If you’re like most dads, you have two reactions to your kids fighting and inability to get along:
1. Ignore it and let them figure it out themselves (usually waiting till one of them starts crying and they’ve gone too far…) or,
2. Get really mad and command them to stop, while imposing consequences until things improve
And my guess is, that like most dads, you’re not seeing any changes. Their fighting still drives you crazy and causes tension in your house.
The reality is that any time you have more than one child, there is bound to be some fighting. Despite that fact, you can still set your kids up for success. By helping them learn important skills and modeling how to work through conflict, you can tame the tensions.
Let’s start with a few simple truths:
- It’s hard for children to share their parents. When a younger sibling is born, almost all children worry they have lost their parents love.
- Children are all different, and they can have personality clashes, want different things because there are different ages, or want the same thing because they are the same age.
- Like everyone else, children have bad days and create conflict.
- Children are not mature enough to understand another person’s perspective or developed enough to have skills to work out differences
- Children often react with emotion and never logic (important for dads who are entirely logical)
All that to say, children can get along well and your approach can help improve the tensions. It’s also important that you should expect to repeatedly set limits and teach skills, help kids get the words to express their needs and solve their own problems, all without attacking each other. If that seems like a tall order – it is! But it’s well worth the effort. Here’s how to tame the tensions.
1. Model healthy relationship skills
It’s been said that “much more is caught than taught” with children. Another way to look at that is that your children will reflect your behaviour. Dad, whether you agree or not, your kids are watching you and learning how to get along with others by your example. But the reality is that most adults didn’t learn good social-emotional or conflict resolution skills as children, so you can’t give what you don’t have.
Healthy relationship skills include good communication, listening, and empathy. They also mean you demonstrate respect, honesty, patience, and understanding while setting limits. A few years ago Dad Central created Dads, Renovate Your Relationship to help fathers in this all important area. Download this resource as a good starting point or refresher on healthy relationship skills.
2. Teach children about skills to help them get along
As you learn and apply healthy relationship skills, begin sharing them with your children. Talk about situations and share what you did to resolve a conflict or get along with others. The examples don’t have to be long or involved, and make them age appropriate with language they can relate to.
Another simple but effective approach is to help children learn how to set limits. In order to do that, they need to learn how to express their needs and work with another person to create solutions without attacking the other person. These are important skills they will use in every relationship for the rest of their life. Here is a simple and effective three step process to use when helping kids through challenging interactions.
- Acknowledge feelings or wants: “You wanted your brother to stop teasing you, so you hit him.”
- Set limits: “There is no hitting. Hitting hurts and makes the problem worse”
- Teach alternatives: “Tell your brother, ‘stop teasing me! I don’t like to be teased’”
3. Read books or tell personal stories that demonstrate healthy relationship skills
Children learn so much and remember stories long after they have been told. They can also be a great way to reinforce healthy relationship skills. Look for books and other resources that teach healthy communication, problem solving, teamwork, listening, empathy, or other important skills. If you’d like recommendations, in part 2 we’ll provide links to books and additional resources that may be helpful.
Of course, your personal stories are also great material to help with this. My kids are always saying, “daddy, tell me a story from when you were a kid.” I look for examples that highlight important lessons I learned, relate to relationship skills, or times I would have done things differently. Of course, I also try to make it fun for us all.
4. Coach children to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems
Often our first reaction is to admonish the child who is the aggressor or antagonist. The problem is if you’re defending one child, the other child(ren) becomes convinced you love the other child more. This always leads to more tension and increased conflict. Rather than deepen the problem by stepping in to resolve the issue or defend a child, coach both (or all) children to work through problems on their own first. If they can’t resolve it, then they can come to a parent or adult for help.
A three step process that helps kids know how to work through conflict on their own:
- Overlook the problem. If they can (i.e. it’s a minor irritation or something they aren’t very upset about) or they have the maturity, teach them to overlook what their sibling did and move on.
- Express their need or want. Teach children how to say what they want in the situation instead of lashing out at others. It starts by modelling this for them and helping them through situations. It can sound like this:
Dad: “Ashar, you look upset. What don’t you like? Can you tell your brother?”
Ashar: “I don’t like him taking my toys.”
Dad: “Kailan, Ashar says he doesn’t like you taking his toys. Will you stop taking them or do you need my help to find something else to play with?”
Depending on their age, you can also ask them to find a solution.
Dad: “It seems you both want to play with the same toy. How can you work together to make it fair?”
Kailan: “If Ashar let’s me use X toy, I will share my Y toy with him.”
Dad: “Ashar, what do you think about that solution?”
Ashar: “I don’t want Y toy. I just want to play with my own.”
Dad: “I hear you Ashar. You just want to play with your own toy and not share right now. That’s ok. How can you work together with Kailan?”
Ashar: “Kailan can play with Z toy instead. I’m not using it right now.”
Dad: “What do you think Kailan? Your brother is willing to share his toys now, which sounds very fair to me.”
Kailan: “Ok, I guess. But I still want to play with X toy.”
Dad: “I understand. It can be hard not getting the toy you want. But those toys are Ashar’s, and he can decide when he wants to share. You will have to work it out, and respect your brother’s wishes. I know you both can do that, and I trust you to find a fair solution.”
Notice in this example dad has acknowledged the feelings and wants of each child, but still maintained limits. Each child has also been asked to express their wants, while coming up with solutions themselves. For younger children, parents may need to offer solutions or possible alternatives. What matters most is that you are modeling the process and helping them through it together.
- Find an adult for help – this final step is only if they can’t resolve the problem themselves or the conflict escalates beyond healthy / respectful interactions. It’s always better to intervene as parents when you notice things getting out of hand. In those cases, use the above approach to allow them to express their wants/needs, establish the limit, and provide alternatives.
In next week’s blog we’ll build on these ideas and offer proactive solutions to create a peaceful and enjoyable environment at home.