What to Do When the Kids Start Fighting

Please enjoy this guest post–a clear and very practical piece written written by Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, who provides counseling and support for parents at her office in NW DC.

What is a parent to do when the kids start fighting?

For parents to answer that question, it can help to look back at our own relationships with our siblings. Can you remember your parents yelling at you both to “stop fighting and get along,” or being ordered to, “go to your room” or perhaps being spanked? Did any of these methods work to help you get along better with your sibling? Most likely they did not.

One thing you can do that is different from what our parents may have tried is to pick up a copy of the book, Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Both Faber and Mazlish were parents of young children thirty years ago. They participated and wrote about the lessons they learned in a parenting group they were in led by the renowned child psychiatrist, Dr. Haim Ginott.

Through their work with Dr. Ginott, both Faber and Mazlish discovered a puzzling parenting paradox. They found that insisting upon good feelings between the kids led to bad feelings and that allowing for bad feelings between the kids ultimately led to good feelings.

In other words, telling your kids to “get along” or getting mad at them when they fight does not teach them much. What kids really need is to learn to identify their own feelings and to be able to express them in a safe and nurturing environment. When parents jump in and try to intervene, siblings can miss out on learning some valuable life lessons.

Psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues conducted a years-long study in which they visited the homes of 90 2-year-old children who had at least one sibling, observing the target kids’ innate temperaments and their parents’ discipline styles. The researchers returned when the children were 5 and observed them again, this time in a structured play session with one close-in-age sib. The pairs were shown three toys but given only one to play with. They were told they could move onto the next one only when both agreed it was time to switch and further agreed which toy they wanted next.

That, as any parent knows, is a sure way to get your kids fighting –and that’s what happened. The experimenters ranked the conflicts on a five-point scale, with one being a single angry word and five being a full-blown brawl. The next year, they went to the same children’s schools to observe them at play and interview their teachers. Almost universally, the kids who practiced the best conflict-resolution skills at home carried those abilities into the classroom. *

This discovery supports both Mazlish and Faber’s finding that the best thing we can do for our kids is to allow them to work out their problems without too much adult intervention whenever possible.

Below are some tips for parents from Siblings Without Rivalry that can help you shift your present sibling strategy:

Level 1 – Normal Bickering
1. Ignore it.
2. Think about your next vacation.
3. Tell yourself the kids are having an important experience in conflict resolution.

Level 2 – Situation heating up
Adult intervention might be helpful
1. Acknowledge their anger.
2. Reflect each child’s point of view.
3. Describe the problem with respect for example, “That’s a tough one. Two children and one puppy.”
4. Express confidence in the children’s ability to find a solution.
5. Leave the room.

Level III – Situation possibly dangerous
Adult intervention might be needed
1. Inquire – Is this a play fight or a real fight? Play fights are permitted, real fights are not.
2. Let the children know play fighting is by mutual consent only (if it it’s not fun for both it’s got to stop).
3. Respect your feelings: you kids may be playing but it’s too rough for me. You need to find another activity.

Level IV – Situation definitely dangerous
Adult intervention needed
1. Describe what you see: I see two very angry children who are about to hurt each other.
2. Separate the children: It’s not safe to be together. We must have a cooling off period. Quick off to your room and you to yours.

It is important to note that parents need to be available to help guide this process. If the situation does get out of hand as in Level IV, the adult should separate the kids for safety not as a punishment for “bad” behavior. Taking the judgment piece away (i.e., labeling behavior as bad or good) can help children develop the ability to recognize their own feelings and solve problems for themselves

We know that sibling relationships can have a powerful impact on early lives. The best gift we can give to our children is to equip them with the skills they need to enrich themselves and all their relationships for the whole of their life.

* “The New Science of Siblings,” Time Magazine 2006

-Posted by Jennifer Kogan, LICSW

Jennifer Kogan, LICSW provides counseling and support to parents in her northwest DC practice.

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