When kids fight, how should parents respond? Ignoring the conflict or solving it for kids are two ways to go, but teaching your kids to solve their own fights gives them the conflict-resolution skills they’ll need as adults—and means you’ll ultimately spend less time playing peacemaker. Here’s what to do.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
What do you do when you hear your kids bickering in the next room, and they just won’t stop—or worse, you hear angry voices that sound like they’re escalating into a real crisis? Do you:
- Go in there and shut it down: “Stop it right now—and if I hear one more word from either of you, no screen time!”
- Go negotiate a peaceful solution: “Here, Jack—you have these crayons, and Jill, you have these. And let’s work at separate tables, too.” (Or: “Okay, let’s make up. Jack, can you tell Jill you’re sorry?”)
- Ignore it, hoping that the kids resolve the situation themselves before actual blood is shed?
All of these are legitimate strategies, at least some of the time. If you’re headed out the door to Church, you may need to just shut down that bickering. And if you’re low on energy at the end of the day, it might be better for everyone if mom or dad just ignores the situation.
But these strategies have their downsides. If we’re always shutting down our kids’ conflicts—or even resolving it for them—then they don’t get a chance to practice the conflict resolution skills they’re going to need as they go out into the world. On the other hand, no one is born with those skills—they’re usually learned from others. So, always ignoring our kids’ conflict also doesn’t help them learn mature conflict resolution skills.
But there’s another strategy besides resolving kids’ conflicts for them and just ignoring them, and that’s to “coach” kids’ conflicts.
Coached Conflict: Teaching Kids How to Figure Out Their Own Fights
The basic idea of coached conflict is to put your kids in charge of figuring out their own fights—but with a wise adult (that would be you) present to guide them along the way. It’s like when you take your kids bowling and you put up bumpers: helping them stay out of the gutter gives them a chance to improve their game.
Coaching conflict requires more time and energy on the front end. But the good news is that you don’t need to coach every conflict in order for it to help your kids advance in their problem-solving skills—even if you only coach one in ten of your kids’ conflicts, you’re helping them out. And in the long run, occasionally coaching your kids’ conflicts will save you time and energy, because as your kids learn how to resolve their fights on their own, guess what? Fewer fights! And less need for peacemaking on your part.
Conflict Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing
Before we go any further, it might be good to just stop and re-frame the way we think about conflict. Usually we think of it as a bad thing, best avoided. But conflict is inevitable in human relationships, and in fact, sometimes it’s necessary. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division,” Jesus tells us (Luke 12:51). Jesus is clear: If we’re committed to the Kingdom of God, we’re going to be in conflict with those committed to the ways of the world. Jesus and the prophets weren’t afraid to enter into conflict with others for the sake of God’s kingdom.
But notice that this “good” conflict is centered not on fear, hatred, pride, or selfishness, but on achieving God’s will for the world—including those we’re in conflict with. Our goal as Christian parents, then, is to help our kids engage in conflict in a way that focuses on God’s will and the common good rather than only their own self-interest. (This doesn’t mean discouraging kids from standing up for themselves in an unjust situation. God’s will includes their well-being, too!)
The Nitty Gritty of Coaching Conflict
So, what does coaching your kids’ conflicts look like? That’s going to depend a lot on your particular situation, of course: the age of your kids, their personalities, the habits of conflict they need to break, and how intense the fight is.
Given all those variables, focus on adapting the basic principle: You’re letting your kids figure out their fight on their own, intervening now and then to help them along when they get stuck, or to show them a new approach. This is what a good coach does: offering tips, modeling good technique, and generally helping the players improve the game. But the coach doesn’t play the game for the players; he stays out of the way.
So, without prescribing a formula for every family, let me outline how we coach conflict at our house.
We start by having the kids sit down a little ways apart from one another (out of range of fists and spit); kitchen stools come in handy.
Then we do a cooling-off period—thirty seconds to a minute (or more, if necessary) of silence. This gives kids a chance to regroup, cool off, and possibly even decide they’re ready to disengage.
Our family hasn’t ever taken a moment for prayer before beginning the process, but doesn’t that seem like an excellent idea? Your prayer can be very simple, calling to mind God’s presence: “God, we know that you love ___ and ____ very much. You want what is good for each of us. Send your Holy Spirit to give us the courage, humility, and honesty we need to figure out this fight in a loving way. Amen.”
Then I lay out the ground rules:
- Kids get to take turns speaking their mind—no interrupting! The other party only gets to speak when the first kid says they’re done and “hands off” the right to speak: “That’s all I have to say; I’m ready to listen.” Having the chance to be heard is huge when it comes to dialing down the emotional intensity of a fight.
- Basic respect is a must: If we can’t talk without shouting or being rude, we take some more time to cool off.
- No one leaves until each child says they’re done. In essence, the kids have put one another in “time out,” and have the power to end one another’s time out. This is a powerful incentive for kids to seek compromise or to make reasonable concessions—especially after we’ve been sitting together for ten minutes or more.
As you might expect, this can be a time-consuming process! The advantage is that when they’re done, each side feels like he or she has been heard, the conflict is truly resolved, and they’ve done it mostly themselves. “Mostly,” because the coaching role of the parent is still key.
Learning to do conflict well is a lifelong project, but here are some basic ways you might help:
- Help them name their feelings—and respect one another’s feelings. “Jack, how is Jill feeling right now?” Acknowledging feelings shows respect and, ironically, can do a lot to dial down the emotional intensity of a fight. Point out that saying, “I hear how you feel” is not the same as conceding the argument. We can acknowledge feelings while still disagreeing with someone’s words or actions.
- Help them name facts—and separate facts from feelings. In a fight, facts tend to get clouded by feelings. And it’s common for all of us to make up “facts” that are really feelings in disguise—like attributing bad intention to the other person. Can your kids name “just the facts”? Can they agree on the facts?
- Help them name what they want or need. What’s it going to take for each child to feel “done” with the conflict? Sometimes, inviting kids to name out loud what they’re after helps them move out of the cycle of retaliation. And sometimes when one kid realizes that the other kid isn’t asking for the moon, they’re willing to give the other kid what she’s asking for—an apology, or some simple restitution, or a promise to not repeat the offense.
For more tips on teaching kids conflict resolution, see the resources at the end of this article.
Show Kids by Your Example
There’s one other powerful way that we can teach kids how to resolve conflicts, and that’s to model it for them when we get into conflicts with others. No pressure, parents!
But there doesn’t need to be, truly, because we can always tell our kids, “You know what? Mom (or Dad) isn’t perfect—I’m learning, too!” And then we can ask our kids to pray for us, because especially when it comes to conflict, we need a little divine grace.
This article was inspired by a guest spot I did for Greg and Lisa Popcak on their More 2 Life radio program. You can catch the archived show here. Dr. Gregory Popcak, who co-hosts More2Life with his wife Lisa, is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.
Kids Matter: Conflict Resolution offers a much more detailed look at how to help kids achieve win-win conflict resolution; it’s an initiative of the Australian Department of Health.
If you’re still looking for a detailed, principle-based process, try Coaching Children in Handling Everyday Conflicts. Written by an elementary school teacher, the article walks through the conflict resolution process step by step, with example scenarios.