Living in such close quarters isn’t what’s driving us crazy right now – it’s the constant bickering between our children that will surely end us! Melbourne psychotherapist Dr Janet Hall literally wrote the book on family fights, and she’s shared her top tips with us.
We’re sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but before we get started, we need to say it: fighting is inevitable for families.
But while you can’t always avoid fighting, there are measures parents can put in place to prevent, minimise and rapidly resolve them.
“Parents have a responsibility to teach their children to resolve conflicts,” says Dr Janet. “While serious and painful fighting should not be permitted in a family, learning how to avoid and resolve more minor fights is a vital skill.”
Dr Janet says that in order to learn how to do this, it’s important to bust some prevalent myths.
- No, it isn’t always bad to fight. In fact, fighting can be a healthy way to release tension, gain psychological space and even spark creative ideas.
- No, not all family fights can end with a win/win solution. Forget ‘never going to sleep without having kissed and made up’ – believing things need to end fairly will only harbour resentment. In the case of your children, they need to know that you have the power and whatever you choose is usually in their best interest.
- No, a fight won’t fix a problem forever. Your child will probably still go into their sibling’s room without knocking tomorrow.
- And finally, no – fights can’t always be prevented. You can’t always keep ahead of your children’s cleverness, but you can reduce the pain of fighting if your family learns to cooperate in their conflict resolution.
Fights can start over just about anything, but there are a few typical reasons most family fights erupt. Toddlers to tens will typically fight with their siblings over physical space (“He hit me first!”) and personal belongings, as well as whose turn it is to do something. Teenagers, on the other hand, most commonly fight with their brothers and sisters if they feel their personal space or belongings have been invaded.
“There are so many opportunities to fight, it’s no wonder home sometimes feels like a battlefield,” says Dr Janet. “Before entering the fight zone, parents should make a plan – but this requires some basic knowledge about preventing and managing fights.”
KNOW WHAT IS WORTH FIGHTING ABOUT
Sometimes it is important to confront conflict, and it’s important that children learn when to stand up for their rights.
While most people would agree that parents should fight for their values so that their children grow up making responsible choices, major conflict can occur if children are expected to adopt exactly the same standards as their parents. Remember to allow for the fact that some things change.
“Entering a battle zone risks upset, so parents should always ask themselves, ‘Is it worth it?” says Dr Janet. “Child fights in the playground are very different to child fights in the living room, while the whole family is trying to watch TV. The key distinction is whether there is an issue that is directly affecting the parent, typically by causing physical or emotional discomfort.
“With this in mind, remember that parent anger is not appropriate for child-owned problems. While you can show understanding and concern for your child’s problems, it’s important to let the consequences follow their natural course without always rescuing your child. Encourage them to find their own solution.”
KNOW THE THREE BASIC KEYS TO LEARNING
Parents don’t get trained in fight control, but they can learn how to use three basic keys to learning to prevent, manage and help their children resolve conflict.
Key one: Copying (modelling)
We learn by watching others and copying them, and our parenting is usually modelled on what our parents did to us or what we pick up from TV, magazines, books and social media.
Remember: your children learn just by watching you, so if you learn how to resolve conflicts, you will be able to demonstrate valuable skills – and your children will naturally pick them up.
Key two: Cues (rules, instructions, routines)
We learn by doing what we are told and getting into good habits that are consciously and unconsciously repeated.
Remember: if you are in doubt about whether a rule is necessary, look for the moments of hottest dispute – those are the times you need rules to prevent fights!
Key three: Consequences
We learn by the positive or negative results that follow our behaviour; a behaviour that is rewarded will increase, while a behaviour that is punished will decrease.
Remember: your parenting power comes from careful use of consequences. If your punishment is not decreasing the behaviour, it is not a punishment – if your reward is not increasing the behaviour, it is not a reward.
KNOW THE TWO KEYS TO WIN/WIN FIGHT RESOLUTION
We need to balance the three learning C’s with two very human elements: communication, and compassion.
“Communication is a crucial part of all three learning keys,” says Dr Janet. “When a family both ‘tells’ and ‘listens’, parents become authoritative but democratic and children become competent. This is how we can achieve swift progress.”
DR JANET’S TOP FIVE TIPS:
- Reject the negative behaviour, not the child – say, ‘I like you, but I don’t like what you’re doing.”
- Prevent sibling rivalry by showing cooperation (for copying), setting up rules, responsibilities and routines (as cues) and encouraging each child to build their unique talents (as consequences for good behaviour).
- Write down what your upset child has to say and read it back to check you really did hear them correctly. This helps your child feel like their feelings are validated and let go of upset.
- Apply the ‘symbolic Band-Aid’ – like with a physical wound, emotional wounds need sincere acknowledgement. A simple, ‘I’m sorry, I know that hurt your feelings’ goes a long way.
- Invest in family relaxation time. Put on some music, take deep breaths and relax together – you will be amazed at the results.
To hear more from Dr Janet Hall, or read her book ‘Fight-free Families’, head to www.drjanethall.com.au.