Fights with Friends- Help Your Child Learn to Resolve Conflicts

Children argue with their friends. A lot.

According to Brett Laursen and Gwen Pursell of Florida Atlantic University, preschool and young elementary school friends average almost three conflicts per hour. Friends actually argue more than nonfriends—probably because they spend more time together and feel more comfortable expressing their opinions. Fortunately, conflicts between friends are generally less intense and more likely to be resolved than other conflicts.

Toddlers and preschoolers mostly argue about things, such as who gets to use the yellow ball. In elementary school, arguments tend to be about actions, such as what one friend does or doesn’t want another friend to do. Young elementary school children also tend to say, “I’ll be your friend if you do this!” or “I won’t be your friend if you do that!”

Arguments with a friend can be very upsetting for kids, especially when, in the heat of the moment, someone declares, “You’re not my friend anymore!” It takes time and practice for kids to learn how to resolve conflicts. If you see your child having an argument with a friend, it may be helpful to step in to diffuse tensions by asking, “Who wants a snack?” or “What could you do that would be fair to both of you?” Here are some more ways you can help your child learn to resolve conflicts.

Start with Empathy

If your child is upset about an argument with a friend, your understanding and comfort can help a lot. Although you might be tempted to point out what your child did wrong, your first job is to just acknowledge how your child is feeling. You could say, “It hurt your feelings when he did that” or “You’re mad that she wasn’t playing by the rules.”

Explain the Friend’s Perspective

It takes lots of practice for kids to learn to imagine how someone else might be thinking or feeling. By describing a friend’s perspective, you can help your child move past simplistic and unproductive explanations along the lines of “He’s just mean!” Being able to imagine events from the friend’s perspective can help your child let go of anger and perhaps apologize or compromise.

Help Your Child Speak up Appropriately

Resolving a conflict sometimes requires that your child be able to explain what he or she wants. Help them plan and practice what to say. Emphasize what your child wants the friend to do, moving forward. For instance, your child could say, “I want a turn,” “Please don’t call me that name. I don’t like it,” or “From now on, could you please ask before borrowing my eraser?”

Encourage Relationship Repair

An argument with a friend doesn’t have to mean the end of a friendship. Saying “I’m sorry” is often a good way to mend a rift, and being willing to forgive a friend’s mistake is an act of generosity. We adults tend to want to talk things out, but research by Laursen and his colleagues shows that children most often resolve conflicts by being apart for a little while, to give tempers time to cool, and then trying again. Your child’s path to making up with a friend may be as simple as just being nice to that friend tomorrow.

If your child seems to be having more arguments than play with a particular friend, you may want to encourage other friendships. When there’s more fighting than fun, friendships don’t usually last.

How has your child resolved conflicts with friends?

This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.

About Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She is an internationally published author of books about parenting and children’s feelings and friendships. She is also professor for The Great Courses audio/video series Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.

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