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How to Cope With Fighting Kids

Here’s what to do about when kids’ fighting gets the best of family time.

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For parents, listening to kids fighting is like nails on a blackboard. Whether it's minor bickering or shouting matches, kids fighting is more than annoying for parents; it's plain disheartening. And when you work at home, bickering kids can be a major distraction.

But believe it or not, kids' fighting isn't all bad, as long as it's not physical fights or bullying. Bickering helps kids learn compromise, conflict resolution and self control. It's just that learning that stuff takes a really long time. Read on for tips on how to be part of the peace process in your kids' war of wars.

1. Don’t get entangled in the fight.

When a parent steps into the fray, this says to children that bickering and whining bring a conflict to a swift conclusion. And it can cause hard feelings. So avoid taking side when kids fight. Challenge kids to come up with a fair solution. Putting the ball back in their court shows them that kids are  expected to be part of the solution, not just the problem.

But if fighting escalates, parents may need to step in. If you must intervene, make it quick and decisive. Find a compromise or separate kids, either by command (“Everyone to your rooms.”) or by cajoling ("Suzy, come play in my room."). Do not get sucked into the debate. Leave the discussion of the issues behind the fight for another time.

2. Model the behavior you want to see.

Don't just talk about how to resolve conclicts; show kids. Fighting or shouting as a solution to a disagreement is reinforced when kids see parents do the same. Don't fight with your spouse (or relatives or friends) in front of the kids. And though it can be tough to be heard above the din of fighting kids, try not to raise your voice when kids are bickering.

3. Break the bickering cycle.

Bickering is inherently reactive. Kids react to one another and then to you if you step in. To break the cycle, you need to be proactive not reactive. Take action against bickering when the kids aren’t fighting.

In the heat of a fight, no one is listening. Whatever you, as a parent, say kids are likely to think you’re siding with someone else. Wait until heads are cooler, then remind kids of (or set) ground rules. Emphasize kindness and coach kids on compromise. Being consistent with this proactive approach will reduce kids’ fights in the long run.

4. Don’t reward kids for fighting.

Reward kids for fighting? Why would anyone do that? But parents do reward kids' fighting by giving it too much attention. Often bickering is as much about getting attention than the any number of petty things that kids fight over. And whose attention do bickering kids usually want most? Parents, of course.

If you work at home, kids may catch on to the fact that a big blow out will likely get you out off your office. Don’t come running at the first sign of trouble. Give them the chance to work it out first.

5. Keep kids busy.

So often kids’ fighting stems from boredom. When kids are actively engaged in independent play activities, they are less likely to fight. And independent activities teach kids to handle their problem (i.e. boredom) without running to a parent. And this is what they need to learn to stop fighting.

And while TV can keep kids busy, too much TV can actually cause more fighting because it's so often the object kids fight over but also because it’s not an active kind of play.

6. Find the underlying source of the problem.

While boredom and a desire for attention are two common reasons for fighting, there are many other reasons for it. These could be as complicated as underlying sibling rivalry or as simple as hunger. Sometimes bickering is just a way for kids to blow off steam. Understanding the cause of the fights will indicate the best way to handle it.

7. Stop fighting before it starts.

Whenever possible, anticipate the situations when your kids are most likely to fight. Some likely times might be when riding in the car, while you are working in your home office, during transitions from one activity to another or just before meals. Be prepared when heading into these situations.

But also think about the types of things they fight over: toys, TV, computer, privileges like sitting in a favorite chair or having a friend over. Work out equitable rules for these things, without going too far into making everything even-Steven. If everything is exactly even, kids get the idea that that’s how it should always be. And in turn, they find it hard to accept situations they perceive as unfair, and more fighting ensues.

8. Don't get discouraged.

Keep in mind that reducing kids' fighting is a process. It won't happen overnight. And some kids are more prone to bickering than others. Give kids the structure and strategies they need to deal with problems, but remember they are kids. And fighting with your siblings is all part of being a kid.

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