Everybody fights. In fact, I can hear two little voices shouting right now.
Conflict is the inevitable difficulty all relationships must go through — especially if we're tired, hungry, or — simply human. Everyone has felt scared, threatened, aggravated, or bored enough to get into a fight. Even with those we love. Or should I say, especially with those we love.
While tense conflict between us and our spouses can be painful, it can be excruciating to witness a spontaneous fight break out between our kids. It's ugly, heartbreaking, and even embarrassing when we see people we love trying to hurt each other.
Maybe you finally sit down for a moment to read a book while the kids enjoy a board game together — but it's interrupted when someone screams "Cheater!" while the other escalates with denial until someone lashes out physically and knocks the board and pieces across the room or tries to throw a punch. How can we get back to where we were just moments before? Why do so many of our attempts to make it better only end up making it worse?
As adults, most of us learn to either settle for, manage, shutdown, or avoid conflict all together. Unfortunately, these approaches often minimize the need to address the conflict and escalate the problems behind it. How many of us, as adults, have actually learned how to work through conflict?
The absence of war isn't the presence of peace.
We can't stop kids from fighting. But we can teach them how to fight fair.
What is a fair fight? It starts with a commitment to listening, hearing the concern beneath the frustration. It refuses to use personal attacks, even when feeling defensive, and double checks its own perception. When we fight fair, we can see each other better and can ask for specific responses that are more in line with what we want from one another.
For kids who do not have the needed development awareness yet, how can we help lay a solid foundation to set them up for a lifetime of fighting fair? Here are three practical steps we can take now, no matter the age or maturity level.
1. Describe the behavior without tone, judgement, or blame.
Mirror or repeating what a child is doing is often known known as "sportcasting." It gives a simple play-by-play of the situation and offers children real-time feedback to make more socially-informed choices.
"You said you hate your sister. She's crying now. I think your words hurt her feelings."
"You opened the door quickly. Jenny was behind it and got bumped."
"You yelled in the ear of your brother. He didn't like that and hit you. You didn't like that either, did you?"
Describing what you see without shame, judgment or blame leaves the interpretation open for children to share from their own perspectives and participate within solutions of their own making. The younger the child, the simpler the language ideal to use. But the process remains the same.
"Your voice is very loud! You sound angry. You want your sister to know how that made you feel."
Noticing the conflict, helping our children interpret reality, and seeing the best in each other can say, "I see you, your frustrations and how hard you are working on this problem." By framing the situation with empathy for everyone involved, it also says, "You belong. Your siblings belongs. I'm with you both. You got this."
2. Help kids express their feelings and respond respectfully to each other.
During a heated conflict, you may need to step in as a translator to help everyone see each other better. Kids have strong feelings, no doubt. Like water from a firehose, feelings can come out without any regard for how their force affects the landscape around them. Children need guidance, opportunity and practice to control the aim and spray of their emotional floods. Learning how to express what we feel while treating others with respect at the same time is a big part of growing up.
A good way to do this is to ask questions. The goal is to help them see what the other person is trying to say, and in turn, help our kids say what they need to as well.
"I think your words hurt her feelings. Were you trying to say how angry you feel?"
"Jenny was behind the door when you opened it quickly. Can you see her face now? How is she feeling? What can you do to help when she's hurt?"
"You didn't like it when your brother hit you after you yelled in his ear. How can you tell your brother how you feel without yelling?"
Opportunities to create more awareness help children empathize with the feelings of others and how their actions can contribute positively or negatively. When kids know what the limits are, they feel secure where they are which gives them the confidence to more openly explore. The next step is learning what they can do about it all.
3. Empower our kids to find a constructive solution.
After naming and describing the social situation, helping children express themselves while treating others with respect, the last step is to empower our kids to do something to resolve the problem. When the work of the first two steps is finished, the automatic fight or flight response subdues and their brains are more open to creative thinking and problem solving skills. In other words, this is what happened, and this was how everyone was affected. What do you want to change about the situation now?
It's in their hands now. Maybe they decide to take turns. Maybe they find value in supporting each other get what they each want. Maybe they move towards the hurt they see in their sibling and practice consoling him or her. Maybe they totally surprise you.
The more often you get to this point, the more easily it works. Kids who have any kind of connection with their siblings want to keep those connections when given the tools and opportunities.
To go into more specifics of nurturing sibling relationships, I highly recommend reading Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings by Dr. Laura Markham. It's the most definitive resource I've found on the subject.
Even when facing those difficult conflicts where offenses has been piled on top of each other, this process can work. The goal isn't to find out who's fault it is — the goal is to help our kids see each other better and respond to one another respectfully. In whatever situation you find yourself within, I hope this offers you a glimmer of hope.