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Hitting the Reset Button When Kids Fight

Posted by Jen on July 21, 2010 at 6:00 AM in Siblingsbehavior
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For the longest time, while my kids didn't always get along, we really didn't have too much trouble with fighting. Every once in a while we'd experience a breakdown of one kind or another, but for the most part, the mood between the kids was fairly peaceful.

This summer, however, the tides seemed to have turned. Tensions are running high and the smallest infraction sets off a series of explosions that leave both kids falling apart. To make things worse, digging into one thing that's not working seems to trigger memories of old grievances that never fully resolved. It's been a real mess.

While I'm all for talking it out, I can't stand it when the focus is on what the other person did with no willingness at all to make things better by being personally responsible. I know this is a lot to ask of kids, but I want my kids to learn that they have the power to improve their relationships, simply by paying attention to what works as well as what they want.

The other day, determined to break the cycle of blame and shame, I gave both kids a piece of paper, a pen and set them up in separate parts of the house. Each kid's task was to write down five personal boundaries--things they just could not bear to have violated. Things that they just knew needed to be honored in order for peace to reign. Both kids spent time on their lists and it had a surprising effect. By having to think about what was personally important to them, it helped shift the focus off the other person. They were reflecting on what they needed instead of everything wrong. And the cloud slowly lifted.

Once they were finished we compiled the list into one generic list of boundaries that they both could honor, and I was surprised at how nicely they fit together. One kid didn't want unwanted hugs or physical affection; the other didn't want hitting, so it was easy to write "No physical contact" as a shared boundary. Both kids agreed that knowing they were guaranteed their own physical space was a great relief and worth the sweeping mandate.

Once we had our list together, I decided on the consequence for disregarding the boundaries. If either kid crossed the line, both kids would lose an individual preference that left them feeling a small loss. For Madeleine, that meant no cell phone. For Carter, that meant no screen time. To keep it from feeling too punitive, both kids would also immediately be moved to a different activity. Madeleine would get her turn on the computer, and Carter would be sent to play with the boys next door. That way, each kid would have a chance to recharge before coming back together to try again.

By linking the consequence to both kids, they both became invested in not punching the other person's buttons. They had a new incentive to work together, not only to honor the other kid but to preserve their own best interests. Best yet, I no longer needed to get my hands dirty trying to sort out who did what or who started it which is always a fruitless endeavor. There was no longer one person to blame or somebody else to hold responsible for making things worse. The only thing worth noting was that the system had broken down and needed to be reset by time apart in a way that both kids agreed was fair and reasonable. By tying the list to the potential loss of something important, they were willing to fully engage in a way that honored the importance of coming together.

How do you navigate fighting at your house? Do you have a special way to hit the reset button when things start falling apart? We'd love to hear your sibling strategies in the comments below.


Dara writes...

separate them, and take away privileges until they calm down, then talk to each one individually to find out what their grievances are. One thing kids appreciate is fairness, and being listened to. I also think they like discipline, deep down, because it shows you care about them and what they do.

Brenda writes...

When there is too much conflict, we make our daughters (8 & 10) stop, face each other, hold hands and take turns sharing 5 things they love about their sister. They hate it at 1st, but by the end they are laughing, smiling & hugging and the conflict is forgotten.

Karen writes...

My all-purpose phrase is "Work out a deal." Meaning, stop talking only about what you want and/or how your rights are being grievously violated by not getting justice-according-to-you-in-every-detail-right-NOW! and start talking about a win-win solution. This helps them stop blaming, focus on the entirety of what's going on, think about what the other person needs as well as their own needs. It usually takes less than a minute for them to figure out what to do once the shift in perspective kicks in.

Jennifer writes...

This is great, if your kids are old enough to write. Mine are both in preschool, still learning to trace their own names. I'd love some guidance on how to settle their conflicts, when things get heated.

Also, I read "Siblings Without Rivalry" and found this book incredible and insightful.

simone writes...

What a great post! I love this system because both children feel heard and the rules are clear--so helpful. I only have one but I am trying to help my daughter navigate her fights or arguments with friends without totally breaking down. It was a small victory the other day when I heard her and a friend arguing about something. (My daughter says she's going to ballet school in England when she grows up). Her friend told her she couldn't do that and she said she could and this kind of thing can go on and on until one of them is screaming and in tears. It was a small victory when she repeated something I had told her: "Well, we'll have to agree to disagree." And that ended the argument--PHEW!

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