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What You Should Really Do When Your Kids Fight

Photograph by Twenty20

There are few things worse than the sound of people you love hurting each other. When those people happen to be your children, it's particularly difficult to stay calm and keep from taking sides.

As an only child myself, navigating the world of sibling rivalry is completely foreign. While I do always make it a point to encourage kindness between them and let them know how happy it makes me that they love each other, disagreements do happen. My first instinct is to mete out justice. Who started it? Who had it first? Who is the victim? This often creates a dysfunctional communication triangle.

When there are three people involved in a dispute, one usually takes the role of victim, one the aggressor and one the rescuer. In looking for justice, I insert myself into the situation as the rescuer. That's not good. Because in doing that, I communicate to my children their roles in the dispute as victim or aggressor, and I don't want them feeling like either. They both have the power to turn the situation around for good, and if I avoid rescuing them I can do just that.

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Dr Laura Markham, author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life," says, "Most parents think that when their children fight, they need to decide who's right, and step in to set the other child straight. But that makes one child feel unfairly treated, since both kids think they're right. And it doesn't teach kids to problem solve."

Instead, Dr. Markham advises parents to observe for a few moments and see if the kids are on their way to sorting things out themselves. It is sometimes possible, especially if you have taken time previously to teach them how to calmly resolve disagreements.

Of course, if someone is getting hurt (physically or emotionally) or about to, a parent must keep their children safe at all costs. But again, there is a right and wrong way to stop the fight.

"If they're speaking disrespectfully to each other, the interaction is headed into a downward spiral, parental intervention will be helpful. The key for parents when they intervene is to resist taking sides. Even if you think one child is right, say 'I hear loud voices.... Sounds like you two both feel strongly about this.... Let's all take a deep breath and let's see how you can work this out.'"

Then listen to both children and re-state, so both children feel heard. Acknowledge that it's a tough problem and express confidence that a solution can be found: 'So you want X, and you want Y? What a tough problem.... I wonder how you can work this out so you're both happy?'"

"Although it seems that your kids are fighting about a toy," notes Dr. Fran Walfish, "who sits where, and who got the bigger piece of cake, what they are really rivaling for is you, their mother."

My kids are 6 and 2 and it's surprising how often this tactic works with them. They will be fighting over a toy or what to watch on TV, and if I see they aren't getting anywhere, I can let them know that I see how frustrated they are and acknowledge that each of them wants different things. And then I ask, "what do you think we should do?" Nine times out of ten, my 6-year-old comes up with a compromise that makes both the kids happy. He knows how to do it, but sometimes he just needs a little nudge. Obviously my 2-year-old is a little too young for this, but I'm really hoping she picks up the habit from her brother.

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"Although it seems that your kids are fighting about a toy," notes Dr. Fran Walfish, "who sits where, and who got the bigger piece of cake, what they are really rivaling for is you, their mother." Dr. Walfish is a Beverly Hills child, parenting and relationship psychotherapist, author of "The Self-Aware Parent," and co-star of "Sex Box" on WE tv. "Teach them as a mediator. Never judge, blame, or take sides about who is right or wrong. Rather, teach your boys to take turns listening without interruptions. This is the key to good communication."

So if you see some drama stirring up between your kids, take a deep breath and focus on guiding their communication rather than solving the problem for them. Leading them in this way sets them up to be good communicators throughout the rest of their lives—with bosses, spouses, and someday, you may experience the joy of seeing them pass along that respectful communication to your grandchildren. It all starts right here.

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