What do you do if your kids fight and argue with each other? Do you make a plea for peace, order the combatants to their bedrooms or lay the blame on the child who caused the infraction? It is almost impossible to stay out of kids' fighting because they are usually noisy and invariably one child will call on mum or dad to intervene.
So common is kids fighting that it appears to have become the first commandment of childhood - Thou shalt fight and argue with your brothers and sisters until your parents can stand it no longer.
My research indicates that sibling fighting is a concern to parents in three out of every four families with more than one child. Certainly this is the issue that most parents want to discuss when they come to my parenting seminars.
It is important to have a realistic attitude to children's disputes. When adults live together under one roof there are bound to be disagreements. Why should children be any different? Conflict itself is not harmful, but the way disagreements are resolved is the issue that generally concerns parents.
Look at the nature of most disputes. They generally begin as a disagreement over some minor issue such as the choice of television programs, the result of a game or a refusal to share. I have seen my children fight over the earth-shattering issues of who should sit in the front seat of the car. The issues children fight over may be minor but the resulting disturbance of the peace can be extremely hard for parents to deal with. They often occur when we are busy and have little time to handle them effectively.
Kid's fights usually have a number of predictable phases. The first is the quiet stage when one child annoys, niggles or even criticizes another. The dispute enters phase two as the noise level rises and children become agitated or belligerent. The fight is now almost in full swing so parents need to brace themselves for stage three which is the moving phase when the fight shifts from one area of the house to another accompanied by the use of insults, shouting and door slamming. It may even become physical.
The fight usually climaxes when one or all parties involved come to you in tears, telling tales or looking for justice with that old line, "Mum, she hit me and I didn't do anything." It is probably time to reach for the walkman, turn the volume up on the television or make yourself scarce. Anything for some peace and quiet!
There are two broad approaches that parents can adopt with kids fighting - become involved or remain neutral. Your approach will depend on the age, maturity and ability of your children to sort out their own problems, your ability to ignore noise and your beliefs about how conflict should be resolved.
Australian psychologist and parenting authority Dr. Maurice Balson in his book Becoming Better Parents recommends that parents leave children to resolve their own disputes. He says, "If parents ignored sibling fighting and left children free to settle their own disputes, the incidence of fighting would decrease."
Balson maintains that kids fighting is for the benefit of their parents and when we intervene to adjudicate or punish the guilty child we are doing exactly what the children want us to do.
This approach makes a great deal of sense, but as most parents know, some fights are impossible to ignore particularly when they happen under your nose.
If this is the case make a swift retreat when children fight or invite them to resolve their noisy disputes outside. Many parents have found that arguing and fighting practically disappears when children are consistently shown the door to the backyard.
Children often need parental assistance to help them resolve their disputes amicably.
When children want you to intervene in their disagreements let them know that you are willing to help them work out a solution, but avoid taking sides. Establish what the fight is about, rather than who started it, and offer suggestions to resolve the issue.
Of course you cannot sit down and work through every issue with kids, but through meetings or discussions you can at least give them some guidelines that they may use themselves. But don't expect children to suddenly sit down and discuss every dispute with Buddha-like wisdom if they have hurled insults at each other for years. Be realistic and look for small improvements.
If you do intervene in kids fighting make sure that you get in early before a full-scale fight occurs. Be assertive, make them aware that they are arguing and inform them of its affect on you. Invite them to either stop fighting or continue the dispute elsewhere.
If you are concerned that one child is being victimized or singled out by other siblings discuss some survival strategies such as going to their bedroom at the first sign of a fight or even moving close to a parent if safety is an issue. Often the victims give as good as they receive when families fight and can sometimes be the instigators of disputes.
Don't be too perturbed if your children argue and fight with each other at the drop of a hat. Some of the closest adult families admit to habitually fighting when they were children. And some young siblings I know are affectionate to each other one minute and ready to fight tooth and nail the next. Let's face it, children are hard to fathom at the best of times and down-right impossible when they fight.
Fortunately, there are strategies that parents can use that dramatically reduce the amount, frequency and intensity of fights that happen in families. One simple preventative strategy is the use of regular team briefs. Once a week parents sit with their children in a quiet place and discuss family issues and concerns as well as talk about positive things that have happened in the past week. Invariably kids conflict and issues kids fight about are raised. This gives children both a voice and parents an opportunity to teach children how to resolve conflict reasonably and quietly. My research shows that families that have a conflict resolution process in place, such as team briefs or family meetings experience a significant reduction in kids fighting.