War Zone Mediation

Q: I used to view myself as a pretty calm person and not particularly high strung. But after having children, I sometimes feel that I’m in a war zone. With boys particularly, it can get very intense.Being a referee and remembering all the details of the various arguments is challenging — especially when I’m trying to make supper and deal with homework. It is difficult to figure out who started the fight,who is overreacting, who just wants my attention, etc. The hardest for me is when one child bullies the other. Two minutes later, the victim becomes the bully!

What’s a good way to approach these fights?

A: A parent needs to approach family relationships realistically. If you believe that life at home would be conflict-free if you just had the right “ingredients,” this is faulty thinking. And it is a set-up for continually feeling that you’re not good enough as a parent. Living with siblings can be viewed as a stage rehearsal for real life. At home, we learn to problem-solve, negotiate, deal with power struggles and give the benefit of the doubt. This trial-and-error process is first experienced in one’s home.

In truth, no child “starts” a fight. It’s usually a continuation of something that one child was upset about — be it a half hour ago or two days ago. One sibling might not have allowed another to participate in a board game. Two siblings could have been telling secrets and the third assumed that he was the topic of discussion. Such occurrences among brothers and sisters cause underlying annoyances that can grow into a continual cycle of conflict. Thus, trying to figure out who started the fight is of little importance.

The negative cycles can be broken most readily by taking preventive action. Positive-reinforcement charts and rewards is one avenue to promote peace. If one child, indeed, desires attention from you, these rewards are a way for him to receive the attention in a positive way. Charts can be for “Shalom Seekers” or “Ahavas Yisrael Achievers,” and they avoid putting blame on any particular child.

If children work on going to an amusement park as a goal, or eating out in a restaurant, a group project and constructive family effort is created. This is not to say that problematic behavior is not addressed. Consequences of actions need to be administered to family members when necessary; children need to know that they cannot victimize siblings. However, creating positive communication patterns among siblings is a more global yet necessary element to family life.

Another preventive method is attempting to problem-solve recurring negative familial scenarios in advance. If you feel that many quarrels are due to children being bored, tired or hungry, what solutions can you come up with to avoid these situations? Review in your mind some of the usual conflicts and try to come up with some different responses to them. “Practice” non-emotional responses to children who are, in your opinion, overly-dramatic.

Another idea is to use humor to break the intensity of an argument — as long as you are sensitive to those involved. You might try “talking” to an inanimate object in order to decrease power struggles, such as “talking” to the toy that they are fighting over.

Sometimes listening to both sides of an argument is necessary, as family members need to feel heard.Saying that you are “curious” to better understand the situation or a “little confused” will open the door to communication. This is nonjudgmental wording, and no one will feel that you are taking sides in the conflict.However, if it is the same ongoing arguments that you are hearing, then more global family projects, as mentioned above, are often most effective.

In general, it is most helpful to stay calm and be a role model for family members. The importance of learning to compromise cannot be overestimated. The more that your children see you and your spouse compromise on issues, the easier your job will be in minimizing family conflicts.