Between homeschooling and trying to stay healthy (both mentally and physically) these are trying times – add our kids’ incessant fighting into the mix, and it’s enough to drive a parent crazy.
While it’s important to remember that fighting doesn’t need to be feared or avoided and healthy conflict is just that – healthy – it can cause stress for the whole family.
Thankfully, clinical psychotherapist Julie Sweet of Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy says there are some ways to avoid or, at the very least, reduce the constant bickering.
But first, it’s important to know what’s causing it.
Identifying the cause
“If your children are fighting over anything and everything, it could be due to a number of underlying causes,” says Julie. “Overwhelm, perceived unfairness, attempts to assert themselves, irritability, competing for attention and testing boundaries are just a few reasons your children might be fighting. In the current climate, physical proximity to a sibling is a common cause.”
Other possible causes include feeling flooded, disempowerment, tiredness,dietary requirements, internal or external change, development, sleep deprivation and moodiness. And honestly, the list goes on.
When it comes to identifying the exact cause, Julie knows that parents can’t read minds. How do we know if and when we are getting on each other’s nerves, or in each other’s way?
We need to be told – and the same can be said when it comes to our children.
“Assumptions are never a good place to start when approaching kids, so simply check in and ask what’s up,” says Julie. “Let them know you’re sensing that something may be frustrating them, and that you wanted to ask them as opposed to guessing and getting it wrong. Naturally, it’s best to use age appropriate language and sound bites instead of long winded closed questions – short, succinct open questions are preferable.”
Strengthening this connection between you and your child can provide a secure functioning relationship and positive reinforcement, helping them feel validated and understood.
Addressing the issue
“Parents can generally follow two primary pathways when disputes erupt between children,” says Julie. “They either choose to allow the children to attempt to resolve the issues between them, or they intervene and attempt to remove the issues themselves.”
Each pathway offers an opportunity to teach your children invaluable lessons, Julie says. Whether you allow your kids to try to sort through their own differences or you place yourself in the middle to reach a resolution, it is a rich opportunity for your children to learn empathy, compromise, triggers, mindfulness, apologising, taking responsibility for their actions and behavioural change.
A wonderful technique to use when tensions rise, or whenever you feel angst, is to simply name it there and then – and try to get the kids to do the same.
“‘Monkey see, monkey do’,” says Julie. “Research shows when we shed light on the issue at hand immediately, and demonstrate emotional intelligence by talking about our triggers, we fair better than when we suppress our emotions and feelings.
This New York Times article illustrates it perfectly, saying ‘For sibling battles, be a sportscaster, not a referee’. Turn each fight into a learning opportunity by describing what is happening and encouraging your children to do the same.
On the other hand, Julie says that, in her clinical opinion, one thing parents shouldn’t do when their children fight is discipline them physically.
“Research shows that children being hit for poor behaviour has similar effects to physical abuse,” says Julie. “Furthermore, children that are physically punished or smacked are more likely to become increasingly aggressive and show antisocial behaviour as a result.
“If parents feel limited in their capacity or ever reach breaking point, they need a village they can lean on, a collective network, as well as also utilising support services to up-skill and acquire tools in enabling them to implement alternative discipline techniques.”
Julie emphasises the fact that most parents are doing the absolute best they can with what they have. As the saying goes, ‘The good enough parent is the best parent.’
“The ultimate goal is to teach our kids how to identify what they’re feeling – even if they’re upset or feeling angry,” says Julie. “Kids want to be seen, and they want to be believed. After all, a burden shared becomes a lighter load to carry, so your kids sharing how they feel with you is a win, win for both of you. In the long run it will build their resilience and emotional agility.”
It’s all about boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
“Boundaries not only provide safety and security, but they give each couple a roadmap and children a stable environment,” says Julie. “Having boundaries is the one thing that is within your control – especially in this seemingly out of control new climate – and once implemented, can create calm, routine and predictability.”
Julie emphasises the importance of having an open discussion with your partner around the new territory your family is entering. The landscape is changing, and with that, so too will your relationship and parenting style.
“Put your cards on the table and communicate clearly,” says Julie. “A wonderful tool to use is simply state how you ‘feel’ and what you ‘need’ and, if you’re a great communicator, you can even insert a real time example in between. This allows you to be specific and not generalise.”
Talking about the changes and possible challenges ahead and ensuring you’re both on the same page will help you create a cohesive parenting approach, and your kids will respond to this.
“They are acutely aware when their parents aren’t aligned,” says Julie.
Strive for open family communication – identify your needs, establish your expectations and try to reflect back what your partner or children have expressed.
“This reflective practice can take some getting used to and test your patience, but it’s worth it,” says Julie. “It will not only provide you all with clarity, but will also enable you to create and maintain firm boundaries with one another.”
Julie also suggests trying new activities during self-isolation that you might not ordinarily do, like camping outside in the backyard, cooking, card and board games, dance-offs, at-home yoga and exercise and FaceTime with friends and extended family.
“Some clients have recently told me that they’ve cherished self isolating with their families and love spending so much quality time with their children,” says Julie. “I had one dad go as far to say that when restrictions subside, he hopes things don’t return to ‘normal’ because he doesn’t want to lose the deeper connections he’s formed with his family unit.”