Managing conflict between children
Elisa Ng, mother of three
3 minutes
Elisa Ng, mother of three

Photo taken in collaboration with Larry Toh, featuring one of our ParentWise families

The photo that sits on my work desk is one of the boys when they were under seven, heads together and arms around each other.

Growing up, they did not need friends – they had each other. They played with one another at home, in the car, when we ate out and when we walked home. Millions of words were exchanged and we were never free from the happy chattering of children.

Of course, they fought over many things too and were in turn guilty of bullying each other. Helping them patch up involved different combinations of talking to each one of them, getting them to talk to each other, self-reflection, apologising, and hugging one another.

Since they were young, I've always employed this three-step strategy: distract, debrief, develop.

1. Distract to diffuse

First, I "distract" because nothing good can come out of a heated moment – one will demand immediate apology and the other will stubbornly insist he did nothing wrong.

These strategic distractions can come in the form of a new activity or a question unrelated to the incident. When our brain is asked a question, it goes into full engagement mode to give an answer, and serotonin, which relaxes the body, is released. This immediately releases the body from the natural fight or flight mode.

2. Debrief to damage-control

Once that is successfully done, it is important to always move onto the second step of debriefing. How soon you decide to do it after the event depends on how ready the child is, and I always choose to do it separately, as each child would want to be heard and understood.

Start by listening and validating the child’s feelings. Once the child has finished sharing their side of the story, ask them several "perspective-building" questions, for example: "How do you think the other sibling felt?" or "What do you think was the other sibling’s motivations?" and "What is the right thing for the parent to do?"

I will then end with sharing my thoughts and plans for the reconciliation.

3. Develop the relationship to mend the divide

Finally, the sibling relationship needs to be developed from that point onwards. It could involve bringing the siblings together for an apology, an explanation, a hug, or all of the above.

Conflict is stressful and a good resolution will always bring a sense of relief, or even euphoria. So take advantage of that emotion and then send the children off to do something together to further develop their relationship after the divide is mended.

As my children grew older, their lives and interests slowly diverged.

I have watched as their love for each other waxes and wanes, depending on whether they had a bad day, had just lost a computer game, or whether one had said or done something to offend the other. Family time requires intentional planning because everyone has their own schedule and preferences on what to do and where to eat.

My boys' social circles continue to expand, and they no longer depend on each other as playmates. They have developed a stronger sense of self and their own opinions, and dinner conversations can be described as interesting and invigorating on one hand, but contentious and combative on the other.

Thankfully, the boys are maturing day by day, and although they still have their quarrels and cold wars, they have found their own way of patching up, and still have their fun and games. The years of validating and valuing each child, ensuring quick conflict resolution, and intentionally developing their relationship do pay off.

Elisa is a full-time working mother to three teenage boys. When with her children, she enjoys playing board games and watching videos. She writes occasionally about family and parenting on her blog.

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