I was working at my son's school today and a very familiar scene unfolded. One child, let's call her Emily, was in the playhouse cooking and busy. Another child, let's call her Tasha, wanted to come in. As Tasha came in, Emily (seemingly unprompted) yelled, "NO!" and threw sand in her face. I came onto the scene noticing the sand all over Tasha's face and her mother helping her clean it off. After letting me know what happened I was so impressed and proud of Tasha's mother because she managed to stay calm during a very stressful situation. She also managed to curb her initial reactions, "You're being mean!" and "Don't do that." "You get a time-out." We all get overcome with stress and anger at the sight of our child getting hurt, especially when your child so obviously did not deserve that treatment. I felt so proud of the amount of restraint I witnessed from this mother by not acting on those impulses. It gave us time to discuss and think about the best way to prevent and react to these situations. Below are things to consider when conflict surfaces between children.
It is our job as the adult in charge to prevent injury and keep children safe. We prevent by blocking a hit or kick, getting in between children who are escalating, taking a toy that's about to get thrown, or removing children who need extra support.
Tune In To Tension and Moodiness, Then Encourage Regulation
Keep an eye on children who are starting to become grumpy, they might need
time to read quietly alone
When children are grumpy, hungry, hot, tired, etc. they are more likely to lash out with hitting, kicking, pushing, and yelling. We can prevent them from escalating to this point by tuning in to their needs and moods then helping them meet those needs. Some other ideas to help children feel calm include:
Swinging- The swinging motion can be very relaxing and help the nervous system calm and reset.
Water play- Water can be very calming and engross us in our senses, helping us to feel calm and in the moment.
Different toys and people- Sometimes a change of environment is needed if they are unable to be successful where they are. If they are having a hard time outside try moving them inside or vice-versa.
Be a Moderator
Try your best not to assign blame or take sides. It's so hard, but if you can manage to stay neutral and non-judgmental the fighting and aggression will actually go away faster. It works because then the "aggressor" doesn't feel like the "bad kid" and get upset that their friend got them into trouble (which only makes them want to hurt them more and seek revenge) It also prevents the "victim" from feeling justified in seeking revenge too. It gives them a pass to think, "See! Even this grown-up thinks you're bad, you deserve a punishment. I'm going to hit you back." This is why it's so important to stay neutral and non-judgmental. Assigning blame does not teach appropriate behavior, empathy, or kindness. Assigning blame creates resentment and more aggression.
So you're not going to assign blame or take sides, what will you do? Try these steps well before any sand gets thrown:
Say what you see. "Emily looks like you're playing and don't want to be interrupted. Tasha, I heard you say you want to come in here."
Help the kids see everyone's point of view. "Tasha, Emily said she wants to be alone. Emily, Tasha said she wants to come in here."
Give lots of time for kids to come up with a solution. "Hmmm, what can we do about this?" Then proceed to wait quietly while they think up an answer.
Encourage Empathy and Making Amends
Sometimes our prevention and efforts to tune in to children's needs don't always work. It happens, it's okay. If someone gets hurt give that person attention. "Oh Tasha, I'm so sorry you got hurt. Are you okay? Do you need an ice pack?" With loving attention on the hurt person, you're teaching the "aggressor" to treat people in a loving way. You're pointing out that their friend is hurt and needs something to feel better. You're showing them how to help people feel better after they have made a mistake. Try to trust that eventually, they will grow to do the same. We trust them because we know humans are born with the ability to connect, empathize, and be part of a group. The need for connection and friendship is strong. They will learn these skills to keep those things around.
Use Play To Practice Skill Building
You can encourage and practice some skills through play. It's okay to talk about and practice these things, it's not okay to expect it consistently and demand mastery. This is because their brains are still developing and they won't be able to attain mastery until around 7 or 8 years old.
Let's say you have a child who constantly hits when people get too close. You've done your part to stay on top of hunger, tiredness, and moderating conflict but it's still not working. After those things have been addressed you can start reading books and doing puppet shows about gentle hands.
You can have one puppet feeling stressed and needing space while the other puppet is close and wants to play. Then you show the stressed puppet saying, "I need space please." and the other puppet saying, "Thanks for letting me know, I can back up. Want to play together?" Also, it's good to give the stressed child some perspective about what the other child wants and needs. "I just want to play with you." or "I like watching you play with that cool car." or "I want a turn when you're done please."
Often, kids feel threatened by others near them because they think they will have to share, their work will get ruined, or they will have to stop what they are doing. Assure them that their needs matter and they can assert themselves to have their needs met. Last, assure them that most of the time, other kids want to play and have fun just like them.
Conflict and fighting can be one of the hardest things to manage with young children. It is hard to stay calm and know what to do in each moment. Through practice and a lot of grace for yourself and your child, you will learn to prevent, tune in closely for unmet needs, moderate disagreements, encourage empathy, and practice skill-building.