Helping Kids Deal with Arguments

The start of the school year is the beginning of many learning experiences for children of all ages — including how to handle disagreements. Here’s some advice from Parents’ Magazine on how to teach children positive ways to resolve arguments.

Brothers bickering over blocks. Sisters arguing about the seating arrangement. Friends fighting over broken promises. Disagreements are natural part of life, but kids aren’t born with the tools to effectively handle conflict. “Kids fight over many of the same things adults do, but with more raw intensity,” says Peter Coleman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and education, and director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York City. “They fight over ownership of stuff, over envy and jealousy, over status and pecking order — particularly when close in age — over disappointed expectations in their relationship, over perceived incidents of unfairness or injustice, and because they are tired or bored and just feel like fighting.” The key is finding out the true source of the conflict. Is the argument really about Legos, or about how one sibling feels like he has no private space to play? Is it really about the sweater the friend borrowed and hasn’t returned yet, or about jealousy over a newer friend taking her time?

Though you might be surprised to hear it, arguing actually does have benefits. For example, arguing highlights the fact that there is a problem to be solved — often a problem unrelated to the current argument, explains Ross W. Greene, Ph.D, director of Lives In the Balance in Portland, Maine and author of The Explosive Child. Arguments are vital to developing and honing our social skills. “Family is our first society, the first institution we are exposed to with rivals and allies and rules and regulations. Then comes school and our peers. These settings naturally present us with conflicts, big and small, and it is through our engagement with these disputes that we learn about ourselves, others, authority, group life, and the costs and consequences of our actions,” Dr. Coleman says. “The issue is how we engage in the conflicts we face, in ways that make them worse or better, and whether or not we learn from these encounters.” Arguments can give clues that a problem exists and they provide an opportunity for us to help develop a child’s problem-solving skills.

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