We have all had times when our children come home from school, upset because of a disagreement they have had with a friend. Our immediate reaction, once they have told us about the awful things that this friend has said or done, is to want to call that friend’s parents to make sure he/she is told off and doesn’t do it again. But is this really the best thing to do? In many cases, what actually happens is that the other child’s parents feel offended, as if their child was being accused of some kind of bullying, so it ends up being a dispute between the parents rather than the children.
Instead of rushing in to settle our children's disputes, it is more advisable to leave it to them to work out, since it will teach them valuable life-skills such as problem-solving and social skills. We must remember that disagreements are a part of life, and we won’t always be there to rescue our kids from them. In order for them to be able to defend their rights adequately at school, university, work, or in future relationships, our children first have to learn to develop these skills. It is precisely through these disagreements where they will learn to do so, realising that people react in different ways from us, and that different ways of expressing ourselves have different consequences. Therefore, if instead of allowing them to put these skills into practice and we do it for them, they will always be awkward in any other future disagreements, expecting others to intervene for them. This will undoubtedly affect their self-esteem, since they will perceive themselves as dependent and incompetent. So, what can we do to help them in these situations?
The first step is actually to listen to our children. This seems pretty obvious, but it doesn’t only imply nodding and validating their feelings, it also means understanding what it is that has actually bothered them. Sometimes, it turns out that what for us seems the most offensive attitude isn’t really what has set them off. For instance, if your child tells you that he asked his best friend to play this new game that he had just invented, and that his friend instead went off to play with someone else, what might seem hurtful for us (preferring to play with someone else) might not be what has offended him (not being thrilled by his new game).
After listening to your child, the next step is to prompt him to see his friend’s point of view. Ask him why he thinks that he might be behaving in this way, or what might have upset him. In addition, ask your child if he can remember any time that he has felt like that, encouraging him to be empathetic.
Lastly, help your child come up with a solution based on mutual respect. Here it is very important to teach your child to be flexible and diplomatic. Most times, the best alternative will be to come up with a compromise where both of them will have to give in to some extent in order for both of them to be happy. Other times, if it is a situation where your child feels hurt because of something his friend has said or done, the solution might simply be to help him express his feelings, rehearsing how he will tell his friend how he has felt without being defensive or blaming the other person. However, other times the solution might actually be to teach your child to admit his mistakes and how to apologise to his friend for having overreacted.
In conclusion, although it can be really hard as a parent not to get too involved in our children’s disagreements, it is essential that they learn to deal with these situations themselves, since having parents do it for them takes away the chance for them to experience the satisfaction of having resolved the situation successfully. Just think about how gratifying it is to make peace with your friend after an argument! As Carl Whitaker explained: “Conflict should rightly be considered the fertiliser for life. While it is not always fragrant, it is crucial for optimal growth”.