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This Fighting Is Driving Me Crazy!
Tammy Cox, LMSW
How many summer outings, vacations or just lazy days at home are ruined by kids trying to make mince meat out of each other?
Sure, kids fight year round, but it usually seems worse during the summer when they're home all day. The dog (fight) days of summer can seem excruciatingly long. Usually by mid June, at the latest, parents are calling me to say they can't wait for school to start again. The constant fighting and bickering is driving them crazy!
While most children are going to squabble and bicker some no matter what, how parents handle it can have an incredible impact. Unfortunately, most of what parents think they should do to handle fighting has opposite the desired effect, so learning some new techniques is probably a good idea.
We usually think we should get involved — find out who started the fight, who is right and who is wrong, etc. But, any time we set ourselves up to be the judge, the jury and the executioner.....we will lose! It is a definite no-win situation for parents and is ultimately disrespectful to both children. We are in essence telling one child that what he wants doesn't matter and telling the other we have no confidence in her ability to handle her own relationships.
I suggest staying out of the fight unless it looks dangerous — where someone could get seriously hurt. If we are constantly stopping the fights before anyone gets hurt, children come to expect it. That allows them to avoid taking responsibility and they never learn the cost of fighting. Better they learn that fighting hurts before the hurts are broken bones and serious wounds. When it does look dangerous, you can separate the combatants and suggest a cooling off period, without taking sides or trying to settle the dispute. Then, when tempers have cooled you can offer your services to teach them conflict resolution, making it clear you will remain impartial and not take sides.
It's important to understand that most of children's fighting is inappropriate attention getting behavior. The underlying purpose of the fight is to get our attention. When we take sides, we are inadvertantly paying them to keep fighting by making it profitable for them. The following analogy might increase understanding.
If you and your friend both bought lottery tickets and your friend won a huge jackpot, wouldn't you feel even more encouraged to keep buying lottery tickets? Of course! You would see how happy your friend was and all the benefits winning the lottery gave him. If on the other hand, you were the winner, don't you think you would also keep buying tickets? Of course, because you know first hand how great it is to be the winner and who wouldn't want to repeat that!
Well, that's how it is with children when you take sides in their fights. The child you have sided with has just won the lottery, because he feels, at least in that instant, that you love him best. Naturally he is going to keep fighting because the benefits are worth it! The child you've sided against will also want to keep fighting because she sees how good the winner feels and will keep fighting in hopes she can win too. It is very much like a gambling addiction.
Parents can prevent a lot of sibling rivalry by avoiding comparisons which breed competition, jealousy and fighting. It is also important to respect and honor the differences in children — valuing them for their uniqueness, instead of expecting them to fit a mold or follow in a sibling's footsteps.
It also helps to validate children's feelings when they are angry, instead of telling them how they should or should not feel. Remember feelings are never bad, they just are. Sometimes we express feelings in hurtful and inappropriate ways, but with validation we are more likely to look for appropriate ways to express what we are feeling.
It is probably most important of all to avoid punishment. Remember, punishment doesn't teach children how to have more rewarding relationships. Loving relationships do. Let them experience the kind of love and respect you want them to give to others.
This article copyrighted by Tammy Cox, 2002
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