If a child squabbles, hits, punches, blames, teases, screams, sulks, or bullies, it is vital to teach that child another method to get needs met.
Fights are emotionally draining. Children seem out of control and parents may feel that way too, especially if never shown effective ways of dealing with conflict when young—their own parents may have oscillated between being aggressive or passive when faced with conflict.
Parents have an empowering choice, and by using effective assertive communication skills parents can help children move to a higher level of moral reasoning.
Moral development is the process through which children develop proper attitudes and behaviours toward other people in society, based on social and cultural norms, rules, and laws. Moral development happens slowly and children think differently to adults, so it will take practice to learn assertive conflict resolution skills. But as these skills are learnt, parents will subsequently feel more in control, purposeful, and the rewards will be heartening.
So why do children fight? The same reason adults fight! Frustration, insufficient insights and communication skills to get needs met. Children however have an excuse—they are still developing.
What do you say or do when your child is fighting?
The first four answers result in road blocking a child, whereas the last answer stimulates a child’s awareness of conflict and exposes them to a higher level of moral reasoning. This approach role models and proactively supports a child to use effective communication skills that also progresses social, emotional and intellectual development.
Young children who are still at the moral development stage of ‘might is right’ to get their needs met, are not ‘bullies’ nor will they always be like this. This doesn’t mean accepting them being forceful or hurting others, parents simply have to show them another way!
If they push a child to grab their toy, calmly tell them, “That hurts”, whilst gently separating them. Then rather than punish, identify their need and kindly show them what they can do: “I see you want to play with that toy and Sarah is playing with it. Let’s find another toy like that.” They might cry—they are still learning about life. Acknowledge their feeling of disappointment, as well as adding, “Let’s ask Sarah to give you the toy when she finishes.”
To successfully take this giant leap in handling conflict, children need help to see things from another person’s perspective, as well as needing support in emotional self-regulation and awareness of their own needs.
Begin by understanding why a child might be fighting. Observation and active listening is an essential and practical tool in establishing what their unmet need is. Is it competitiveness? Jealousy? Low self-esteem or feeling unattended? Feeling unfairly treated? Being bored, or needing fun or achievement? A personality clash? A need to win adult approval? Different needs or different interest? Feeling unskilled inadequate or frustrated? Or is it imitation of modeled behaviour by parents, when adults show bias?
Parents can show children how to get their needs met in socially acceptable ways, by teaching them how to be assertive rather than aggressive or passive, and choose a win-win method of problem solving. Assertive I-messages and problem solving give children tools to use to deal with conflict whereas punishment breeds resentment and slows development. This will also enrich the parent-child relationship whilst providing an alternative to bullying.
If children are older and they are not physically fighting or verbally abusive, take a step back and wait and see if they can sort it out. Later, discuss how they resolved their disagreement.
Always separate if they are physically fighting and avoid taking sides or saying who is right or wrong. Whether the conflict is with your child’s friend or a sibling the same process can be used (see classroom example at the end of the article). In this case Li and James are friends and Li accidentally breaks James’s Lego plane. James punches Li.
The time spent working through problems is an investment in a child’s learning as well as saving a parent’s sanity. Often the process takes a shorter time than the upset involved in fights that are ongoing.
With these assertive skills on board, a child will naturally begin to use these tools sort out conflicts; a priceless gift to a child’s future!
When I was teaching four and five year olds Henry told me he had watched a documentary about saving animals in Africa and that he and his friends wanted to do just that. They built a plane, planned how and what they would rescue and proceeded to carry out their plans.
Sometime later Henry rushed to me exclaiming that another boy Tim was “killing all the animals!” Deciding to stay in the role of the play I replied, “Oh no! I am glad you have come to me as I am the Warden of the National Park and yes, killing the wildlife is illegal. Please take me to this person.”
The children had labelled this boy as the ‘naughty’ boy even though I did not ever use this word nor label him. They could see he did not fit in. From my perspective he was the child who had challenges with social skills and had difficulty knowing how to enter play.
Identify the needs: In role I facilitated, “Henry (and friends) you have stated that the animals you have been rescuing are being killed by this person.”
“Yes!” they all exclaimed.
“How do you feel about this and why?” I said.
“We don’t like it. We’re angry because we are trying to save the animals. There aren’t many left!” (They had summed up their needs.)
I turned to the boy Tim and without retribution asked, “Tell me about what was happening?”
Tim looked very sheepish at this point and I knew he was trying to think quickly. He stammered, “I, I, I had to kill the animals. I had to eat.”
His was a very creative response and I went with it to sum up his need, “So you were hungry and needed food.” He nodded.
“Well, we do have a problem then since killing animals is illegal here. This group wants to save the animals and you are hungry and needing to eat. (Summing up the needs; to be clear for the children.)
Brainstorm solutions: Do you have any ideas how we can solve this problem so we can all be happy and all get our needs met?” Some ideas were offered.
Evaluate and choose solutions: The solution that Henry came up with was the one that the group and Tim agreed to. Henry suggested, “I know, he could come and work for us and that way he could earn some money and then buy his own food.”
Take action: Turning to the wildlife group I added, “My only concern is, have you trained someone to do this kind of work before? How will you help them learn the skills to rescue animals and work together to do this?” The group agreed to do this and suggested ideas and Tim agreed happily. I continued, “If you need any help with the training please come and see me.”
Review: When we came together as a group we shared about the conflict with the rest of the class and asked Henry and Tim to share how it was successfully resolved. They both glowed with pride. They were empowered.
This was a successful facilitation of problem solving placing all children in the roles of helpers rather than culprits. Punitive methods such as time-out serve to alienate and emotionally exacerbate and do not show healthy alternatives to dealing with conflict in action.
Tim still had lots to learn however he was no longer in the role of ‘naughty boy’ and he could feel the compassion, willingness and inclusivity of the group. Everyone’s moral development and social, emotional skills were enhanced on that day!
For more parenting tips, try the recent article No more Time Out! Ingenious discipline methods that work and Reconnect with your kids in just 10 minutes.