How to Help Your Child Handle a Fight With Friends

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Kids fight with their friends. It's a normal part of friendship, and one they have to learn how to navigate. Whether between besties or casual friends, tears, tantrums, sadness, stubbornness, isolation, indignation, and hurt feelings are possible consequences of these conflicts. Some kids are naturally more skilled at managing, moving past, and avoiding these disagreements, while others seem to be magnets for more frequent and intense friend battles.

That said, most children, from toddlers to teens, may benefit from some help navigating these issues at one time or another. This is when parents can offer support and assist their children in developing effective relationship skills. However, it can be hard for parents to know when to step in, what support to offer, and when to stay out of their child's fight. Learn more about how to teach your kids to manage disagreements with their friends.

Why Kids Fight With Their Friends

Kids fight with their friends for many reasons, from misunderstandings to arguing over a toy to feeling left out to instances of bullying, says Andy Brimhall, Ph.D., LMFT, a marriage and family therapist with specialties in parenting, behavioral problems of children, and adolescents. These fights can be short-lived, episodic, big blowouts, or even end a friendship.

Emotions can run high and their reactions can be big, explains Dr. Brimhall. However, note that some kids will keep their feelings inside and/or have trouble establishing healthy boundaries in their relationships. Children of all ages, from toddlers to teens, vary in their ability to effectively handle these conflicts. And parents are often left wondering how to help—and may worry about why their child is fighting with their friends.

"It is absolutely common for kids to experience peer conflict," says Honora Einhorn, LICSW, MA, a licensed independent clinical social worker and behavioral therapist who specializes in working with children, adolescents, and families. In fact, these fights can actually be beneficial for your child by giving them a chance to practice their prosocial skills.

"Conflict supports children and youth in navigating differences, learning to manage and effectively communicate difficult emotions, developing moral frameworks, and overall building social skills and competency, including empathy," explains Einhorn, who is based in California and practices with the digital therapy platform Brightline.

Additionally, disagreements can be opportunities for your child to recognize their feelings, accurately communicate them, and express what they need, says Dr. Brimhall. These are all important socio-emotional skills to develop that will help your child navigate their relationships.

Still, these fights can cause a lot of emotional distress for the kids involved and are not always handled in a manner that gracefully resolves the conflict. This is where parents can offer guidance and step in, as needed.

General Guidelines for Offering Help

It's important to strike the right balance of helping and letting kids sort things out on their own, says Dr. Brimhall. Your approach will change as your child grows up. Still, just because your child may be older does not necessarily mean they won't need help.

It's important to keep an eye on your child's social relationships. Then, if and when blow-ups happen, you'll be there to provide the appropriate level of support, advises Dr. Brimhall. "Start with the two hallmarks of parenting: warmth and structure." Aim to be your child's emotions coach by acknowledging feelings, modeling calm, caring, listening behavior, reflecting together, and then working on finding solutions," suggests the Greenville, North Carolina-based therapist.

The challenge is often figuring out when to step in, what level of support to offer, and when to stay out of it altogether. If you jump in to resolve every conflict, then your child may not learn how to do this on their own, explains Dr. Brimhall. That said, kids will differ on the amount and type of help they need (or want), too, so you'll want to cater your support to what will work best for your child, as well as the specific situation they are facing.

In more egregious cases, it will usually be obvious when you need to get involved, like when hitting, biting, or namecalling is happening. Clearly, if a fight is physical or cruel, such as in the case of bullying, you'll want to intercede to ensure the emotional and physical safety of each child, says Dr. Brimhall.

"For any large blowouts, it is critically important that people are free from violent words or actions, so it may be the case that intervention by an adult is required earlier for safety," agrees Einhorn.

This is true whether your child is the aggressor or the recipient of the harmful behavior. Note, too, that sometimes both kids are engaging in unkind words or actions. After the behavior has been safely stopped, it's important to get to the bottom of what is happening and why—and to look for solutions to prevent it from occurring again.

Avoid being overly permissive (only focusing on feelings) or overly punitive or authoritarian (blaming, punishing, or taking over), advises Dr. Brimhall. Instead, aim for a middle ground of connecting, listening, offering guidance, and getting involved only to the level that's needed, says the therapist. Additionally, he recommends establishing prosocial family rules or values, such as the motto "we share and take turns," so that your child is familiar with expectations.

When an incident is mild or seems to be on track for a positive resolution, your intervention will likely be unneeded. However, other times, you may need to trust your gut and/or go on your child's preferences to know how much help to offer, says Dr. Brimhall.

Still, it's often helpful simply to provide a sounding board, a listening ear, a hug, or other gentle support for your child. They may want to talk out what happened, brainstorm solutions, need a distraction, or simply need to vent. Most importantly, let them know you're in their corner.

Age by Age Tips

The fights your child has with their friends are personal and unique to their specific relationship and circumstance. Some friendships will include lots of bickering or misunderstandings, others will have occasional spats or festering, unspoken hurts. There are also friends who rarely have any disagreements at all.

For the littlest kids, arguments may be about testing emerging skills, such as sharing and taking turns. Older kids are often navigating bigger issues like peer pressure, crossed signals, romantic interests, identity, self-esteem, surging hormones, mood swings, and egos.

However, while the specifics of your child's fights and ability to handle them independently will vary, there are common trends unique to each age and stage. Your approach to shepherding them through these conflicts will also adjust according to your child's maturity and individual relating and coping skills.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Generally, the younger the child, the more likely it is that fights will become physical or emotional—and that the parent will need to step in. These arguments, which sometimes escalate into tantrums, are a part of your child's developmentally appropriate learning of prosocial skills. Before stepping in, assuming no one is being hurt, give the kids a chance to work it out. If the fight intensifies rather than abates, it's time to step in to guide them to a resolution.

"Three to 4 year-olds are typically quite egocentric, have had fewer social interactions, and are not yet the best problem-solvers," explains Einhorn. Typically, toddlers and preschoolers argue over possessions, poor communication, taking turns, and lack of awareness or empathy for each other.

Each child's moods and personal needs—such as hunger, tiredness, needing to use the toilet, or other issues of comfort or feeling secure—may also play a role in their fights and in their ability to deal with them amicably. It is key for parents to help children verbalize their thoughts and feelings, says Einhorn.

"It's important for parents to understand that if their child has a tantrum while fighting with a friend, their emotions are past the point of no return. It's not the time for a teaching moment," says Dr. Brimhall. Instead, remove the child from the situation and focus on calming down. Later, once they are soothed, discuss what happened and strategies for next time.

"Model using words to assert themselves with practice dialogue in play," suggests Einhorn. Try using stuffed animals, puppets, or conversations with adults to practice these skills. "Help by describing their facial expressions (and maybe mirroring) and naming those feelings to support validation and recognition."

Einhorn also suggests such strategies as creating a feelings chart with a variety of facial expressions to teach how to recognize emotions (their own and those of their friend) and developing problem-solving skills by talking through the problem together and brainstorming possible solutions. You can also model a calm attitude as you offer support during fights and help them practice emerging skills like sharing during daily activities. Reading stories about resolving conflicts is also useful.

Elementary School-Age Kids

As kids advance from kindergarten to the upper elementary school grades, they become more adept problem-solvers but are still prone to conflict with their friends. However, instead of fighting over toys, their fights are more likely to center on misunderstandings or hurt feelings, such as being left out or made fun of.

"Elementary school-age kids are learning to master social rules, better able to understand cause and effect and the impact on others," explains Einhorn. They are also beginning to develop strong social relationships outside of their families alongside burgeoning self-esteem and personal identity—all potential areas where emotions may run high and create conflict.

These kids are more likely to be equipped to handle many of these disagreements on their own. "They are better able to grasp the situation in the moment and consider solutions," says Einhorn. So, when possible, hold off on intervening, unless your child seeks out your help or doesn't seem able to navigate the issue on their own. Either way, they may benefit from talking things through with their parent.

Parents can help by modeling effective language to use when resolving conflicts (such as "I feel" statements, rather than "you did" statements that may be heard as accusatory). Taking deep breaths and walking away if necessary to calm down are also good techniques to impart to your child. This approach can be taught using the stoplight strategy, suggests Einhorn.

"Ask your child to close their eyes and picture a stoplight," says Einhorn. "When the red light is on (too intense), they should take three deep breaths and think of something calming. When the light turns yellow, it’s time to evaluate the problem. Can they handle this on their own? Do they need adult help? Think of two problem-solving strategies that might work. When the light turns green, choose a strategy (ask for help, go outside and run around, work on a compromise) and give it a try."

Additionally, Einhorn recommends introducing the fundamental steps of problem-solving, known by therapists as ABCD:

  • A: Ask, "What is the problem?"
  • B: Brainstorm solutions
  • C: Choose a solution to try
  • D: Do it! 

It's also helpful to continue to practice naming emotions, modeling empathy, and brainstorming solutions at an age-appropriate level, says Einhorn, in order to continue to develop these important skills.

Tweens

The middle school years are well-known for awkwardness, social angst, big feelings, shifting social landscapes, and "drama" among friends. Puberty, early romantic relationships, school and family stress, and the pressure to fit in all may contribute to peer conflict. "Social relationships become more important as youth become more self-conscious and peer relationships feel more significant," explains Einhorn.

For this age group, Einhorn recommends teaching your child the principles of SOAR: Stop, Observe, Assess, Respond. This process involves the following steps.

Start with cooling off. Take a moment for emotion regulation by utilizing a calming strategy. Then, focus on sharing by listening, checking in, hearing both perspectives, and rating the intensity of the problem. Next, think about accountability. Take responsibility, if appropriate.

After that, move on to brainstorming to come up with possible solutions and compromises. Then, choose a solution to try. The final step is affirming the friendship by forgiving, apologizing, and/or thanking their friend for working to find a solution.

Teens

While high school kids often have more developed prosocial skills, the stakes of their peer conflicts are often higher and trickier to navigate. In high school, social and peer relationships are at the height of importance and social dynamics can change quickly. Teens are building a sense of self and identity, are often engaged in risk-taking and boundary-pushing behaviors, while also developing critical and abstract thinking skills, says Einhorn.

Fights often spring from shifting alliances, dating issues, changing interests, and miscommunication. Einhorn suggests the following strategies for helping your teen learn to effectively navigate their friendship conflicts.

Continue to work on building stronger communication and relationship skills by promoting openness, consideration, empathy, listening, self-reflection, self-improvement, and respect. Encourage your teen to discuss the conflict. However, aim to give them space to "talk it out" with their peer on their own. Model and practice compromise and negotiation.

Practice emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills, such as using coping skills like mindfulness, not bottling up negative emotions, and taking deep breaths. Reaffirm their ability to name, understand, communicate, and manage their emotions.

Support them in practicing perspective-taking (the idea that both perspectives matter) and building stronger communication skills and relationships. Ultimately, the goal is that your teen can work through most of their issues with their friends independently—but be there to offer support when desired or needed.

"Say, 'I'm here for you and can provide a sounding board if needed,' but trust in their ability to make good choices and handle the conflict on their own," advises Dr. Brimhall.

A Word From Verywell

It's expected that kids often fight with friends. Learning to handle these disagreements gracefully is an important life skill. Many of these conflicts blow over quickly, but sometimes larger issues are present that require more intervention.

Support your child by helping them to develop effective problem-solving and relationship skills. Eventually, they will learn to resolve most of these conflicts independently. That said, be ready to step in when your child needs extra help and/or is struggling to deal with these issues appropriately.

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