"My child seems to fight a lot with her friends. How can I help her?"
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
As parents, it is painful to watch our children suffer hurt, rejection, and isolation when they fight with their friends. However, this too seems to be a part of the growing-up experience. Even though children seem to suffer terribly when they fight, they usually get over the pain much more quickly than adults do. It is a mistake for parents to think they should protect their children from experiencing problems in life. Instead of playing the rescuer, parents can help their children more by being observers, listeners, coaches, and cheerleaders. In this way, children learn they can deal with life experiences in productive ways or that they can simply deal with the pain and that it goes away when they get on with their lives.
We are talking about normal life experiences, not pain inflicted by abnormal experiences or safety issues, such as sexual abuse, gangs, bullies, or racism. There is a difference between friends fighting and our children becoming victimized and powerless. If the latter is occurring, parents need to take a very active role in getting outside help and/or helping children cope with a situation that may be beyond their ability to manage safely.
- Be empathetic and listen without trying to rescue your child or solve the problem.
- Show faith in your child. "Honey, I know this hurts, but I know that you can deal with it somehow."
- Offer support. "Let me know if you need a sounding board or if you want any suggestions. My suggestions will be just brainstorm ideas. You can decide if any would work for you."
- Don't treat your child like a victim, or he will learn to think of himself as a victim.
- When your child doesn't want to see or play with a friend, support her in that decision and don't push her to make up. If your child decides to cut off a relationship with a friend, trust her. She may have very good reasons why she doesn't want to play with that friend anymore (see Friends, Choosing).
- If you have more than one child, don't expect friends to like playing with all of the children. It is important that each child be allowed to make and maintain separate friendships and play uninterrupted by siblings, if that is his or her preference.
- Know that it is normal for many boys aged ten and up to roughhouse and "mock" fight with their friends. Don't exaggerate and assume this means your child will grow up to be a violent adult.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
- Share information about accountability without blame. "When we look at what we might have done to create a situation, we have the power to change our part if we want to. Knowing that you and your friend are each totally responsible for what happened, can you think of what you might have done to create the problem?"
- Share your own stories of childhood fights-what happened and how you felt.
- While tucking your children in bed at night, ask about their saddest and happiest times of the day. They will know they can share their experiences-both happy and sad-with you.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that they have the courage and confidence to deal with painful experiences in life. They can take responsibility for their part in creating the pain and can choose to make changes. It is nice to have someone who can listen without rescuing or blaming them. In the case of safety issues, children will learn that you are there to make sure they have the help they need.
- Accept that fights among friends are normal and view them as a necessary part of your child's experiences. Know that the conflict will pass, usually in less time than you think. Children usually finish a fight much quicker if adults stay uninvolved.
- Remember that children, like adults, often need a sounding board more than they need solutions imposed on them.
- Keep in mind that there is a difference between normal fighting and safety issues or violence against a person, and adjust your role appropriately.
We frequently talk with parents who are worried that their children don't have enough friends. Often when kids are in the sixth through the eighth grade, they go through a change in friends. When we talk with the kids, we learn that sometimes they don't want to hang out with their old friends because they've started using drugs. They don't want to tell their parents the reason because they are loyal to the old friends and don't want to get them in trouble with their parents. They resent being pushed to hang out with kids they no longer enjoy or respect. They wish their parents would back off and trust their judgment. Often the kids they have broken with have a polished public image saved for parents but in private act out and are rebellious.