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Learning to Fight Fair

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An interview with Heather Turgeon, MFT

When I dropped my son off at preschool last week, I noticed two children having a discussion that quickly developed into a tear-filled shoving match. One child wanted to borrow another’s shovel in the sand box. The other child was not keen on the idea. While one was using his words, the other was not. Frustration ensued. I wondered, how can we help our children deal with confrontation, both at home and out in the world? Heather Turgeon, MFT, helps us understand conflict resolution as seen through the eyes of our children. — Christina Montoya Fiedler, TMC contributing writer.

What kind of tools do children need to best handle disagreements with their peers?

If you think about it, resolving a conflict is an incredibly complex social process. It requires that little kids (and adults too) express their ideas and feelings in a confident and assertive way, self-regulate enough not to hit or melt down, listen to the thoughts of the other person, take the other person’s perspective, compromise, and come up with plans that incorporate both sets of needs. That’s a tall order.

Can you break down a typical situation in which these skills can be used?

Here’s an example: A preschooler is diligently digging a tunnel in the sand. Another eager little one comes along with a bucket of water, dumps it in, and floods the whole system. This could end up many different ways. Maybe the first child breaks down in tears—in which case she may need some support building the skill of expressing her feelings more assertively to say something like, I didn’t want water in my tunnel! On the other hand, if she’s inclined to throw her shovel at the second kid in response, she might need a bit of help self-regulating.

Tiffs like these go more smoothly when kids can see the situation from the other’s perspective. Parents can help kids strengthen this skill by using real life situations or hypotheticals and encouraging their child to take another person’s perspective and speculate on their thoughts and feelings. Practice helps, but of course some of us are naturally wired more empathetically.

In the end, kids can come up with a plan for how to handle conflicts together. In this case, maybe it’s:

I didn’t want water in my tunnel!

Well I wanted to dump the water!

Prompt from the parent or teacher: So what’s our plan now?

Ask me first before you pour water! You can pour the water on the side, or we can dig another one for water.

How can you help your child deal with a peer who is resistant or not responsive to resolution?

It’s helpful to point out that kids are only responsible for their side. You can’t necessarily make another person agree or control how they respond (same goes for adults!). Just prompt your child to do her part, expressing her ideas and offering a solution when appropriate. You might want to process a stubborn or resistant child’s reaction later by saying something like:

Wow, I noticed that Jack wasn’t listening when you were trying to talk. What was that like? You definitely told him what you were thinking though, which is great.

How do we deal with our child when they are the one being resistant to resolution?

If your child is the one being resistant, set aside a space for both kids to talk (briefly, don’t belabor the point). If she’s really not having it, you could consider giving her a break but tell her she’ll have to check in or follow up with her friend later, after she’s calmed down. The idea is to have each child check in with the other, but don’t make it a big drawn out drama if it’s going south. Try again later. In the meantime, check in and offer the other child help as a model.

At what point, if any, should a parent intervene or get involved in our children’s disputes with peers?

Unless someone is hurt or really upset, see what happens when you hang on the sidelines and let them try to work it out. You might be surprised at the outcome—sometimes kids are less fazed by conflict than we are as parents and sometimes they have their own crafty solutions. The ultimate goal is for them to handle these things themselves, so a little space to practice helps. If you feel like one child is unresolved, though, step in and ask them to check in with each other about what’s happening.

Does the same principal apply to disagreements among siblings?

Yes, same goes for siblings—maybe even with a greater tendency to let them resolve things on their own, since they know each other so well and ultimately feel safe with each other.

Heather Turgeon, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist and freelance writer who writes about parenting and child development. She authors the popular weekly Science of Kids column for Babble.com.

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