So often when children argue, parents intervene and solve the issue. Two children are arguing over a toy, a parent enters and decides who gets the toy and what the other child should do while they wait. Two children are arguing over who goes first, a parent comes in and picks while giving empathy or direction to the other.
When parents intervene and fix, the children are missing out on a golden opportunity to learn the skills needed to solve such social conflicts. Rather than intervene and fix, it should be intervene and teach the needed skills.
When children are arguing, a good first steps is often empathy all around. If my girls are arguing over a ball I might start with “I know you are both frustrated, I could hear you from down the hall. You both want that toy.” This also teaches children to start with empathy which is often helpful.
Teach them to listen to each other’s words. This might be, “Did you hear your brother? He said ‘stop.’ What does that mean to you?” or “I heard her screaming. She clearly doesn’t like that.” You are reinforcing the other’s words to each child. Often, by the time children are arguing, they aren’t listening well.
If needed, teach them to speak up for themselves. Many children are all over this one, they speak up for themselves quite well. If not, if your child is on the quiet side, you might have to coax some words out of them or give them some words to say so they can at least hold their own. You might follow this up with reinforcing their new words to the other. It can be helpful to teach your child to use an assertive voice in conflicts.
Once they feel understood or heard, the next step is to help them focus on solutions. You might ask them each to give an idea, or you might suggest a few ideas and discuss. You might teach them to weigh their options and negotiate together. The goal is to give them ways to find solutions and work through the issue together rather than giving them the solution. This may take time and effort, it may take more empathy. It may also include taking a break and coming back to problem solving once children are calm.
If the problem solving process continues to be difficult, you might step back and coach them to be more flexible thinkers. These ideas for teaching flexible thinking are best done out of the moment, when all are calm.
- Brainstorm options – Out of the moment of conflict, teach them how to brainstorm. This can be saying “We don’t have time for bath tonight. Let’s think of three ways to you can get clean before school tomorrow.” Answers might include taking a quick shower, using a washcloth at the sink or taking a bath in the morning. On a game night you might say, “Everyone wants to play different games. Let’s think of three ways we can settle this.” Answers might include one game each night for three nights or starting early or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide. When brainstorming, it is fine to include funny or crazy answers.
- Plan A/Plan B – You might model Plan A/Plan B language several times before you ask them to problem solve this way. You might say, “We were supposed to run three errands today but we only got to two and we are running out of time. That was our Plan A and we need a Plan B.”
- Big problem/Little problem – It can be helpful to have children decide what are big problems and little problems. In our house big problems may take a few days to solve or several people. A few days later, someone might be upset. Little problems might only take one or two people and a little while to solve. No one is upset about it a day later. Point out big problems and little problems in life. Then have children try to categorize their own problems.
- Play games that require flexible thinking and discuss – This includes Labyrinth (by Ravensburger), Gobblet, Connect Four and Rush Hour Jr. In all of these games, players have a plan and then it gets knocked out and they have to make another plan. This may happen several times in each game. While you play, at least occasionally point out having to make a new plan or come up with new solutions.
When children are able to work through arguments, be sure to give them descriptive praise for their efforts, negotiation, flexibility or cooperation. Here is a post about descriptive praise.