A “Your Mother’s Guidance” post by Rebecca Masinter
I would like to share some thoughts in response to a question a mother on this group emailed me.
Here is the question:
I, thank God, have 4 children, a six-year-old girl, almost five-year-old boy, almost three-year-old girl and an eight-month-old baby. I wanted to know if you can give some pointers on how to handle when children are fighting and when we, as parents should intervene or let the children work out the argument themselves.
There are two parts to my answer. The first will be a few ideas on how to intervene in the moment, and the second is what can I do when my children are not fighting to decrease the amount of future conflict in my family.
(One caveat is that what I will share now is intended in families where the children are pretty typical and evenly matched. Some of us have been blessed with children who have more complicated emotions and/or more of a tolerance for conflict and aggression and you have constant fights between that child and everyone else. In that case, there are different principles to consider.)
Firstly, let’s remember that children feed off of our emotions and stress so I think step number one is to not let ourselves get emotionally riled by our kids fighting. We need to respond and not react. We are humans and sometimes some arguments can push buttons of our own, but our kids need us to respond consistently and calmly, not emotionally. This means for example that if your family rule is, “No physical contact when arguing,” you want to enforce it consistently, not just when you’re feeling impatient, tired, or stressed, or just when it’s an older kid hitting a younger or not just when it leads to hysterical tears. You get the idea.
Another thought. Kids can’t think and express themselves well when they’re emotionally upset. They need us to help give them the words initially and model to them how to express themselves. You can do this by getting down at their eye level and asking each one, one at a time what they’re upset about. Then, with a loving arm around them, you can role play dialogue for them to repeat as they take turns calmly expressing what they want. You feed them the lines and let them copy them. What’s happening is that they feel understood by you and they’re learning to express their feelings and needs. As a bonus, they’re doing it in a way that solves problems! If a child needs to apologize to the other, you can also feed them the words for that apology. This isn’t a cop out for them — it is modeling how to disagree and how to apologize. Initially, they need us for that.
Now for part two. As in so many areas of our life, being proactive goes a lot farther than trying to just cope once we’re in tough situations.
Take some time to think through your children’s fighting patterns.
Are they often at the same time of day? Over the same issues? Between the same kids? Following the same activity or routine? When are your children most harmonious?
Sometimes we can change routines or dynamics in our home that lead to stress and create new ones that contribute to harmony. For example, if they fight while you prepare supper each day, think about what you can do differently so they are each happily occupied in soothing activities before you start cooking. What patterns do you see that you can tweak to get a different outcome?
Here’s another way we can be proactive:
If your children are old enough, you can talk to them one-on-one about the recurring patterns you see in their arguments. Maybe you and your child together can brainstorm alternatives and role play the way they can handle irritating siblings next time.
The flip side of that, is that when kids (and adults) are emotionally upset and aggravated, it is not the time to try to calmly analyze what went wrong and what they can do next time. As ancient Jewish wisdom says…don’t try to calm someone when they’re angry. Often, you will have to wait a while, until they have really calmed down, to lovingly discuss the fighting that went on before. You can validate their experiences and their emotions and then discuss what they may want to try differently next time, both action wise and response wise. I think it’s important to end by getting an agreement from your child that he’s willing to try something different next time. (This doesn’t mean he will succeed at that, it means he’s willing to make an effort. That is something you can praise no matter whether or not he manages to follow through each time.)
For example, you may say something like this while snuggling with your son at the end of the day…
“I can see you were very angry and sad when the baby knocked down your tower. I would be sad too if she knocked down something I built. Do you want to build a tower next time when she’s napping so she can’t break it?”
Or, Would you like to build a tower on the table instead of on the floor?
Even though it’s ok to feel sad and angry, it’s important to speak nicely to your sister instead of yelling. She’s little and your yelling probably made her feel scared. Do you think that the next time she starts to break your toys, you can come calmly and ask me to move her?”
Aside from trying to figure out patterns and what you can do to eliminate the stressors that often lead to fighting, being proactive before arguments and working through them with your children after they’re calm, there is one more secret weapon we have that I want to share with you.
That is yourself. You are the magnet at the center of the family. You are the one that each child wants to be with, to be like, to be loved by, and to be approved by. Don’t ever underestimate your power as a mother. Often, I find I can diffuse tension before a fight breaks out by “happening” to come into the room then and inviting one of the kids to hang out with me, do laundry, help with dinner, run an errand, whatever. Or I “happen” to come in to do something with all of them – distracting them with a story or a game. Don’t let them sense you’re doing it to get them away from each other — of course you’re doing it because you love being with them!
Neither I, nor anyone else, can ever tell another parent what to do as the nature of parenting is one of relationships and those are unique and distinct between each child and his or her parents. This is at the foundation of any thoughts I ever share. I can share my experience, I can share some of the principles that may be important here, but ultimately all I hope to do is start the discussion so that each one of us individually can have a springboard from which to start thinking through this question. Pay attention to your reactions as you read my words. They are the keys to figuring out your answer for your family. You are the expert on your children—that is why God gave them you as a mother.