How to help your children argue

Siblings have been fighting each other for ever – it’s perfectly normal.   It’s how children deal with/solve their differences, it helps them come together, clear the air and bring in change.  It also brings depth to a relationship (‘the best part of breaking up is the making up’) and it allows people to get their needs met AND fit into the world.

Lots of people find managing conflict difficult because they have experienced it being handled badly in the past.  They assume that all conflict is the same and either try to avoid it, or shut it down when they see it.  Our job as parents is change the way we react to confrontation, recognising that it’s an opportunity to teach our children the skills of ‘good’ confrontation.

  1. Allow your children to have differences and do not intervene if you can hear that they are working it out for themselves. Home is where children can safely practice the skills of cooperation and problem solving.    If what you hear tells you that they are stuck or that emotions are becoming unhelpful/dangerous, go to them.
  2. Remember their argument is not your argument. Although you might not like hearing it and you might be busy, THIS is your opportunity to teach good confrontation skills.  Shift your attitude to helper: can I help my children to help themselves?
  3. Try to stay calm – take a deep breath.  Don’t get drawn in to the argument, or take sides, no matter how much they try to make you!  Voice what you are seeing and hearing.  ‘I can hear you’re getting really angry with each other.  What’s going on?’   If everyone is shouting, say that: ‘I can see you’re both really angry because you’re shouting over each other.  You can’t hear each other speak.’  [If someone storms off, say that: ‘Anna’s so angry she’s left and I can see that you’re still here to sort it out Daniel.’  Wait – she might come back.  If not, see if they want to talk it through another time. ]
  4. Offer to help – ‘can I help you with this?’ Don’t be surprised by the intensity of their emotions.  Restate what each child has said so everyone can hear.  Make sure you get the message AND the feeling behind it.   ‘Anna is furious because she says you grabbed the remote and switched her programme over’.  Make sure you match the strength of her feeling, so that Anna knows she has been heard accurately.   Be careful not to include your own judgements or opinions.  Stop and listen.  ‘Daniel says you wouldn’t give him the remote and he’s cross because it was his turn’.    (Keep going if there are other children in the argument.)
  5. By restating your children’s messages, you’re allowing them to hear each other and themselves. This increases understanding.  It allows them to empathise with each other (see the problem from their sibling’s perspective) and to ‘self-regulate’ (calm down). Their emotional temperature should reduce, although this may take time.  The aim is to move them from a feeling brain into a thinking brain.  This is a big ask, bearing in mind our thinking brains become fully developed when we are 25 years old.  Be patient and keep listening and restating, until they start to come up with some ideas for solutions.
  6. If you see they are struggling to find a solution that will work for them both, offer to help guide them through the six-step win/win conflict resolution method. You can learn more about this on our Parenting Class, and in future columns.

Andrea Rippon is a Certified Parent Educator and a mum of two teenagers.  She helps parents build strong, long-term relationships with their children by using evidence-based communication skills.  Her next class, for parents, carers and grandparents, starts in Norwich on 23rd April, 2018.  She can also offer Parent Coaching by Skype.

This article was previously published in the Eastern Daily Press on 19th January, 2018.  If you’ve got a question for her, please contact liz.nice@archant.co.uk

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