about what you can do instead.”)
4. Lay the Foundation
Before your kids meet to resolve their conflict, it helps to agree on some ground rules: they will listen to each other and take turns speaking, share feelings respectfully using “I” statements, and then work together to come up with a solution. Teaching your children to use “I” statements when discussing a conflict helps to shift the focus away from blaming you or their sibling (“you did this or that”), which only escalates tensions and resentment, toward sharing helpful information about how the other person’s behavior affected them (“I felt angry when that happened because…”). This is key to building empathy.
It can also help to talk with each child individually before meeting together, to help set them up for a productive interaction. Talk to them about what happened, how it made them feel, and help them anticipate what their sibling might say and think about how they want to respond. It can be hard for kids to articulate their feelings and goals, so this is a great opportunity to teach them language they can use before meeting with their sibling. You might say “Hey, what do you want to say to them?” and help script the interaction. You can help build their confidence and independence by giving them choices, saying “Here’s one way you might say it, or here’s another way.” This will help teach them the language and skills they need to eventually do this on their own.
5. Be a Moderator and a Clarifier
When everyone is calm and ready to meet, you can play a key part by moderating the discussion and helping your kids learn how to listen to each other. Think of yourself as a neutral facilitator and avoid blaming your kids or taking sides in the situation even if you feel like one of them is clearly in the wrong, because that will only serve to escalate tension and resentment. Instead, calmly help your kids gain clarity about what is leading to the conflict, to identify their feelings, and listen to each other. Acknowledge their feelings (“it sounds like you’re really frustrated about that”) and once they feel like their voices have been heard, they will be ready to move toward a resolution.
As a parent you have an important role in teaching your kids to be good listeners and truly take in what someone else is saying to them. After one child speaks, you can ask the other child what they heard. If you think they might be missing the mark, you can share what you heard. After each child has had a chance to speak, you can restate it in a clear, succinct way: “Here’s what I heard, is that correct?” Then ask your kids what their goals are and what they hope to have happen.
It can be hard for kids to get past feeling hurt or wronged to understand their sibling’s or friend’s point of view. By helping your kids understand each other’s perspectives and how their actions affect others, you are building their empathy, teaching them skills for resolving conflict on their own, and even helping to prevent conflict in the future.
6. Make a Plan
Once you’ve helped your kids to listen to each other and understand each other’s perspectives, let them take the lead in coming up with a solution. It can be tempting to jump in and tell them what they should do, but try to force yourself to step back and let them try to figure it out first. If you let your kids have a voice in coming up with a solution that works for everyone, you will help them become independent problem solvers.
As they are working on coming up with a solution together, you can ask your kids to think about what needs to happen to make things better. For example, “if I broke something, how can I fix it?” or “if I made my brother or sister feel sad, what can I do to make them feel happy again?” Rather than punishing your child by taking away a privilege (“you broke her toy, no dessert tonight”), make sure there is a logical connection between their action and the consequence they face for it. This will help your children develop a sense of empathy.
You also don’t want your kids to change their behavior simply because they don’t want to be punished, but rather because they have empathy and know how it will benefit themselves and those around them. For example, instead of thinking “if I take my sister’s toy my parents will get angry and punish me,” they’d learn to think “if I take her toy she will feel sad and won’t want to play with me; that would make me sad too.” You want to help them learn to make decisions out of a sense of empathy rather than fear, so they will do what’s right even when you’re not around.
7. Be a Role Model
Our children are always watching us, and modeling the behavior that we want to see can be one of the most effective ways of teaching them these skills. Try to be intentional about naming your feelings out loud when you’re around your kids to help them learn that these feelings are normal and how to recognize their own emotions (“you know, I’m feeling really sad/angry right now”). Also make it a habit to talk to them about how you’re managing your own emotions (“I’m upset this happened, but I’m not going to yell; I’m going to my special place to calm down, I’m taking a few deep breaths, squeezing this stress ball” etc.) Let your kids know that you get upset too and it’s okay to feel frustrated, but show them that you can also control your emotions and how you act on them.
8. Be Patient
This process takes time, and you may not see results overnight. Some days it may seem like you’re not making progress and it would be so much easier to speed things along by telling your kids what to do and coming up with a solution for them. But trust that they will get better at it. By making the time and space to help your kids learn how to identify their feelings, be good listeners, develop empathy, and solve their own problems, you are giving them skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.
Note: If you have questions about your children's fighting or are concerned about the impact it's having on them and/or yourself or others in your family, please talk with your family doctor who can help you determine if you should seek help from a mental health professional.Thank you to Assistant Head of Lower School Chris Loeffler, Lower School Teacher Kimberleigh Turner, and Lower School Teacher Laura Foltz for being incredible resources for this article. We encourage you to learn about Wilmington Friends School's vibrant learning community. Click here to explore Friends and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.