How to Handle Children’s Social Conflicts

Seeing kids argue can be awkward and uncomfortable. Learn how to handle children’s social conflicts (and why you shouldn’t always step in).

Children's Social ConflictsNo one likes to see their child in a skirmish with another.

Maybe it’s the little girl who takes every item out of your child’s hands, or the boy who wants to “borrow” her shovel. Maybe your child approaches another to play, but is turned away instead.

Children’s social conflicts can happen closer to home, too. How do you handle scuffles with cousins and kids of family friends? And let’s not forget sibling rivalry—social conflict could be happening daily right at home.

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If you feel compelled to whisk your child away or solve every conflict for her, stop. This is the time when kids can learn valuable social lessons that they otherwise can’t when we resolve everything for them. According to educator Jessica Lahey in her book, The Gift of Failure:

“The social conflicts of childhood are all part of our education in human relationships and failure to negotiate also provides its own lessons. Squabbles are opportunities to be valued, not emergencies to be managed.”

So, how can you help your child handle social conflicts, especially if she’s too young or the situation has gotten out of hand? Take a look at these best practices:

1. Describe the situation

Young children aren’t the most verbal, so start by describing the situation and acknowledging their feelings. Hearing words to describe what happened helps them label their emotions. They also realize that scuffles are normal, despite how they might feel.

You might say, “It looks like you both want to play with the shovel.”

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2. Explain that certain behaviors aren’t appropriate

Let’s say your child grabbed a toy from another. Explain why we don’t behave that way, making sure she knows this particular behavior isn’t the right way to act.

For instance, you can say, “I know you want to play with the toy, but we don’t grab things from other people.”

Get tips on how to stop kids from fighting.

How to Stop Kids from Fighting

3. Offer potential solutions

With older kids, you can ask them for possible solutions on what they should do. (“What can we do to solve this?”)

But for younger or pre-verbal kids, offer solutions on their behalf. You might ask your child if she’d be willing to take turns playing with the shovel, or if she’d like to play with another toy.

4. Honor your child’s choices

If your child prefers not to share the shovel, accept it and don’t force her to share. You might address both kids and say, “Looks like she’s not ready to share the shovel yet. Maybe you can take turns later on when she’s done.”

Don’t feel bad that the other child might walk away empty-handed. Honor your child’s decision to continue playing alone with the shovel, just as you would respect another child’s wish not to share, either.

5. Discuss the situation later

What may seem like a simple scuffle between two kids can be a confusing moment for your child. Think back to the “petty” drama you had in childhood, and how little fights among you and your friends caused you so much pain and anguish.

These are real conflicts for your child as he tries to understand his emotions. He may need help and reassurance to sort through what just happened. Discussing the situation can also help him identify emotions. He’ll have a better idea of what to do next time, and initiate more of his own solutions without the help of grown-ups.


Social conflict isn’t another mess to clean up, another antic our kids have gotten themselves into. They’re still learning about our world and the ways we conduct ourselves among others.

To help them handle social conflict, start by describing the situation and explaining which behaviors are appropriate or not. Offer potential solutions or encourage them to come up with their own.

Honor their choices, even if that means they want a few more turns or want to play alone. And finally, discuss the situation later, acknowledging that how they feel is real and valid.

After all, these are all teachable moments—even if we don’t want to see them in a skirmish.

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