Helping Kids Handle Conflict Resolution with Peers
I just went to the fair with my best friend. We played a game and I won! So for a prize we got two goldfishes! When we got home we decided what fish we were going to bring home, but she wanted to bring both! But I won them. She said she gets to bring both because she has more fish food! What should I do? Write back soon. —Ashlyn, age 10
It can be tough for parents to watch their children navigate friendship problems. For many parents, it is all too tempting to intervene. But is stepping in the right move to make? Or should parents stay on the sidelines as their children experience conflicts with their friends?
“It really depends on what the problem is,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting and resiliency expert, told Highlights. “It’s important to remember that most friends are for practice and not for forever. As parents we should treat these relationships like what they are — meaningful opportunities for learning and conversation and growth and fun.”
For many conflicts among childhood friends, parents should stay on the sidelines, Gilboa advised. But she noted one key exception: Parents must step in if their child is being harmed emotionally or physically.
“Is what is happening in the relationship actually dangerous to your child?” Gilboa said. “If it’s dangerous, then yes, we have to intervene.”
What’s perceived as dangerous might vary from person to person, but Gilboa said parents should look out for certain behaviors when children are fighting. She advised intervening when there is:
- Children encouraging your child to do risky things, such as using drugs or stealing
- Children telling your child to die or that the world would be better off without them
- Assault or abuse
For many parents, a wait-and-see approach can feel tough, but it’s important to remember that children need to learn how to navigate friendship problems. That way they’ll know how to handle relationship conflicts and how to handle confrontation themselves when they’re older.
“We see anybody being jerky to our children and our instinct is to be like, ‘Oh no you didn’t, and oh no you won’t,’” Gilboa said. “What we have to remember is that the purpose of that friend in our kid’s life is for them to learn from. When we look at it through that lens, it becomes a little easier to use it as a teaching tool and not to jump in and try to protect our child.”
How to intervene when your child has a serious conflict
When parents know that their child is experiencing a dangerous conflict with a friend or classmate, intervening is warranted. Gilboa cautioned parents against talking to the other child.
“In our society, you don’t really get to parent other people’s kids,” she said. “It’s really not acceptable.”
There is an exception: If a child is being rude or disrespectful in your family’s home, the parents can speak up.
“Then you absolutely get to say, ‘Hey, we don’t speak to other people like that in this house. That’s a house rule,’” she said.
Concerned parents should talk to the other child’s parents about any dangerous disagreements between the children.
“It may or may not work to intervene with adults,” Gilboa said. “But you don’t really get to intervene with a kid.”
How to support a child who is having friendship problems
Whether talking to the other child’s parents works or not, parents should support their children as they grapple with friendship challenges.
“The biggest thing, really, is listening to what’s happening to them and believing that this is how they see the experience,” Gilboa said. “I don’t mean to say that kids never tell us things that aren’t true or they never get the situation wrong. (But) we really damage our kids when we tell them that their experience isn’t valid, that their feelings aren’t valid.”
Another way parents can help their children is by believing in them.
“Show faith in them as problem solvers,” Gilboa said. “We can ask, ‘What have you done to try and work on this that hasn’t worked? Have you ever done anything that has worked? What kind of help do you need?’”