By Ehrin Weiss, Ph.D.
“Johnny is so mean to Janie. It seems like every time I turn around he’s pushing her or calling her names. He’s such a bully! I just don’t know what to do!” This scenario is a common one in my office. One of the biggest questions parents ask is when to get involved in their children’s squabbles. Parents seem to fall into one of two camps on this topic. Some people believe they should almost never get involved and just let children work their problems out themselves. These parents intervene only if there is risk of serious physical injury to one or both children. Other parents jump right in to solve their children’s problems. Who’s right?
Both. And neither. Although children may be able to work things out themselves, and learning to do so is important, parents who completely stay out of their children’s conflicts miss a valuable opportunity to help their children learn appropriate conflict resolution skills. So do the parents who jump right in and solve their children’s problems for them. Parents who stay out of it bear the added risk that one of their children will suffer serious emotional, if not physical, damage at the hands of the other.
What can parents do?
Most parents have a tendency to ignore the behaviors they want to see from their children and focus on the problem behaviors. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense; our brains are wired to ignore what is expected and notice what is wrong or different in any given situation. The problem is that attention is reinforcing. If it seems like your child is looking for attention and doesn’t care if it’s good attention or bad attention, you’re probably right. If you give attention to negative behaviors, you will see more negative behaviors. Meanwhile, positive behaviors will decrease because they are being ignored.
The trick is to start giving attention to the behaviors that you want to see increase. If Mom ignores Johnnie and Janie while they are playing nicely together, but steps in as soon as there is an argument, arguing will increase. If Mom wants Johnnie and Janie to get along better, she should make a habit of giving attention to them when they are being nice to one another. In the example above, Mom could stop by while they are getting along, smile, and say, “Wow! You two are playing so nicely together! It looks like you’re having a lot of fun. Keep up the good work!”
While increasing attention for positive behaviors and decreasing attention to negative behaviors is the key to changing a child’s behavior, this is easier said than done. It helps to take a very systematic approach to rewards and consequences. Parents may want to keep a private tally of how many times per day they can praise their child for being nice to their sibling or award children points (along with praise) for getting along with one another during certain time periods. Points can then be turned in for rewards (like dessert after dinner or playing a game together as a family). If points are used, it’s important to keep using verbal praise and encouragement as well. Over time, as the children’s relationship improves, points will be less important and can be discontinued.
Why use rewards at all? Some kids need a little extra encouragement to motivate them. The more a behavior occurs, the more the brain gets wired to continue that behavior, and the more likely it is to keep occurring. Rewards can help get that ball rolling so that positive behavioral habits can be developed. Positive attention keeps the ball rolling after the rewards are discontinued.
So what do you do when children do argue? When should a parent step in? You don’t have to wait for someone to get injured to get involved. In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t. If you see your children arguing, or one child being cruel to the other, it’s okay to step in and talk to them about it. For arguments, you can mediate by asking each child to share their side of the story and what they would like to see happen, then teach them how to compromise by generating several possible solutions, choosing one together, and trying it out to see how it works. If one child is being cruel to the other, you can ask them what is going on (e.g., Were they upset about something? Was there something they wanted?), how they think the other child felt when they acted the way they did, and how they could have handled it differently. Then practice having them act in the more appropriate way you just discussed, and praise them for the appropriate behavior (this last step is very important).
What about consequences?
If a child is behaving inappropriately, there should be consequences for those actions. In order for appropriate behaviors to take the place of inappropriate behaviors, the appropriate behaviors will need to be reinforced through praise and practice. Consequences alone will not solve the problem, and not every inappropriate behavior warrants a consequence. However, hurtful actions such as physical aggression (e.g., hitting, kicking, pushing) and verbal aggression (name-calling, especially if there is a name that is particularly hurtful), do warrant a consequence.
When negative behaviors persist, the consequences should be immediate and mild. While there is often temptation to make the punishment “fit the crime,” research repeatedly demonstrates that this is not necessary, and can make the problem worse. Mild punishments include time-outs of 5-8 minutes, loss of a privilege for the remainder of the day (no longer), assignment of chores for 10-20 minutes, and making amends (e.g., an apology letter or paying for damage). Hitting your child or calling them names out of anger or to “show them how it feels” will only show them that these are acceptable ways of handling problems.
Does it matter who started it?
Janie cries, “Mom! Johnny hit me!” Johnny replies, “She started it! She wouldn’t stop bugging me!” Mom didn’t see the interaction. She’s sick of Johnny hitting Janie, but doesn’t want to look like she’s playing favorites. She knows that Janie has a tendency to antagonize Johnny, but she doesn’t want Johnny to think hitting is okay. When consequences are given based on who started it, you may see an increase in fighting (and tattling). Of course if you see one of your children randomly hitting the other or calling them names without provocation, it makes sense to punish the offending child. In that case, an immediate mild punishment such as a five-minute time-out or loss of a privilege for the remainder of the day is warranted for the offending child.
For interactions that occur out of parents’ eyesight and earshot, I recommend a combined reward and consequence program where both children are either rewarded for appropriate behavior or given consequences for inappropriate behavior. Try to be open to discussing solutions with your children for problems that arise between them without assigning consequences for behavior that you have not seen or heard yourself. This will also help them learn the difference between “tattling” (telling on someone to get them in trouble) and “telling” (trying to get help).
Even if one of your children is always attacking the other in some way, try to avoid labeling him or her as a “bully” and the other as the “victim.” These labels will serve only to hurt both children in the end. Instead, try to keep your focus on the behavior, why it’s right or wrong, and what can be done differently to improve it. Help your children to generate and evaluate these solutions themselves instead of solving the problems for them (it is okay to add suggestions for solutions as long as you don’t just tell them what to do). This will help to empower your children to handle difficult situations themselves in the future.
It’s hard to see one of your children get hurt by another other. The good news is that you have a lot more power to improve the situation when both children involved are yours than if one of your children was being hurt by a peer at school. If you continue to struggle with your child’s behavior, seek professional help. The sooner you can change negative behavior patterns, the less ingrained they become.
Ehrin Weiss, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist at Houston Family Psychology (www.houstonfamilypsychology.com) specializing in child, adolescent, and adult psychology.