Conflict between children is a natural part of childhood—but the way in which kids learn to resolve their differences can have lifelong consequences, and both mothers and fathers are vital, say experts, in teaching children how to peacefully interact with each other.
“I very much believe children have the skills to work things out,” says Inbal Kashtan, author of Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection and Choice. “But most of what they’ve seen modeled is conflict, not the resolution of conflict.”
Kashtan leads workshops for parents in which she encourages them to examine how they mediate arguments between children. “Most parents think they need to decide who’s right and who’s wrong,” she says. “I encourage them to look at their role as a combination of being a supportive connection between children and being a model of how to resolve conflicts peacefully.”
When there is an argument among children, Kashtan says, adults should try to discover the unmet needs that are masked by aggressive or confrontational behavior, talking to the children about the emotions behind their actions. Both sides in a quarrel deserve understanding, she says, and conflict resolution is more successful when each child gets an empathetic ear.
“When you start this kind of dialogue, the kids relax. They learn to work it out.”
Fathers play a crucial part in teaching their offspring how to settle conflict peacefully, says Armin Brott, author of several books on fatherhood, including Father for Life—A Journey of Joy, Challenge, and Change. He says studies have shown that fathers who are involved in helping with conflict resolution have children who are more empathetic to others and less likely to be bullies or engage in violent behavior.
“It turns out to be true more for fathers even than for mothers to be involved,” Brott says. “Maybe that’s because when Dad says it, it’s not just background noise for kids like it may be when Mom says these things all the time.”
Men and women tend to respond differently to friction between youngsters, Brott says, with mothers more concerned about a child’s emotional well-being and fathers with a physical conflict. “Dads are more likely to just break it up, send people to opposing corners, and punish someone. Moms tend to want to work it out,” he says.
Brott cautions parents not to get caught in “gender traps” when dealing with discord, where “Dad says ‘Talk to your mom,’ and Mom finally says ‘I can’t deal with this anymore, go talk to your dad.’ Neither is giving the child what he or she needs.”
Kashtan advocates seeking to identify children’s needs when intervening in a conflict, rather than meting out punishment.
“As parents,” she writes in her book, “we have a remarkable opportunity to empower our children with life skills for connecting with others, resolving conflicts and contributing to peace…Our conflicts arise not because we have different needs, but because we have different strategies for how to meet our needs.”
By focusing on the needs of each person in a conflict rather than seeking to assign blame, Kashtan says, parents may find themselves moving away from using punishment as the primary method of controlling their children. “This is not permissive parenting,” she says. “It is parenting deeply committed to meeting the needs of both parents and children through a focus on connection and mutual respect.”
Like Kashtan, Brott believes most aggressive behavior in children is a cry for help, and that older children in particular can be taught to identify each other’s needs. “They can say ‘Why are you doing this? What do you really want?’”
He emphasizes that many times the children who are bullying others are looking for attention or feeling powerless. And while a physical response to aggression should be a last resort, there may be times when it is necessary.
“In the end,” he says, “when you’ve tried everything else, and there’s no adult around, and you’re being physically hurt, that’s the one time when a physical response is not only appropriate, it’s required.”