I recently talked with a mother that was beside herself with frustration because her six and eight year old children were always teasing each other. It seemed like they couldn’t resolve any of their disagreements and problems. They needed some direction. However, she found it irritating when she struggled to help them resolve the same issues over and over again. Each time she tried to tell them how to resolve a problem, they turned down the listening and turned up the defiance. Not to mention, someone was always unhappy or ended up angry at her when she imposed her solution. Things didn’t seem to be getting better and she found herself getting more negatively involved and more angry with each problem.
So… I told her to stop solving the problem. This is one of those times when it just might be best to do nothing. She said, “What? I should just let them go at it?” Of course, if one or both of them are truly in physical harm, we don’t just allow them to beat each other to a pulp. However, I’ve found on multiple occasions that when I simply remind and give them opportunity to “work it out,” they often find creative solutions. This only works if they have been given the tools to solve the problems beforehand. If the argument escalates above a level that is reasonable or safe, you may need to separate the children or remove the item of disagreement. You can then remind them that they are free to have the item back or continue to play together as soon as they have found a solution. By doing this the solution to the conflict is still their responsibility and the consequence (separation or removing the toy) is not indefinite but is directly related to their collaborative problem solving.
The trick is to address the problem and teach problem solving tools during the good times and in a non-threatening way. I shared with this mother above a few simple words that can help kids to get on board with addressing conflicts in an “us vs. the world” way. We can then encourage self discovery and learning by asking the right questions to let them come up with their own solutions.
When your children find their own solutions, they are much more likely to apply those solutions when problems arise.
2 Words that turn destructive accusation into constructive observation
I’ve noticed… These two magic words release the child from blame and shame and put them in a listening and cooperative mindset. Instead of saying, “You and your brother are always fighting over those silly legos” we can say, “I’ve noticed that you guys haven’t been feeling like things are fair when you’re playing legos.
Once you’ve got their attention and they are interested in breaching “problem territory,” the best way to proceed to find things that work for them is to ask questions rather than give advice. I’ve found that the following five questions are valuable inquiries that not only include them in the process and get them to buy in to the plan, but these questions teach built in, true, positive principles of problem solving and decision making.
Questions to Encourage Problem Solving
1. What do you think is the issue/problem? This question helps them express their point of view and identify the problem as they understand it. Great follow up questions to ask when discussing the issue include, “How do you guys feel about all of that? What don’t you like about it? Would you like to change things?”
2. What are your options? This question encourages brainstorming and helps them explore pros and cons and various options and choices. Make this fun, let them lead the brainstorming and be as creative as they want to be.
3. What do you think you should do or What do you think you can do about it? This question promotes personal responsibility and gives them the opportunity to take ownership of solutions that they think will work for them.
4. What would you like me to do to help you? This question allows them to again take the lead in the problem solving but allows you to show interest and willingness to help without taking over. It’s amazing the things kids ask parents to do to help.
5. How do you think that will end up? This question fosters and exercises their ability to anticipate consequences and think less impulsively.
Will these things eradicate all sibling conflict from your home? Of course not. Will the kids’ solutions always work? Probably not, but you might be surprised at their ability to find solutions that are custom tailored to them and they will work more effectively than the alternative. This process will also teach them valuable skills that will grow with them as they mature. Using the observation words “I’ve noticed” and asking questions during the good times rather than lecturing encourages healthy problem solving while also continuing to build the parent/child relationship.
Question: What problems are hardest for you to let your kids solve on their own?
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