Friendly Arguments

Keeping the peace: Here's a Q&A about friends fighting, and your role in your child's social battles.

Can you do more than watch when
your child argues with a friend?

Q: Is there a stage at which children are most likely to fight with each other?

A: Conflicts between children begin to increase during middle childhood (ages 6 through 10) as kids work out their "pecking order." Conflicts may appear to be about what to play and with whom. But the real issue is dominance: who leads and who follows.

During the preteen and early adolescent years, the issues are loyalty and group membership -- who is "in" and who is "out." The pain of betrayal and exclusion makes these difficult times for many children. Thankfully, these years are fairly short-lived. By mid-adolescence, most of the insecurities that fuel such problems are gone.

Q: What should parents do, or not do, when kids quarrel?

A: For the most part, you should stay out of conflicts between children. Letting kids resolve their own problems gives them the opportunity to learn effective conflict resolution skills. After all, these skills are ultimately learned by trial and error.

Are there times when parents need to get involved, such as when a child is being treated unfairly? Yes, if a child's physical safety is at risk, adults should step in. However, just because a child is being treated unfairly is no excuse for adults to get involved. Given time, children will usually work these problems out by themselves. Adult intervention, as well-intentioned as it might be, is likely to cause the "victim" even greater problems later, such as being teased.

Q: My 9-year-old daughter always gives in during conflicts with friends. It bothers me that she isn't more assertive. Is there anything I can do to help her improve her self-esteem?

A: Is she complaining about the outcome of these conflicts, or are you? If she isn't, then there's not much you can do. Her temperament may simply be more passive than assertive, and nothing's wrong with that.

Don't confuse a lack of assertiveness with low self-esteem, either, because they aren't the same. Your daughter may be quite comfortable with who she is, in which case her self-esteem is just fine. Lower self esteem might result, however, if she feels you don't approve of how she handles conflict with her friends. If she is complaining, then you can encourage her to stand up for herself, offering your suggestions on how to handle it.

Q: My 7-year-old son often comes to me complaining about the way his friends are treating him. How should I respond?

A: In discussing these problems with him, focus on three areas: First, what he did that helped create the problem; second, what he could have done to prevent it; and third, what he could have done to solve it without coming to you. The message is, "These are your problems, with your friends. You created them so you should solve them."

Sometimes, a bit more "force" is needed to help children accept responsibility for their part in the relationship breakdown. Try asking your child how he'd feel in his friend's shoes and what he might want the friend to do if the tables were turned. Or, if you feel strongly that your child did something wrong, you might invite the friend over and help the two of them work things out.