Like everyone else, we have been spending a lot of time together recently. My two kids (nine and twelve) fight with each other constantly. In the beginning, I separated them early and often, but really, that gave them exactly what they wanted. How can I help my kids co-exist? When should I intervene in the fighting?
It’s a popular notion that the Chinese symbol for crisis includes two characters: one for danger and the other for opportunity. While this isn’t entirely accurate in the Chinese language, it is perfectly accurate in relationships. There is opportunity in conflict to learn both empathy and self-control, life skills essential for your child’s success as an adult.
By regularly swooping in and separating your children when they fight, you’re inadvertently training them not to resolve conflict and, indeed, that they are helpless without you. It’s not too late to empower them with strategies that will help them argue on their own and resolve their differences.
First, set some boundaries during a family meeting or dinner when things are calm. Decide together on the house rules concerning family fights. What are the expectations? What are your values as a family? It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to be angry. But it is not okay to be mean. It is not okay to resort to name-calling, yelling, or hitting. Then agree to consequences in advance. Post your results on the fridge. Remember, these rules apply to every member of the family! As much as you can, stay calm and model how you use your words in an argument to resolve it. And your kids get to call you out when you fall into a yelling match with your spouse.
Once the boundaries are in place, here are some practical tools to help manage squabbles:
1. Give them a timer. Kids set the timer themselves for when the younger child gets to hang out in the older child’s room, when they get to take a break from homework, or how long they each get the best seat in the house during the family movie.
2. Write an anger agreement. Have the kids come up with three strategies they will use to calm down when they are angry. Will they blow off steam by throwing around a ball? Punching a pillow? Listening to music?
3. Play games as a family, like charades, Apples to Apples, card games, and games that get you moving, like Wii. But here’s the critical piece: Set expectations for sportsmanship before the game begins. How will everyone handle winning and losing fairly?
4. Finally, try some TLC: Tune in, Listen up, and Choose the best solution. Here’s how this works: Mary gets to tell John exactly what happened and how she felt. John is not allowed to interrupt. Then John must repeat what he heard back to Mary. This teaches empathy and validates Mary. Then John tells Mary his version of the story and how he felt. Mary repeats John’s story. They can talk it through some, but the goal is to choose the best solution together without Mom or Dad. If they don’t resolve the issue, both kids get the same consequence – which means neither one gets the video game they were fighting over or both of them have to do an extra chore. That is your only role. After you’ve taught and practiced these strategies, sit back and watch the situations unfold. Don’t jump in and play referee, or that will always be your job.
These tools can be effective in the home, at school, on the playground, and on the soccer field. May they help your kids co-exist with character.