Seeing kids argue can be awkward and uncomfortable. Learn how to handle children’s social conflicts (and why you shouldn’t always step in).
No one likes to see their child in a skirmish with another one. But when you witness social conflict, see if you can turn this awkward moment into an opportunity.
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. Another child approaches your child despite her desire to play alone.
Children’s social conflicts can happen closer to home, too. How do you handle scuffles with cousins and younger children of family friends? And let’s not forget sibling rivalry—social conflict could be happening daily right at home.
You might force your children to share, or return a toy they took from another one. Perhaps you distract them without explaining what just happened.
Before you feel the urge to step right in, see if your children can resolve these conflicts on their own. You see, each of these situations can lead to a teachable moment.
Why you shouldn’t always solve your children’s social conflicts
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We parents tend to overreact when it comes to children’s social conflicts. We might even think it’s “bad parenting” not to get involved when our kids have a tussle with others at the park. The mom who continues to sit on the park bench must be lazy for not intervening with her child’s conflict.
But it wasn’t too long ago when young kids played freely on their own. Their parents hardly hovered, much less refereed every conflict. And they learned valuable lessons, such as empathy, negotiation, and holding on to their beliefs.
When we get too involved, especially with older and more verbal kids, we don’t give them these benefits. Author and educator Jessica Lahey says 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.”
Even if no positive outcome came of kids resolving things on their own, that itself is a valuable lesson. Your child stomping away because she felt treated unfairly learns what she values in friendship or how to better negotiate. Failure to come to a consensus can still be a learning moment.
And besides, we overestimate the magnitude of these social situations. Siblings fighting over the same toy shouldn’t elicit the same response as one of them getting a cut or injury. They’re not the emergencies we make them out to be.
Other times, we put on our mama bear suits the minute we feel our children are slighted. The problem? They might grow up less able to navigate social interactions without your help. And most importantly, you send the message that you don’t think they can do it on their own.
Free resource: As frustrating as your kids’ social behavior may be, a lot of it can be prevented by seeing things from their perspective. In The Power of Empathy, learn how empathy is the secret key that makes a huge difference in how we interact with our kids. Join my newsletter and access your PDF below—at no cost to you:
What to do when you do need to step in
Sometimes your children really do need your help with social conflicts. They may be too young to speak for themselves, or the situation has gotten out of hand where someone can get hurt. And other times they need you to guide them on what to do.
Even then, it’s still important to guide, not resolve social conflicts for them. Here’s how to handle your children’s social conflicts:
1. Describe the situation
Young children aren’t the most verbal, so start by describing the situation as well as acknowledging their feelings. Hearing words to describe the situation helps them label their emotions. They realize that this scuffle is normal, despite any strange feelings they may have.
You might say, “Looks like you both want to play with the shovel.”
2. Explain that certain behaviors aren’t appropriate
Let’s say your child grabbed a toy from another child. Explain why we don’t behave that way. Make sure she knows this particular unacceptable 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.”
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 non-verbal children, 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 children’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 later you can take turns.”
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 them. Think back to the “petty” drama you had as a child, 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 can have a better idea of what to do next, and initiate his own solutions without the help of grown-ups.
I can understand why we’re quick to jump in and solve children’s social conflicts.
We want to protect them or keep them from hurting others. We’re embarrassed or don’t want to seem like we don’t know how to handle our own kids. It’s easier to swoop in and nip it in the bud. And sometimes the situation calls for it.
And I do step in if either child is about to hurt the other or offer guidance if it’s going nowhere.
But 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.
Teach your children at an early age how to acknowledge their emotions. Show them how to interact with other kids and handle peer rejection. In doing so, he can navigate social conflicts, without always relying on adult intervention.
After all, a squabble at the park isn’t nearly the emergency that we sometimes make it out to be.
Get more tips:
- How to Encourage Siblings to Get Along (Even from a Young Age)
- Playground Rules Everyone Should Follow
- 8 Life Skills Kids Need in Adulthood
- 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Socializing Your Child
- How to Teach Toddlers to Share
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