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My Kids Are Always Fighting!
by Naomi Drew, M.A.

Children's fights are one of the top laments of parents today. "They're at each others' throats constantly," complained a mother of three in my parenting course. Suddenly every hand in the room shot up. "All I do is yell," another mom exclaimed, as the group nodded vigorously. "One minute they love each other, the next minute they're enemies. I've tried everything, but nothing seems to work."

Sound familiar? Take heart -- your search may have ended. Conflict is inevitable, but fighting isn't. A healthy dose of preventative medicine coupled with solid strategies can drastically curtail fighting between your kids. Sound too good to be true? Well, it's not. I took the steps you are about to read with my own two boys, and the difference was dramatic. Parents I've worked with over the years have gotten similar results. What follows is a step-by-step plan that can help you make dreams of a fight-free home an achievable reality. Try it yourself and see.

13 Steps that Really Work:

Step 1: Look for patterns. Keep a log and after each fight, jot down time of day, setting, and circumstances leading to the fight. Do your kids' fights tend to take place right before dinner? Could tiredness or hunger play a part? Do they go at each other in the car? Keep observing and writing down what you see.

Step 2: Observe your own behavior. How do you handle conflict? Kids learn primarily through imitation. What are they learning from the adults in your home? If yelling, put-downs, grudges, or withdrawal are what your kids see most, you'll see the same in them. Ask yourself what behaviors you or other adults in your home might need to change. Talk to your partner and make a concerted effort to model what you want to see in your kids. Get on the same page -- it's important.

Step 3: Look for root causes. Could jealousy, resentment, or perceived favoritism play a part? Are your kids getting enough down-time to unwind and relax? Are they getting enough time with you? Could stress at school translate into fights at home? Or could family problems be weighing on them? Do an honest assessment and keep your mind open.

Step 4: Talk to each child privately. Ask why they think the fighting's happening, then listen, listen, listen. Don't judge what your child says or tell her she shouldn't feel the way she does. As she speaks, make eye contact, and keep listening even if she says something you don't want to hear. Reflect back (paraphrase) what you hear. Example: "You feel like your brother picks on you for no reason." This builds empathy and trust. When your child's finished unloading ask her to think about this question: "Is there anything you might be doing to contribute to the fighting?" Don't ask for an answer right away. Give her time to reflect on this over the next couple days.

Step 5: Take responsibility for your role. Sometimes we inadvertently reinforce our kids fighting through our own behavior. When I had the above discussion with my older son, he told me something that was hard to hear, yet absolutely true -- that I was showing favoritism toward his younger brother. I saw it as being protective. He saw it as liking his brother more. As a result of this conversation, I stopped automatically assuming my older son was the culprit every time there was a disagreement. I started observing more and reacting less. My younger son learned that he couldn't play the "age card' with me any longer. Being my "baby" wasn't going to get him off scott free as it had before. The fighting decreased tremendously.

Step 6: Start spending "sacred time" with each kid. Aim for 15-20 minutes a day per child. If you're a single parent or if your work schedule or family size doesn't allow for this, alternate nights with each child. You can take turns with your partner too, and if your kids are old enough, have them occupy each other when you're spending time with a sibling. Even if you just lay down together, cuddle, and talk, you're giving your child an invaluable gift and sending a powerful message: You're important and I'm here for you.

Step 7: Have family meetings. Set one ground rule for your meetings -- Everyone needs to be respectful and listen to what each other has to say. At the first meeting, ask your kids what they think can be done to make your home more peaceful. Give an "I" message like, "I feel bad when I see you hurting each other. How can we make things better?" Make your kids part of the solution. Doing this will empower them to do better.

Step 8: Come up with a plan of action to together. Do this at your next family meeting. Ask your kids what agreements they need to make to prevent future fights. Write up the plan and have each family member sign it. Establish a clear rule that physical fighting is not allowed in your home. Ask your kids what they think would be a fair consequence for fighting. When we include our kids in establishing rules and consequences, they are far more likely to follow them.

Step 9: Teach your kids how to manage anger and work out conflicts. See boxes for strategies that really work.

Step 10: Reinforce good behavior. If your kids get through a day without a fight, compliment them effusively. If they get through a few, reward them with a special privilege, like getting to stay up later on Friday night. Let no kind act go unacknowledged. Every time your kids cool off instead of hit, talk instead of shout, affirm them to high heaven. Let them know how proud you are of the good choices they made.

Step 11: Get your kids to reflect on what worked. Each time a fight is averted, ask them what they did that helped. Did one child agree to share the remote control for the TV instead of hogging it? Did your 7 year-old remember to knock before going into his brother's room? Help them see what worked so they can do it again.

Step 12: Be prepared for some backsliding and don't consider it a major set-back. Change is not a linear process. We take two steps forward and one back. When this happens, don't throw up your hands and decide your efforts have been in vain. Backsliding is part of the process. Re-commit to what you've been doing, sit down with your kids, talk some more, then recommit together.

Step 13: Never get too busy to say "I love you" and give hugs. The more the better, even if, especially if, your child is a teen. Just be a little more discriminating about who you give hugs in front of. Even when our kids start pushing us away, they need those hugs and words of love just as much, maybe even more. Love is a wonderful antidote to conflict and stress.

A special note: If you diligently do everything suggested here and your kids are still getting in to bitter fights, the best thing you can do is seek the wise guidance of a counselor or therapist. This is not a sign of defeat -- it's a sign of wisdom and willingness to do whatever it takes to bring peace to your home. Getting to the heart of the problem today is an insurance policy against escalating problems in the future.

Beyond all this, have fun with your kids. The time they'll be living under your roof is actually very finite. Someday you'll look back and long for the moments you're experiencing right now. When you put this article down, go in and give your kids a hug. And don't forget to say, "I love you." Repeat daily until they're grown and out of the house.

When anger strikes, here's something that will help you keep your cool:

Stop, Breathe, Chill:

Stop. When you feel your heart race and you're ready to pounce, give yourself a command to stop. That's right, stop -- for a split second.
Then . . .
Breathe. Take a few slow, deep breaths all the way down (as though they can reach into your stomach), allowing the oxygen to circulate and calm you.
Then . . .
Chill. Walk away for a minute. Make a calming statement like, "I can handle this," Put some cold water on your face, go to a quiet spot, and remind yourself that you're bigger than the problem. When you're calm enough, go back and talk things over.

Here are six steps that will help you work out conflicts in a fair way:

The Win/Win Guidelines:

1. Cool off
2. Talk it over using I messages.
3. Listen while the other person speaks and say back what you heard.
4. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict
5. Brainstorm solutions and choose one that's fair to both of you.
6. Affirm, forgive, thank, or apologize to each other.

Naomi Drew M.A., www.learningpeace.com is author of "The Kids' Guide To Working Out Conflicts (Free Spirit), "Leaders' Guide to the Kids' Guide to Working Out Conflicts" (Free Spirit) and "Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World" (Kensington).


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